In an exchange of messages on LinkedIn in which several translators and owners of small agencies were expressing their opinions about why is it that low rates for translation seem to be more prevalent these days than just a few years ago, people mentioned factors including low barriers to entry both for translators and agencies, the fact that translators in Third World countries are happy to work for what would be considered starvation rates in countries with a high cost of living and high taxes in the Western world, negative influence of fraudulent concepts called “full matches” and “fuzzy matches” brought to us courtesy of greedy agencies wielding “indispensable tools” like Trados, etc.
Disadvantages of the Corporate Translation Agency Model
One owner of a small translation agency, who had many interesting contributions, said the following:
Steve – I’m guessing if you’re paying just over 10, let’s say 11, you’re then proofreading those translations yourself, right? I’m only asking, because proofreading usually costs at least an additional 3 euro cents per translated word, or is charged at a rate of at least 30 euros an hour (for German), so then you’re onto at least 14 as your variable cost. Now, I assume you don’t have a team of project managers to pay, plus rent, plus upkeep on dozens of machines, and software systems, plus electricity, telephone bills and – very significant – cost of sales (i.e. marketing-agency costs, website maintenance plus a business development manager’s salary to pay), not to mention a management team, because if you do, you will then need to charge the end client at least 25 euro cents per word (and more like 30 if you want to make a decent profit) – and, if you can charge that, and still get plenty of business, all I can say is “congrats”.
I believe that this particular participant in the discussion identified in her short contribution, (168 words if I don’t count my name), several of the main disadvantages of the large, corporate translation agency model, when we compare it to the traditionally small translation agency or to an individual translator who also frequently functions as an agency, which would be my case.
Of course I proofread myself translations that were done by other people for me. I don’t need to hire a proofreader because unlike most translation agencies, I only deal with languages and subjects that I understand, at least to some extent.
I mostly subcontract to other translators translations of patents in languages that I don’t translate myself. But even when a customer sends me a patent in a language that I don’t know myself, for example in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, or Chinese, I believe that I am a much more competent proofreader of translations of patents from these languages than a proofreader who would be paid 3 or 4 cents by a typical translation agency.
For one thing, I know a lot about patents because I translated my first Japanese patent more than 27 years ago, and in addition to thousands of Japanese patents, I translated over the years also many patents in different fields from other languages, including German, French, Russian, etc.
Anybody who knows several languages can understand to some extent text in a related language, which means that if you know French, you can follow a translation from Spanish or Italian if you already have an English translation, if you know German, you can do the same with Dutch, etc.
I can also read to some extent Chinese because I studied it, as well as classical Chinese, which is really how classical Japanese was written, when I was very young and thought in my youthful
naïveté arrogance that I would be able to learn both Japanese and Chinese at the same (it took me a few months before I realized that I’d better concentrate on Japanese only if I really want to learn it), etc.
One of the advantages that multilingual translators who handle project in multiple languages have over non-multilingual translation agency owners and project managers is that they don’t have to rely on other people because they know exactly what they are doing. And when they do rely on other translators, they know ho to pick them.
It might be perceived as an unfair advantage from the viewpoint of a corporate translation agency that handles every language and every subject, as well as interpreting, subtitling, transcreation, sign language (maybe even exotic escorts if the price is right?) …. but, hey, nobody said that life was supposed to be fair!
As far as the other expensive items mentioned by this commenter in the discussion are concerned (a team of project managers to pay, plus rent, plus upkeep on dozens of machines, and software systems, plus electricity, telephone bills and – very significant – cost of sales (i.e. marketing-agency costs, website maintenance plus a business development manager’s salary to pay), not to mention a management team) – small agencies and translators such as myself are not burdened with a team of people who need to be paid, usually a pretty penny. They generally do not have a team of sales reps, management consultants, accountants, lawyers, business plan developers, marketing propaganda specialists and other necessary ingredients of what the corporate translation agency model is based on these days, as it is a business model that is based on everything else but knowledge of languages. People who run a small and highly specialized translation business only have to pay translators, albeit often before they get paid themselves, and sometime even if I they don’t get pay at all, for instance if a company goes bankrupt on them.
