Being good at what you do is only half the battle

Strategy Sean MacEntee

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

Way forward?

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,


5 thoughts on “Being good at what you do is only half the battle

  1. Hi
    We also need to take end clients into account. Many of them are large companies which put price pressure on translation agencies. This is another layer in the price structure.

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  3. Hi Karen,
    I cannot disagree with you at all, but, if I may, I’d like to add to what you say.

    On the point of freelancers succumbing to pressure to accept lower rates, I think freelance translators need to get over their (our) fear. If you do your homework and you come up with a competitive (not cheap), viable rate, you will still have clients who don’t accept your quotes. There is always going to be someone who does it for less (whatever “it” may be, from translating to cleaning chimneys).

    “But what is a competitive, viable rate?”, I hear you ask. And the answer is: whatever the agencies are charging their clients. So do your homework: write a document, find out how much it would cost to have it translated by several agencies, and work out the average, then base your rate in that ball park. Now, keep in mind that this should be the rate you charge your direct clients. Agencies, as the article points out, need to make a profit. Let’s not forget, however, that they do more than that: they find the client, they deal with the client from quote to invoice and chase up the payment when required, they manage the whole project, including proof-reading, etc. What this means is that your rate for agencies can’t be the same as for direct clients. What it does not mean, is that agencies set YOUR rate. YOU set your rate, and if the agency thinks it is too high, they can just go down that long list of freelance translators. The quality of translation they end up getting is not your problem. If they wanted YOUR quality, they would have paid for it…

    And at this point I am really glad that someone out there is asking “so what is a competitive, viable rate to charge agencies?”. My answer to this is a little vague: get as much as you can out of them, but certainly not less that half of your rate to direct clients. I think that about 75% of your end-client rate is realistic, considering that you worked out the market-average rate (remember?).

    Oh! And here’s something else on the subject of rates: don’t be afraid to talk about them with colleagues. You might find that your language pair is worth more than you thought in your country. And rates change from one country to another, even for the same language pair, although the internet allows us to work for clients all over the world, so find out what’s happening rates-wise in other countries where your language pair might be in some demand.

    We could go on and on about rates, but that’s probably enough for now…

    About clients’ assumptions in relation to translation, I agree that many think that anyone who can speak two languages can translate. What I try to do in that case is to give them examples of correct and incorrect translations, and tell them a bit about the work I do, especially about the research involved in many translations. Clients are often surprised when I tell them how in the same week I have to be an expert in coal mining, architecture and construction of airports, and financial investment.

    I do, however, disagree with clients’ assumption that translations are always full of mistakes. Clients need translators because they don’t know (at least) one of the languages involved. Therefore, they don’t know whether there are any mistakes in the translation (that is, translation into the language that they don’t understand). In the case of translations into the language that they do understand being full of mistakes, that hurdle is easy to overcome: you simply tell your client that they should have let YOU do the translation 🙂

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