Working with agencies, working with direct clients

I’ve been asked a lot recently by new freelance translators about whether I think they should look for direct clients from the outset or whether they should start out by contacting agencies. I think the answer to that question is that it depends on many factors: How much experience do you have? How confident are you? Would you benefit from somebody proofreading your work or are you ready to go it alone? Do you have the time and mindset necessary to market yourself to direct clients? There are pros and cons to working with agencies just as there are to working with direct clients. Here are a few I came up with this morning:

Agencies – Pros

Easy to find and contact, always on the look-out for new translators, constant influx of work, they come to you, no need to market yourself, you can take holidays and accept and turn down work as it suits you without having to worry that they’ll never come back, gets you work and experience when you are just starting out, there are some good agencies, these are usually small specialised agencies, rather than the large impersonal ones, a good agency will give you feedback on your work and you will be able to use that feedback to hone your translation skills.

Agencies – Cons

The influx of work may be so constant and rates so low that you may have difficulty getting out of the “agency rut” and finding direct clients or even better paying agencies, you may often have to deal with inexperienced project managers and will not have an opportunity to discuss translation queries directly with the author of the text, they will expect you to use CAT tools and accept deductions for matches – even when the content of the TM leaves much to be desired and you end up having to retranslate those segments anyway, at low rates you will have to translate more words to make your target income.

Direct clients – Pros

They generally pay a lot more than agencies, you can build up a relationship or even a partnership with the client, once that relationship is in place and you have them well-trained, direct clients will often give you notice of when they will need you allowing you to plan accordingly, you will earn more in fewer hours, if you do good work for direct clients, these clients are likely to refer you to other well-paying clients. Most of my new clients now come through referrals from current clients. In my experience direct clients are very faithful and not penny-pinching, they are prepared to pay for the reliability and stability you give them and are not constantly on the look-out for cheaper providers. Working with direct clients usually means that you are working directly with the author of the text you are translating and will be able to contact him/her with any queries you may have.

Direct clients – Cons

In order to find direct clients you need a brand and a marketing strategy. This can be a time-consuming task, particularly at the outset, and is not for everyone. Once you have attracted some direct clients, you will need to find a way to look after them. For instance, if you are going away on holiday you will need to let them know, preferably recommend a colleague they can contact if they have a translation project whilst you are away and you’ll need to make sure that you are organised enough to fit their projects in if you want to keep them because chances are that if they feel they have to go elsewhere, they will stay there. Depending on the type of client, projects can be infrequent and irregular or last only for a few weeks or months. If you want to be successful working with direct clients, you need a lot of them and a good customer relationship management strategy for keeping in touch with them all.

Final note

Working with direct clients is certainly more rewarding for me – both personally and financially – but working with direct clients also brings with it much more responsibility which can be a pro or a con really depending on how you like to work. Starting out working for agencies with a view to moving towards working with direct clients in the future as you gain experience and confidence might be a good strategy. Just don’t get stuck in the agency rut and remember to reassess your objectives at regular intervals.


4 thoughts on “Working with agencies, working with direct clients

  1. Good arguments! I’d just like to add one thing: If you deliver translation work to an agency, it is basically the agency which will be liable and shall be hold accountable for your work. (That is why most agencies engage editors.) With directs clients, it will be you to be held accountable for possible mistranslations. Consequently, you will be liable for any damage caused. And you may be personally liable in suits against your business (sole proprietorship). You can decide to seek for a professional liability insurance, which b.t.w. are fairly expensive to maintain!

  2. However, I did some research in German and Dutch jurisprudence in my capacity as a lawyer. And I found not one single case where a translator as a sole proprietor has been subject to civil damages (has been ordered to pay damages)! This is something insurance brokers won’t tell you! But, as I said, this is valid for Germany and the Netherlands. In America, things could get very nasty, very quickly when it comes to actions for compensation!

  3. Pingback: Weekly favorites (May 23-29) | Lingua Greca Translations

  4. @Nice list Karen! I would just like to add one thing: If you have some quality control in place, I believe that you need not worry too much about not being “good enough” for direct clients. I usually engage a proofreader for translations for direct clients.
    @Michael Eulenhaupt That’s good to know. Thank you for doing all this research.

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