Posted by: patenttranslator | November 12, 2015

A Translator’s Place in Corporatized Translation Industry – A Fate Worse Than Death

There are at least two ways how a freelance translator, which is to say a translator who is not an employee, can make a living. He or she can work for a translation agency, or he or she can find his own clients and work for them directly, without the intermediary of a translation agency.

Both “modes of operation” have advantages and disadvantages.

One advantage of working for an intermediary is that translation agencies are easy to find. In fact, they are constantly and actively looking for new translators. On the one hand, they are swamped every day with dozens of new résumés littering their e-mail boxes from people who want to work for them. Because of that, there is apparently a whole new protocol for contacting translation agencies to make sure that they will notice you. I don’t really know much about things like that because at this point I don’t contact agencies myself. But I do know that I have to delete new résumés of translators many times every day, most of whom are hopeless cases who I would not trust to walk my dog Lucy, although she is a very smart and very gentle dog.

So, if translation agencies, or even individuals such as myself receive so many résumés every day, why do the agencies keep looking for new translators? Yes, you guessed right, because they are looking for somebody who will do it for less. It is the nature of the beast – a translation agency’s profit is what is left over after the translator is paid. If the translator charges less, the profit is higher.

There was a time when it made very good sense for translators to work only for translation agencies. Back in the eighties, (I started translating part-time, in addition to my regular office job, in 1982 and then became a full-time freelance translator in 1987), basically all translation agencies were very small operations and most of them were run by translators, or former translators, or people who at least knew some language or something about languages.

Back then it was possible to establish a really close, personal relationship with an agency, especially if you happened to translate a difficult language in a field that was in demand and the agency was getting a lot of work in that language and that field. If your rate was reasonable, which is to say that the profit margin was satisfactory to the intermediary, there was really no reason for the agency to try to replace you by a cheaper translator, especially since the longer you were translating the same materials for the same clients, the better your translations were getting with every passing year.

A very important ingredient of the business model back then was that a very good quality of the translation was a must: that was why the agencies were actively seeking out only the best translators and why they were willing to pay handsome rates for very good work. But in the business model of modern corporations, quality is mostly just an afterthought, as the three most important elements of the new, corporate translation business model are:

1. Greed
2. Totally Shameless Greed
3. Absolutely Limitless Greed, (even if it should mean the end of the world, as in “Après nous, le déluge“).

Around the start of the new millennium, a new, corporate translation agency model started emerging and taking over what was then fittingly named “the translation industry”, a model that cares about one thing and one thing only – maximum profit.

While during the last century and during the centuries before, most of the intermediaries still really cared about the quality of the translations delivered to their clients, partly because they mostly were translators themselves and thus, unlike the new captains of “the translation industry”, they could in fact tell a good translation from an average or bad one, things started changing in the twenty first century when corporate mass production started being aggressively and mercilessly applied not only to a whole range of products such as production of meat and fruits (which then for some reason became tasteless), or toys (which then became poisonous), but also to production of translations in “the translation industry”.

“The translation industry” did not hesitate to include the hilarious application of the manufacturing standards of the Industrial Standards Organization (ISO), originally designed for manufacturing of products such as bricks, mortar, and diapers also to so-called “ISO-certified translations”.

Fortunately, the corporate translation model is not the only model in existence in what is now called “the translation industry”. Just like quite a few independent restaurants are still surviving among bland corporate restaurant chains in monotonous, almost identical shopping malls in the United States, and some of these small restaurants are doing very well, specialized translation agencies operating based on the model of translation agencies of yesteryears still do exist even in the era of “the translation industry”.

Some are probably doing very well, although the pressure of aggressive mega-agencies on the traditional model is strong and unrelenting. So much so that many of these agencies have simply thrown in the towel and either sold their business to a large agency, or they basically started imitating the corporate agency model and some are even more ruthless and greedier than large translation agencies.

The second “mode of operation” for a provider of language services, (which is a translator, not a translation agency), is a translator who works only or mostly for direct clients.

