Posted by: patenttranslator | February 21, 2017

How Good Translation Agencies Go Bad

If I remember correctly, it was in 1995 when my friend Alan called me from New York about a nice gig he was working on involving a few weeks of on-site translation from Japanese to English. He was wondering whether I would also be interested in the job. I remember he said, “It’s a new company, but it’s a really good agency. They pay well and treat us well.”

I was interested, partly because I had never been to Manhattan, but in the end I decided not to go. I was enjoying my cozy new downtown Santa Rosa office in a restored Victorian mansion in Northern California’s wine country. Plus we had just gotten a new dog from the SPCA shelter in San Francisco, a big German shepherd-beagle or maybe something else mix, to go with our two dachshunds, and we were about to add an Australian bearded dragon lizard to our little menagerie at home. Our two small kids were so excited about the dog and the lizard, although not nearly as excited as my wife.

So I could not leave because there were just too many things going on where I was. Manhattan would have to wait.

That translation agency, brand new back then, has been in the news quite a bit recently, in particular in translator groups on social media. The mega agency is owned by a couple locked in a terrible (and somewhat hilarious) court battle, while the fate of their company and thousands of employees hangs in the balance.

Even though I did not go to New York a quarter century ago to help that translation agency, (a tiny one at that point), with the avalanche of Japanese documents for translation, eventually I started translating for it. They had quite a lot of work for me in the nineties, and as I remember, they paid good rates and on time back then. I did enjoy working for them for several years.

Once when the agency did not pay me on time, I complained about it on Compuserve, a predecessor of social media for translators in the nineties. The next day, one of the owners called me to let me know that she was sending me a check by Federal Express. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember that I did get the check the next day. Early in the morning, by Federal Express! So I continued to work for the agency after we moved from California to Virginia at the beginning of the new millennium because they had a lot of work and they were still paying good rates.

But problems started creeping into the routine that eventually becomes established between a translator and an agency. They would usually call or email me late Friday afternoon, and the translation would be due on Monday. So basically, working for them meant not having any rest days, and not being able to go to the beach on hot humid weekends with our kids, back when they were still small and loved challenging the Atlantic Ocean with their boogie boards.

I remember that I got really angry at the people working for them when once somebody called me from their office in London to inquire (or enquire, I suppose) whether I would be available to translate a long patent (which he pronounced “paytant”). I generally like nothing better than when somebody asks me whether I would be available to translate a long patent, regardless of their accent.

But this guy called me at 3 AM on a Saturday (yes, I have a phone in the bedroom; I probably shouldn’t).

My friend Steve, who translated Chinese back when there were not many Chinese translators around, at least not good ones like he was, (I use the past tense because he passed away), hated this agency with a burning passion for the same reasons for which I eventually started taking a strong dislike to it, and for many other reasons as well.

He said that they would always call him in the evening in what he called “my bourbon hour”.

Disturbing the perfect serenity of the evenings was bad enough, but the main reason why he hated the agency so much, (he basically ordered me never, ever to work for it, and I eventually complied with his wish), was that the people working for it lied about the jobs they were sending him, in particular by underestimating, clearly on purpose, the number of words in rush jobs that he would blithely accept in the healing haze of his bourbon hour, only to find on Saturday morning that instead of mere two thousand words, he had accepted five thousand words for delivery on Monday morning.

Later, when I was no longer working for this agency, I found out from discussions on social media that just about everybody who was working or used to work for the agency hated it, and that most people who had a choice eventually dropped it, just like I did, following the example of my friend who liked to sip a bit of bourbon in the evening.

When a small company starts growing, its nature starts changing and once it reaches a certain size, it will change so much that eventually it will become a completely different kind of animal.

Instead of sending a check by Federal Express when the payment is a week or two late, the agency will make translators working for it sign “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that stipulate that payment is due 60 from the end of the month, which means that translators have to wait from 60 to as many as 90 days to get paid.

Who cares how translators will pay their bills in the meantime? It’s their problem, no need to worry about that.