Careful as I try to be, it did happen to me a couple of times already.
I think that the biggest disadvantage of the corporate translation agency model, if we compare it to the traditionally small translation agency model, is that most of the money that clients pay for a translation project goes to completely monolingual people who do not in fact participate at all in the translating or proofreading work. It was also mentioned in the same online discussion that in the typical corporate translation agency model only about 25 percent of the cost of the translation in fact represents the remuneration of the translator, the rest of the cost is due to all of the extraneous expenses mentioned above. Extraneous, but very necessary in a translation agency model in which the actual translator is considered less important than the other constituents of the business model, which is why the translator is paid so little.
When an agency says on its website “We have 3,000 (5,000, 15,000, the numbers keep going up) translators in our database”, they are probably not lying. They really do have that many people captured in their database, although they probably have no idea how good these translators are – how could anybody possibly know that about so many translators? But they do know which ones are willing to work for half of what other translators would charge because that is what people are willing to pay them in a different model in which the emphasis is on the translator who is perceived as the actual creator of the value.
In other words, in the corporate translation agency model, the ancillary, and in my opinion mostly parasitic occupations, parasitic because they were not needed until the emergency of the large, corporate translation agency model, do very well in this arrangement, while the compensation of translators is cut to a half or less.
Advantages of the Corporate Translation Agency Model
Just like McDonalds, Wendy’s or Ruby Tuesday restaurants have advantages over family restaurants, the corporate translation agency model also has some advantages over smaller enterprises. The main advantage of the corporate model is that it can tackle mammoth projects that must be translated within just a few days or weeks.
I described a project like that in this post a few months ago. This is probably not something that a small agency could do on its own, although many small agencies are often also drawn into these projects as I write in my post linked above. You do need a network of many project managers who can activate dozens of translators to start working immediately on these Kamikaze missions.
On the other hand, the quality of such translations will generally vary in the range from OK to really bad, and quite a few “translators” will just try to run everything through machine translation and then edit it so that it would look like human translation. In fact, one of the clauses in a contract related to the Kamikaze mission linked above, which was sent to me several times although I did not ask for it, prohibited the use of machine translations and stipulated that if such use is detected, no payment will be provided.
Large companies of course have a lot of advantages when it comes to financial resources available for things like advertising on Google, but that does not mean that a small, highly specialized service cannot compete in this area.
If you have a well chosen domain name and the content of your site is clearly relevant to a search on Google, your site will be probably listed among the first few hits on Google and other search engines even if you don’t advertise at all. Even a modern behemoth like Google must serve its customers relevant information instead of just advertising propaganda if it wants to survive.
The example often cited to buttress the alleged superiority of the corporate translation agency model is that of a manual that needs to be translated into 24 languages. This is something that is in fact suitable for the corporate translation model. But if a corporation needs to translate a lot of manuals into many languages, constantly and on an ongoing basis, would it not make more sense to create a specialized in-house translation department for that purpose?
Call me biased, but I can’t think of many advantages of the corporate translation model when it comes to the value that customers get for their money.
Nevertheless, some people working in a large corporation may be more comfortable working with a similar model also when it comes to translation. But not all, because I myself have been over the years and still am working also for several large corporations.
At least when it comes to technical and patent translation, I believe that working directly with translators and ignoring the large corporate translation model is a common occurrence, probably because the customer, usually a patent lawyer in my case, realizes that the success of his mission is quite heavily dependent on the quality of the translated materials.
The quality of translation has everything to do with how competent is the translator in a given language and field, while it has essentially nothing to do with any of the necessary elements of the corporate translation model such as a team of project managers, advertising managers, a team of sales people, marketing-agencies, website maintenance specialists and various other business development managers, which is where most of the budget is spent in the corporate translation model, instead of spending most of it, or at least half of it, on a highly educated, highly competent and highly experienced translator.