Direct clients are much more difficult to find than translation agencies. Unlike translation agencies, they are not actively seeking translators. They just have a job that needs to be done and it is up to an individual translator to figure out who these direct clients are and how to get the work from them instead of getting the same work for much less money through the intermediaries.

As far as I can tell, most associations of translators are almost completely useless when it comes to helping translators find direct clients.

For example, although the ATA (American Translators Association) has a database of translators who are paying members of the association, the ATA is not and to my knowledge and has never been engaged in active outreach to offer services of its members to direct clients. As I have been a member of the ATA for almost two decades, I have received some work over the years from my listing in the ATA directory. But all of it was from translation agencies. In all those years, I have never been contacted by a direct client such as a patent law firm, which is my typical direct client. Direct clients have no idea that there is such a thing as the ATA directory of translators.

This arrangement is of course very convenient for translation agencies who are considered “corporate members” for the purposes of some associations of translators in some countries (although they are obviously not translators), but who are wisely prevented from being members of an association of translators in most countries – because they are not translators and their interests are in many respects diametrically opposed to those of translators.

The main problem with looking for and finding direct clients is that there is no single, convenient recipe that would be applicable to every translator, or at least to most translators.

Various newly minted experts now give seminars and webinars and write books on this complicated subject (I call them “part-time translation gurus”). There are so many of them now that a whole new industry has been created for the prophets of translation boom and doom (boom if you listen to them, doom if you don’t).

Some of them may be occasionally prognosticating and predicting future very well and provide really useful information, or at least they are doing it in an entertaining manner. But the way I see it, most just try to figure out how to make a buck in this manner, possibly because they can’t really make it as translators.

There is no single recipe for how to go about finding direct clients because every specialized translation field is in fact a subcategory of many other specialized fields, such as advertising, or what used to be referred to as belles letters (writing of books, including novels and other types of books), or scientific and technical research and development if we are talking about technical translation, or medical research when the subject is translation of patents about pharmaceuticals or medical devices, etc.

And when it comes to clients in so many different fields, it’s different strokes for different folks.

A different approach to finding new direct clients is necessitated not only by the type and characteristics of the field of this direct client, but also by the location and the type and personal characteristics of the translator. A different approach to this demanding task will thus be suitable for an extrovert who lives in a large metropolis, rubbing shoulders with her potential direct clients, while a very different method would be probably much more appropriate for an introverted translator who lives in a small town or in the country. As I wrote in an earlier post, there are at least three types of translators and these different types translators would probably need to be looking for direct clients differently.

But there are also some commonalities that all translators share. One of them is that translators need to advertise their services to direct clients. As New Testament puts it (in King James Bible translation): “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”

This to me means that translators need to advertise their expert services directly to direct clients instead of just being satisfied with being listed along with hundreds or thousands of other translators in some directory, such as the ATA directory, or the Proz directory, etc.

If you really want to give light unto all that are in the house, what better way is there than creating a website with content that is tailored exactly to the needs of your customers? A blog can also help to direct your potential direct clients to your excellent services, although my blog is mostly just a vehicle for sharing my thoughts with other translators rather than a means for finding new clients. But even so, my blog works for me indirectly by improving my ranking on Google and other search engines.

If you hide your light under a bushel and if you look for work in all the wrong places – such as translator auction sites, or corporate translation agencies, while using a free, throwaway e-mail that will immediately tell your potential clients that you are an amateur, without even having a real website …. well, working through intermediaries may be the default mode and the only mode of operations for you.

This mode of operation, when one can only work through intermediaries, may still work for some people, although less so than in the old times before the advent of the extremely aggressive type of corporate mega-agency. In fact, when I am ready to retire, I plan to sell my business and continue working on a much limited scale, as a typical, part-time translator slave who works only for translation agencies. But even then, I will try very hard to identify the small, traditional type of translation agency and work only for this type of agency.

Because as far as I am concerned, working for the modern type of corporate translation agency is a fate worse than death.



  1. “… there was really no reason for the agency to try to replace you by a cheaper translator, especially since the longer you were translating the same materials for the same clients, the better your translations were getting with every passing year.”