I also read on social media that this agency has or had an arrangement with project managers who were encouraged to haggle with translators to lower their rates as low as they were able to, so that below a certain rate, they would be able to keep the money left over for themselves.

One of the results of the influence of the internet on the “translation industry” is that translators are no longer real human beings to many people who run translation agencies, especially the bigger ones, including in many cases the project managers.

The “translation industry” could not care less whether we will be able to pay our bills at the pitiful rates it is paying us now, after two or three months of waiting for the check.

To the modern “translation industry” we are only assets to be exploited as much as possible.

How the modern “translation industry” perceives translators is not all that different from how people working in translation agencies feel about consumable products – mere human consumables that need to be purchased for as little as possible and used until they are used up, just like the toner cartridges or paper that is loaded into printers.

These human consumables can be acquired cheaply and quite easily. All you have to do is send to a great number of translators (most of whom are listed in various databases of translators) an e-mail such as this one, which I have received several times already today, the last time about two hours ago:

Hello [no name],

My name is Rachel and I am reaching out from XYZ translation, a global medical and pharmaceutical translation company.

Due to new exciting opportunities, we are currently increasing our pool of French to English medical translators with senior experience in fields such as clinical trials, regulatory affairs, market access, or medical devices. We are also urgently searching for translators for an ongoing collaboration to translate medical cases.

If you are interested, kindly fill in our online Translator Form at your earliest convenience. This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes of your time and will enable us to contact you for projects matching your areas of specialization.

Thank you and we look forward to receiving your information.

Best regards,


Project Coordinator

(Reaching out sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it?)

Well, Rachel, I am not interested in being in one of the consumable items listed in your database.

I do business the fashioned way, both when I work as a translator, and when I work as a translation agency with other translators.

And my old-fashioned way of doing business, which oddly enough is very similar to the way the big, bad translation agency described above, nowadays universally hated by translators, used to do business a quarter century ago when it was a new kid on the block, for a while, anyway, before it became one of the biggest and most hated translation agencies in the world, is absolutely not compatible with the way you want to do business with me.


  1. I got that email too and have just looked at their website which boasts:
    – Preferred global language services vendor for 350 + life sciences companies [presumably they’ve run surveys among all of them and established that they are indeed “preferred”?].
    – Located in 120+ countries, our team of experts includes 3000 + specialized medical translators.
    – Including 70+ regulatory experts, our network counts 600 + professional medical writers [yet they couldn’t find someone to write this in correct English].
    Call me a cynic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. All they need now is to load up some toner and paper into their printer and they’re good to go. “Vendors” are loaded up already.


  3. “Well, Rachel, I am not interested in being in one of the consumable items listed in your database.” 😀


  4. Right. I’m looking for a more serious relationship!


    • It’s also called: squeezing the lemon until there is no more juice. Those people do not belong to the translation world… End-customers must be informed that if they continue to feed those money machines, they will be responsible for the disappearance of good, professional translators. They choose…

      Liked by 2 people

    • I mean, those people are ONLY intermediaries. The important thing is what end-customers want. End-customers must be put in front of their responsibilities…


  5. And the best way to inform end-customers is to cut out the middle man and work directly for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yep. At least I tell end-customers the truth about the situation of translators vs intermediaries when I send them my mailings. This way they will not be able to say that they didn’t know… We translators must communicate more often directly with OUR customers and let them know that intermediaries who are not translators do not belong to the translation world. They are just monolingual commercial people (formerly on the dole) trying to make a buck on the back of professional, trained and experienced linguists…

      Liked by 1 person

    • My best customers are intermediaries who are translators themselves. They give me good rates, ample time to produce good work, they pay early or within 30 days net, communication is agreeable, work is interesting – and they remain faithful over the years. The rest, the non-translating intermediaries, come and go, because they don’t know what they are doing. They do not belong to the translation world, full stop…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wish it were true that the non-translating intermediaries come and go. If, like the agency in question and the two big UK agencies, they are owned by people who are ruthless, unscrupulous, monolingual but with pots and pots of money, they usually succeed.


