Posted by: patenttranslator | October 20, 2018

Can You Focus on Direct Clients Only?

We lost because we told ourselves we lost.

Leo Tolstoy

 “You cannot focus on direct clients only. This is a utipia [sic]. Direct clients pay more, but are a one-time client or one who will send you two jobs in a year. In addition, they are not acquainted with our market and trends, so it’s a bit harder to negotiate anything. Agencies pay a bit less, but they can be regular clients sending you many jobs per month for several years. I’ve had great direct clients, all of them were a one-time client or a few-months client. In my annual statistics, 75% of my income, at least, come from agencies”.

[Excerpt from a comment on a discussion group of translators]

Wow! There is so much to unpack in this short, ignorant comment! Just about everything in it is only a reflection of the seemingly very limited experience of an individual translator who is probably not a very good businessman and definitely not a strategic thinker.

The truth is you can focus on direct clients only, and you definitely should if you want to be able to have a business that actually makes enough money for you to be able to enjoy it, especially given the recent developments in the predatory “translation industry.”

It does not mean that you cannot occasionally also work for translation agencies, but you should absolutely not focus on them, as most of today’s translation agencies, which like to call themselves “LSPs”, are only ignorant and greedy middlemen, the equivalent of the proverbial low-hanging fruit, a fruit that is often in today’s version of the “translation industry” literally rotten to the core.

Working only for direct clients is not a utopia, however you want to spell it. I know that because I have been working only or mostly for direct clients for over three decades now, and because I also know many translators working from and into many languages and fields who almost never work for agencies either – although they sometime work as translation agencies.

What is our secret? It’s not really that complicated. Year after year, we have been ignoring the low-hanging fruit as we mulishly pursue our goal regardless of what anybody says. We are all stubbornly independent, although every translator uses a different method for this purpose.

Is it not only logical that different translators will need very different methods depending on factors such as what languages and fields they translate, where they live and how much money they need to make for a comfortable income. Time is also an important factor that may change ….. well, just about everything.

So many things have changed over the last three decades! Thirty years ago when I was starting out as a freelance translator specializing mostly in technical translations and translations of patents from Japanese to English, with a few German patents thrown in for good measure, it was a very different world. Internet did not really exist yet, at least not for most people, there was no machine translation, and there was a great demand for translators who could translate highly technical texts from Japanese to English.

I mostly translate German patents now, and very few Japanese ones. While most of my translations were for so-called prior art purposes two or three decades ago, I now mostly translate patent applications for filing translations of foreign patents in English. These are just a few of the changes that my business has had to adapt to over the years.

The conditions were very favorable for my budding freelance translation business three decades ago, but as I have said already, these conditions changed over time. As the Latin adage, originating with Ovid, puts it: Tempora mutantur nos et mutamus in illis (Times are changing and we are changing in them.)

Thanks to the Internet, there are many new resources available to our clients now that were not accessible to them a decade or two ago, which among other things eliminated the need for translation of a lot of information for prior art purposes. But on the other hand, the omnipresent Internet also created a need for translation of information that did not really exist or was invisible even a few years ago.

We need to be aware of the changes in the translation market and our business must evolve along with these changes as different types of translations are required by a changed translation market. And I am not talking in this case about “adding post-processing of machine translations as one of our skills,” which is what the “translation industry” is salivating about.

Although the propaganda machine of the “translation industry” keeps telling translators that this is a skill they need to acquire, this is the lowest-hanging fruit of them all, a fruit emanating such a foul odor that I can only feel sorry for people who feel that they have no choice but deliver themselves to the industry for post-processing of the machine translation detritus.

Let’s try to unpack another chunk of the statement above.

“Direct clients pay more, but are a one-time client or one who will send you two jobs in a year. In addition, they are not acquainted with our market and trends, so it’s a bit harder to negotiate anything.”

It’s simply insane to expect our customers to “be acquainted with our market and trends.” If we want to be successful in our chosen career, it is up to us to acquaint ourselves with the markets of our existing and prospective customers and the trends in these markets. If we want to do our job well, we have to find out as much as possible about the business of our clients, and adapt our skills to match these trends if we want to find them and once we have found them, to keep them.

Incidentally, we cannot do that if we work only or mostly for translation agencies because translation agencies do not want us to have any contact with their clients as they know that many of them could choose to work directly with a translator instead of having to go through the intermediary of an agency.

Regardless of the many changes that the translation market has experienced already and will be experiencing in the years and decades to come, there will always be an urgent need for highly specialized, highly educated and highly experienced translators in different translation fields, a need that the “translation industry” is unable to respond to as it puts its faith mostly in greedy and irresponsible, self-destructive schemes such as outsourcing of translations to cheaper and cheaper venues hidden behind several layers of “back offices” located in countries with low cost of labor, or in “post-processing of machine translations” and other get-rich-quick schemes”

Which is why it makes very good sense for individual translators to focus only on direct clients, regardless of defeatist statements often seen on social media.


  1. Reblogged this on Translator Power.


  2. Good points, Steve. As I read this, I suddenly realised that these days I’m largely working for direct clients myself, particularly since I seem to be rapidly distancing myself (or becoming distant) from what used to be my main and favourite agency client due to major changes in their working practices.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The quoted excerpt that opens this post also fails to see that the demand keeping agencies afloat might contain a market for top freelancers in preference to agencies. Translation-buyers who turn to agencies may be doing so reluctantly, aching to work directly with specialized translators. The direct clients that translators need are buyers shrewd enough to see that their best solution is a translator absorbed in the same field as they are. That should encourage translators who have resigned themselves to seeing agency work as the only measure of our craft.


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