    That is what I really miss about working for translation agencies, I must admit, and especially when the client has only allowed a short turnaround time. In such cases, it tends to be a question of who’s available to do it, rather than who has experience with the client and the subject-matter, so you end up translating a wide variety of texts rather than developing any in-depth specialisation. All my expertise in things like chemicals, rubber compounds and tyres going for nothing …
    Back in the days when I was also a translation manager, I used to send out the “repeat work” to specific freelancers to try and ensure as much continuity as possible. There was the odd occasion when I used an agency, when I thought it was probably a one-off job, but on more than one occasion the client later sent through a second, overlapping job and I then had to ask the agency if they could get the same translator to translate it for consistency. What happened if that translator happened to be busy, or on holiday, I don’t know.


  2. I try to have at least two translators available for continued projects, preferably three. But in one case of very specialized translation (although not terribly difficult), I have only one. I have been looking for an additional translator for this job for quite a while. (I don’t want to give any specifics because the person in question may be reading my blog).


  3. Sweet memories and bitter resignation.


  4. Because Beatles let you down?


  5. Yeah, and I thought you’d do a better job, but you’ve only been beating around the bush for years.


  6. I don’t blame you. You’re trying hard; you can’t overcome your limits, though. Natural limits.


  7. Further to the “newly minted experts” bit, you might be interested in this from earlier this week:


  8. Thanks, Charlie, great post and great comments, all of which I would have missed without your input here.


  9. “For example, although the ATA (American Translators Association) has a database of translators who are paying members of the association, the ATA is not and to my knowledge and has never been engaged in active outreach to offer services of its members to direct clients.”

    There has been an ongoing project for client outreach in the past 4 years during the Guadalajara International Book Fair. A former member of the board of directors has been working hard to keep it going. ATA gets a table at the Rights Center, where publishers, agents, editors and authors go to negotiate rights and translation rights. What do we do there in that table? We attract potential clients and explain to them the importance of selecting the right translator for a book (a professional) and give them an introduction on how to search the ATA directory. Some of the ATA members staffing the table have got projects from that (when they are lucky enough), and I’d like to think that there have been others, not present in Guadalajara, that have been reached via the directory listings.
    To my eyes, this small project is a crucial piece in ATA’s RP and a big move to back up members in front of direct clients. Unfortunately, it is given very little importance within ATA activities.
    Let’s hope that the RP Committee approves the continuity of the project for 2016 and beyond.


  10. I am glad to hear that ATA is doing these kinds of things.

    And it would not be fair to say that translators’ associations are not doing anything in the way of an active outreach to direct clients. For example, when I typed into Google “database of translators”, the ATA database came up right below advertised entries, while the ITI database was in the middle of second page.

    But are these and other associations of translators actively and regularly promoting their databases of translators to make sure that they will come up prominently on search engines when direct clients are looking for translators?

    I don’t know. Are there translators who found direct clients in this manner? I would like to hear from them. I think that if the associations were helping in this manner to eliminate the dependence of translators on translation agencies, it would be a major factor driving membership.


    • I am also a member of the Mexican Translators Organization, and quite often I get emails from agencies or direct clients that got my name from its directory. Unfortunately, most of the times these emails are bulk emails that they send to a mass of translators, and usually they don’t bother to check my specialization field or the fact that, despite living in Mexico, I am not Mexican and not necessarily would accept a localization project into Mexican Spanish. I know that sometimes we, the ATA members in México or in Guadalajara, get this kind of emails too. But I wouldn’t know if any of them had actually gotten a job from those bulk emails.


  11. Correction: ISO means International Standards Organization not industrial. In this organization, each country has one vote. National interests and politics generally trump industry interests here. By the way, I don’t believe there is such thing as an “ISO certified translation”.
    Most countries that belong to ISO have their own standards setting national organization. In the US that would be ASTM, American Society for Testing and Materials. In ASTM the voting power is equally divided 50/50 between users and general interests (e.g. government agencies, academics, etc.) and producers (e.g. Interpreters and translators). The resulting standards are a lot better. ASTM standards can be incorporated into contracts and there is a 1996 law that encourages federal and local government agencies to use them.This is one way to improve the quality of interpreting and translation services in the US.


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