Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Competing against Agencies as a Freelance Translator

Competing against agencies resembles winning hearts and minds in asymmetric warfare in a low-intensity conflict.

As Wikipedia explains, although having much more ancient roots, winning hearts and minds is a politico-military term probably coined by a senior British civil servant dealing with unrest and insurgency in the soon-to-be-post-colonial Malayan theatre, where it was crucial to dissuade the local inhabitants from associating and indetifying themselves with Chinese communist guerrillas. Asymmetric warfare takes place where the various strengths of the combatants are not equal, and a low-intensity conflict is a hostile scenario with less than full-scale operations.

I remember the one of the Tom Clancy Op-Center novels of which the title I cannot recall right now and in which an American spec-ops colonel ended up explaining for the benefit of his lovestruck and dating-challenged son the core principle of tackling a stronger opponent: Get the civilians (i.e. in that case the girl) on your side. You do so by offering them something the stronger opponent does not have.

If we look at what translation agencies can offer to the clients — and where they are stronger than we are — it looks more or less as follows:

  • Multiple languages and disciplines
  • Large volumes
  • Fast turnover
  • Huge manpool
  • Long experience
  • Often: Low prices
  • Sometimes there's also tech talk
  • Additional services

The strength of their proposition is obvious: They can process huge documents fast, having many translators to choose from and being able to set multiple linguists on the same project, the likes of which their company has in some cases been managing for years, ofter for top names in the relevant business (which are often mentioned on the agency's website to boost its credibility). And the price is often cheap, although exceptions apply.

In reality — and knowing the reality is one of our strengths as insiders, which clients as civilians frequently don't have — the very ways in which the strength of agency proposition is achieved is also its weakness and possible downfall.

Asymmetric confrontation requires the weaker party to identify just such weaknesses — for example the vulnerability of a hi-tech opponent once electricity or fuel stops coming — so here we are:

  • Aside from MT, the capacity to process a lot of material in a short time-frame requires the use of multiple different translators on the same project, a breakneck deadline, or both.
  • The supposedly huge manpool (network of linguists or whatever it's called) simply means a crowd of freelancers registered in the agency's database. If the agency's name is Wowtrans, it's hard even to justify referring to all of those people as Wowtrans translators (if they do one or two small jobs a year).
  • The company has experience in managing or overseeing those projects, but only translators and other linguists have experience in actually translating.
  • Agencies can't multiply the money they are paid — low client prices necessarily mean low pay for translators.
  • Tech talk is not always substantive.
  • Additional services or added services still cost them money to provide and must fit in the bill.
  • Multiple languages are more or less a safe asset, but they take time to arrange, and there is still the issue of standardisation

Let's delve more deeply into it, highlighting weaknesses:

  • Breakneck deadlines affect quality, of which the client may not always have been told, especially where the fast turnover is a selling proposition. Similarly, not knowing how long it takes to translate, the client may not be aware that the text is translated by a number of different people and then glued back together by an editor or not even that. This is risky. Please think about the hold harmless and indeminity clauses agencies are increasingly forcing us to sign these days! Ever wonder why?
  • Any sort of access to 2000 people across the globe is illusory. The number represents people who work to and from all languages and fields added together. How many Czech to Dutch technical or medical translators exist, let alone specialise in the field? How many are currently available? How many will agree to work within a tighter budget? 
  • The 2000 linguists looks good on a website but the charm would probably fade if the public realised that those are names of potential external collaborators registered in a database, some of whom rarely even receive mail.
  • Plus, where there are really so many people to choose from, the choice becomes tricky and may turn into a liability more than an asset.
  • Unless inhouse translators and project managers actively get involved in the translation process, experience in managing rather than actually translating projects means the company has primarily the logistical know-how, not much in the way of actual translating experience. A more educated public appreciating the difference would probably be less fascinated with .
  • Low pay makes it difficult to find good translators and motivate them. Less qualified and less dedicated work may result.
  • The low pay is compounded by the lack of proper budgeting for rush fees. Proper rush fees would make those low prices or high markups impossible.
  • Many translators are well equipped and trained in the tech regard. Many of the services can be outsourced by a freelance translator or even procured by the client with minimal hassle from a more dedicated provider than a translator or translation agency.
  • Managing multiple languages requires a lot of standardisation, and uniform quality may be difficult to ensure. Freelancers also have contacts, and they have the ability to team up.

This leads us to a couple of interesting general observations:

  • In the competition between agencies and freelancers, the angencies' strengths correspond to weak spots where a credible freelancer is at an advantage.
  • Many of the agencies' advantages over freelancers depend directly on freelancers to make them possible.
  • Many are illusory or at least fragile.
  • Many may look impressive on the website or in a brochure but not actually be needed by the specific client who may still end up paying high enough rates to provide the necessary ROI on them.