  6. Only some of them are like that, those for whom I use the pejorative term the “translation industry”.

    I am a part-time translation agency too. But I do not consider myself to be a part of the “translation industry” and there are quite a few people out there trying their best to do business the way it used to be done before the monster of the “translation industry” was born only two short decades ago.


    • Those who have never translated a line in their whole lives do not understand our work.


  7. Übersetzer aller Länder, vereinigt Euch!


  8. I came to this agency much later, by the time they had deteriorated. I hate the way they throw out jobs randomly to see who picks up first, and by the way, their complicated payments procedure is a way of avoiding paying Value Added Tax in the UK, and eventually the British tax man will come down on them like a ton of bricks. Because I am an employee of my company, which is registered for VAT, I cannot work for them, as they refuse to pay VAT even though they are hiring me from their London office.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Like

  10. Yeah. Started with them too 1991 New York.regular legal tranlsations. Then their language certification process fell througj. The box need to be checked slave ould not figure out my birth place and my native language did not match and that there was no point me going back to my country of origin to brush up on my native language. There were slso numerous attempts to get me working for a different time zone, never mind sleeping, with slices of urgent job, sold by a multiple of thousand words. At some point I did write a letter to the female side of the partnership telling her they were basically a disgrace for the profession. Yet there are still colleagues working for the same outfit in niche markets where it would be risky to turn sh….t work. I wondered how many PM they went through in a year. And in case one wonders, I also managed and in fact once created a translation department in far flung mining projects locations.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Steve,

    Reading this and your previous blog post has left me wondering if the “translation industry” as in the case of the world politics has completely lost the plot and just decided, unashamedly, to act pure evil.

    Yesterday I got an email from the agency (amongst the few agencies I work for) which I work for more consistently, or let’s face it (me in this case), USED to work. Basically I cannot afford to use their CAT tool of choice for two reasons: I can’t simply afford the licence, and I can’t simply afford the training and the new computer I would have to buy to run it (my OS is not compatible with the CAT tool and my computer could not run a virtual machine at the moment, it is already slow). Well, if they and other hadn’t started to pay me so late maybe my cash flow would afford me a bit of investment, but it is not the case and, tbh, I am not that interested in spending so much money without any guarantees. So, they haven’t sent much work my way.
    Back to the e-mail. I have worked consistently for them for 5 years. Yesterday I got an email starting with “dear translator”
    from an unknown “vendor manager” (a new one for me, I used to be contacted only by the PM’s) asking me, without any “please” or “may I ask you a favour”, to assess somebody else’s translation and say if it was good. They said “this if for a tender, we are not paying you for this but we hope to send you some work in the near future.” ?????
    I mean, don’t they know the quality of their regular translators (well, I kind of know they don’t because they sometimes send me atrocious translations to be ‘proofread’)? Or would that they send me is simply MT samples that they want to double check for quality? Where are the PM’s to say which translators are good, which aren’t?
    I wasn’t going to reply because I am a bit fed up with all this but it was a short sample and, in name of our somehow long lasting work relationship, I just said what I thought of it. And I got a “we hope to work with you in the future, thanks for your help” as a reply.
    They are a middle size agency that has grown over the last couple of years and used to pay ok rates on time. But if even they are just selling out, there is little hope for agency work, at least on my case. Let’s hope there is life after “the translation industry.”


  12. Here is what I said in my post: “When a small company starts growing, its nature starts changing and once it reaches a certain size, it will change so much that eventually it will become a completely different kind of animal.”

    I don’t think you should work for an agency that is trying to force you to buy a CAT, especially if you don’t want it and can’t afford it.

    Once they do something like that to you, you are clearly just a consumable item to them to be used until you are used up, just like ink and paper for the printers.

    Anyway, they would use the CAT to control you and push your compensation way down.

    I think that you need to replace them by a different kind of customer.


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