Many freelance translators complain about the quality of the translations produced by translation agencies and the way that they “force” translators to accept extremely low rates. However, looking at the situation without the emotional element, they are simply implementing a business model which works for them. Freelancers are, in effect, facilitating their business model by being prepared (if under perceived duress) to work for such low rates.
Where freelancers often go wrong and agencies win out
As a freelancer you stand alone. You are your business’ most important asset. You have the skills, you do the marketing, you set your rates, your draw up your business plan. It’s all about you, and you are a person, an emotional human being. As such you internalise your decisions, you let your emotions and feelings feed into your decisions and sometimes you even stand in your own way.
An agency, on the other hand, is a legal person. It does not feel emotion. An agency will have employees, people trained and employed to do different jobs such as marketing, customer acquisition and customer service. They each have their individual roles and, because what they are doing is for the business, they will normally feel one step removed on an emotional level. (Of course, this may not necessarily apply to smaller agencies where the business owner is still ultimately the only one running the show).
There are pros and cons to both of these scenarios.
Because the freelancer has a vested interest in his work and his business and he is doing all of the work himself, he can ensure that the quality he produces meets his very high standards. On the other hand, he may struggle with marketing and client acquisition because he knows that what he is doing is putting himself out there, exposing him, and he alone is facing the pressure that only he can keep his business thriving and make it work.
By contrast, an agency, with a non-emotive approach, is able to move through what it simply regards as tasks much more swiftly and effectively. The agency is marketing “the business”, there is always a name or a concept to hide behind. This makes marketing efforts less personal and easier in many ways. However, since the whole concept is also bigger, it is also more difficult to keep an eye on quality standards. Even where an agency has set quality processes, the extremely high levels of specialist knowledge required to produce a very specialist high-quality translation will not be able to be replicated in house (unless we are talking about a highly specialised agency) which often results in in-house staff misguidedly adding mistakes to excellent translations produced by freelancers all in the name of proof-reading and post-editing. The fact that the agency also has to earn a good margin to be able to afford to pay its staff, cover its other operating costs and still make a profit whilst offering competitive prices to clients means that more and more agencies are paying lower and lower rates to their freelance translators.
This business model should automatically fail when good freelance translators simply refuse to work for agencies on this basis and clients start to reject the quality of translations produced by inexperienced and less competent translators. However, we all know that agencies are thriving. So what’s going wrong? I think there are two main factors:
- Freelancers succumbing to the pressure to accept lower rates
If freelancers didn’t allow themselves to succumb to the downward price pressure, agencies would be forced to up their game and start competing on quality rather than on price. The fact that freelancers accept very low rates means that they are facilitating the very problem they are complaining about.
- False assumptions on the part of clients
One of the saddest things about our industry is the misguided blanket assumption clients often make about translators and our work, e.g.
- Anyone who can speak a bit of a foreign language can translate = I don’t see why I should pay very much for this service
- Translations are always full of mistakes = I don’t see why I should pay very much for this service
All of the assumptions we make in life are based on our past experiences. Can you really blame a lawyer for thinking that there are no decent legal translators if he’s tried out 10 different translators and still not got the results he’s after? And can you really blame him for not wanting to pay very much for a translation which he knows in advance will fall well below his quality standards?
If we as freelance translators really want to change the status quo, there would seem to me to be only one way forward. First, we need to stop allowing translation agencies to dictate rates to us. And second, we need to learn to be less emotional about our business decisions so that we don’t feel the need to succumb to downward price pressure, so that we stop seeing ourselves as dependent on translation agencies for our work and so that we become more business-minded. By detaching from the emotional side enough to implement some sound business decisions and carry out some effective marketing of our individual skillsets to direct clients, whilst simultaneously carrying out client education, we can become real competitors for translation agencies.
So the next time you find yourself or hear someone else complaining about the business practices of translation agencies, perhaps you might like to consider or discuss some of these points and think about how you could up your game.
Photo credit: Strategy © Sean MacEntee, http://www.flickr.com