Now, the benefits which we can offer concentrate on direct contact, stability, certainty, efficiency:

  • Everything is discussed between the same translator who does the work and the client who needs it. Both, but especially the translator, can make all the necessary decisions almost on the spot, in addition to communicating more efficiently. There is less risk of some information being misunderstood or lost when being passed up or down the chain.
  • More personal touch which improved communication makes possible. Now we can actually ask questions easily and get answers. We probably know what to ask better than most non-translators do.
  • Our having fewer clients (how many can a freelancer accommodate?) also means more focused approached and more personal relationships for our clients to experience.
  • Specialisations and credentials have more meaning when the client has the certainty of working with the specific translator who has them, always.
  • There is more motivation and dedication due to the more direct and personal relationship and the higher pay.
  • Our deadlines are more reliable since they are easier for us to assess.
  • No admin delay means there's more time for actual translation work within the deadline. This also means any detrimental effect on quality is proportionally limited.
  • Despite our improved pay, the client's bill is still not as large as in those agencies which charge 40 cents a word and pay the translator 7. And things we'd do for 40!

Furthermore, one of our greatest advantages is that our uniqueness is easier to communicate than an agency's, and more credible — pretty much for the same reason that specialisations and credentials have more meaning and communication works better. For a brief how-to (what's two hours each if you have sleepness nights ahead?), see Marta Stelmaszak's presentation on making the connection with (ideal) clients and Valeria Aliperta's one on translation branding from Traduemprende in May 2013. While it has to be about clients, there is still enough room for you! And if you create or order a website and start producing brochures and nice portfolios to convey your message, there can be quite a lot of that room.

A freelancer's position is also favourable in only needing enough workload to sustain what is effectively a nice salary for one person. One freelancer's workload is a mere drop in the sea that would sustain a whole translation agency. This is another reason why the guerrilla metaphor is appropriate. Yet another is that we — as individuals, though, not as a class — might actually not be worth competing, in the grander scheme of things. Eventually, a successful freelancer can carve a niche for himself where there is no competition from agencies, especially if no project management is required and whatever the freelancer provides is hard for an agency to sustain over an extended period of time.

Where hearts and minds cannot be won, our relatively lean cost structure can still enable freelancers to generate a price-to-quality ratio which will be difficult for agencies to meet or exceed without a good inhouse translator onboard or inexpensive high-quality freelancer that's always available. And that means an economic reason to stick with reliable freelance translators.

Finally, I'm having a nudging feeling that we could have more work at better rates if we wrote more on our websites and in our brochures about those differences which level the field for us or skew it in our favour if we play them right.

Edit (2 May 2014): If this article was useful, for a complementary point of view you can read my next article, about the benefits of working with agencies and the idea of giving the same effort as other clients in your marketing.


  1. I think that if you have two people in a partnership, you can provide nearly all of that (assuming you have a large number of pairs) without the downside. Indeed, sometimes, even one person can provide all of that, without the downside (unless they want 100 pages in less than a week or something :P ). But this is a handy list for sure of the points to hit, to make sure you get the point across :)

    1. Hah! Whoever does 100 pages in less than a week and makes it high-quality stuff really needs a hefty bonus.

      Also, partnerships is how lawyers work. There are obviously junior and senior partners and even a lot of people who aren't partners (the 'leverage', i.e. ratio between partners and associates is anywhere between 1:3 and 1:7 or even 1:10), but there is a possibility that lawyers make more partly because they have identities and their profession enjoys respect and prestige, despite all the bad things said about them. We could learn presentation from lawyers.

  2. Very interesting and true article. In my experience, 'normal' end clients (so I'm not talking about very big international companies) are slowly but surely realising all of this as well. In the first part of this year, I gained two end clients who told me they were no longer satisfied with the quality of translation agencies and therefore now prefer to work directly with translators, even if this takes them a bit more time.
    As more and more agencies are lowering the rates they pay and more and more work with shabby amateuristic 'would-be' translators, this trend is undoubtedly to grow. Which is good for us, professional translators!

    1. Yup, I've noticed a similar trend. Things of moderate importance will go through agencies plus inhouse QA — which is sort of like PEMTing — but texts which really matter need a quality translator, which is far less tricky when you see a name, credentials, a story. A definite identity, in short, but the story also matters. A personal legend of sorts. High-quality translators actually are rare enough to be a legend. Not necessarily a huge epic tale but a legend regardless.

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  4. Great post Lukaz, like you I believe these points you make are key and that professionals should start communicating AS LOUDLY as possible on what they can offer in terms of quality which an agency cannot. This difference is mainly communication related: we are the tailor when the agency is the chinese sweatshop that charges the same as the tailors :( We should also work on giving a Credible professional image of ourselves (website, presentation and sales pitch) much less "general" agency pitch. It is only by differentiating ourselves from the "agency world" and doing better on the communication level on the large scale that we will beat them out (partly). Clients have yet to DISCOVER what kind crap they get with big agencies and how it can ruin their image abroad. Showing them how poor the quality of their website/brochure is can be a good start. I guess the fact they don't speak our native language and therefore cannot judge of the quality is the big hindering factor in all this ;)

    1. Thank you! And glad to see your first comment here. Yes, the tailor analogy is quite apt. I believe we should apply those copywriting and storytelling and other similar skills to connect with our visitors with a story. This is actually not unlike in respectable modern online marketing, where you first build trust and rapport and only then sales come, where there's already a basic relationship. You're spot on when you say translators engage in agency-style marketing. Otherwise it's just simply unprofessional marketing most of the time — even established, high-earning translators have e.g. websites that wouldn't fly in any other industry.


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