Freelancer or translation agency?

“Many corporations prefer to work with large translation agencies so they only have to deal with one vendor for multiple languages. On the flipside, other corporations like working with very small businesses because of the uncomplicated interaction and lack of red tape.”
Dagmar and Judy Jenner

The profile of translation clients and their types of projects generally give us hints as to whether they’re better off hiring a freelance translator or a translation agency. How much text do you send for translation at a given time? What kinds of deadlines do you impose on translators? How many languages do you need your material translated to? Do you require services other than the translation itself?

In most cases, hiring a freelancer directly should cost you less than hiring an agency to do a translation. After all, agencies must pay their employees and infrastructure, and costs are expected to increase with a longer supply chain. Under some conditions, though, the translation agency approach may turn out to be more cost-effective than hiring a freelance translator. Most of the savings depend on the cost of your own time as a service buyer.

Let’s say you have an unusually large translation project with a deadline that would commonly be acceptable for a mid-sized text. A translation agency is geared to set up a whole team of translators, so they all work in their normal routine, at their normal rates. The agency often also arranges for text standardization and reviewing, as needed.

If you hire a freelancer to handle this large project alone, s/he’ll most likely have to deal with schedule disruption and overtime work, which usually translate into a surcharge on your end. Some translators hate everything about project management and prefer to work solo no matter what. But it’s common for freelancers to team up with one or two colleagues whom they trust and offer the same kind of “package” agencies offer. If they are truly professional and care about quality, one of the team members will be responsible for reviewing the whole text and checking for consistency and standardization. This step takes time and, again, usually results in extra charges. One of the posts under the cost-time-quality trianglecategory, “Common scenarios,” has a brief discussion on this and other related topics.

If you decide to set up a translation team yourself, imagine how much of your time you’d spend to recruit and select professionals, provide clear directions, follow up throughout the process, and manage their invoices and payments. You’d normally have to do all or most of this even when you’re working with one professional. Now multiply this work by the number of translators needed to complete the project. On top of that, someone would still have to be responsible for assembling all the pieces and turning them into a smooth and uniform product. This person can be you or someone else you will hire and pay extra for this task. Trust us: it’s not as simple as it sounds. What if you don’t even speak the language?

Similar situations arise when you have to translate a text into several languages, or when additional work is involved, like desktop publishing, text formatting, web editing, audio recording, video subtitling, and DVD authoring. Besides taking care of the project management steps cited above, you run the risk of one vendor having quality issues with another vendor’s delivery, and it may involve delays until all stages of production are harmonized.

Of course, some translators offer services beyond translation proper or may work together with professionals that complement their linguistic work, as Carolina and Bianca pointed out in the case of subtitling and video editing. Also, it’s common to see translators who take on projects that involve languages they don’t speak because they have established partnerships with other professionals who work with those languages. This might involve surcharges or not.

Your best bet is to explain all your needs in detail when you request a quote and see if your service provider is ready to deal with all the stages and languages involved. Resist the temptation to manage complicated projects and save yourself the headache and risk of achieving sub-standard results. Hiring qualified professionals to take care of your projects and having more time yourself to do something else will most likely pay off.

Food for thought

Keep in mind the premises and scenarios presented in my last post while you read more thoughts, examples, and parallels inspired in real-life situations involving the cost-time-quality triangle.

    • One of the forces behind the triangle is precisely the relation between the translators’ income, rates, and working hours. The less language professionals charge, the more they have to work to make ends meet and, most likely, the longer the hours, too. Let’s think of a simple analogy: would you go to a dentist who charges peanuts and have him/her work on your root canal treatment at 9pm knowing s/he has been working almost non-stop since 7am?

    • Translation is a mentally strenuous activity. Professionals who are pleased with what they earn and can afford to work just the right amount of time per day (before their brain starts pouring out of their ears) are more able to focus on their texts, do proper research, revise the material as many times as necessary… Needless to say, all these factors influence quality for the better.

    • In the book The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation, Dagmar and Judy Jenner draw an interesting parallel between selling cars and translations. They first describe the status quo of BMW:

“[T]he German carmaker BMW certainly does not compete on price. Quite the contrary: the prices are very high, but the world is largely in agreement that the company’s cars are worth the price tag because they are well-made luxury cars. The company’s defining characteristic is quality, not price. BMW has perfected the art of differentiating its products by creating the ultimate luxury vehicle. Potential buyers understand that high quality comes at a price, and know that a BMW costs more than a basic Toyota.”

The authors then conclude that a professional translator who has invested time and effort in education, experience, and professional development should strive to make clients understand and appreciate his/her services “for their top-notch quality rather than their price.”

    • Some translators won’t take on rush projects no matter how much you offer to pay. As most of us rely greatly on word-of-mouth marketing, some professionals are more concerned with the quality of their work and their reputation. After all, once a text is out there, very few people will remember—or even know—its production conditions. You might hire a translator saying: “I just need to get the gist of it by tomorrow morning. All I need is something readable.” That’s your need, fine. You pay X times the regular rate and have the translation delivered overnight. Just as any human being working long hours under pressure, translators are more subject to errors, and the text might not be very fluent or smooth. Fine again. However, your boss, business partner, or client might look at the translation, ignoring the conditions in which the text was produced, and think: “What a sloppy translator!” This might be enough to stain a professional’s name, even though s/he delivered the product just as you requested. But let’s not generalize: it doesn’t mean that every rush project is full of mistakes, or that all translators who accept working in these conditions don’t care about their image.

On a lighter note…

By Alejandro Moreno-Ramos

Common scenarios

After my attempt to define the three major elements that influence a translation project, I’ll analyze the most frequent situations that translation clients may face and what they should expect. Of course, none of the “equations” I propose here are true all the time. They’re all hypothetical scenarios that are likely to happen, based on what’s commonly seen in the market.

To begin with, I believe in the following premises:

(a) Shorter deadlines impose more pressure on translators—with less time to do careful research and revision/proofreading, they are more prone to make mistakes and produce less polished texts.

(b) Lower rates are often charged by novice translators or those who have no option but to work for extremely long hours to make a living. Conversely, more experienced professionals usually charge higher rates, which are, more often than not, proportional to the quality level of their services.

That said, the situations below are what I consider the most likely scenarios in my field.

Time as a fixed variable:

Provided you have time on your hands, this is probably the ideal situation from the client’s perspective. The longer the time you give to your translator, the higher your probability of achieving better quality and negotiating lower rates.

Unfortunately one of the most common scenarios involves tight deadlines. This is when rush fees apply. When translators have a shorter time to work on a text, they’re more inclined to charge more, usually because they have to work after hours and/or reschedule their priorities to focus on your service. Under these circumstances, some professionals outsource part of the project (in these cases, translators are usually expected to ask for the client’s green light before sharing any material with a third party) and are (ideally speaking) responsible for editing the final version and making sure it’s smooth and consistent, as if written by a single person. When time constraints are overwhelming, this revision phase might not be carefully carried out, most likely resulting in poorer quality. Needless to say, two or more professionals cost more than one, and the extra work involved in coordinating a project is time consuming as well.

Time and rate as fixed variables:

The scenario translators dream about is having plenty of time to carefully work on the project while being well remunerated—not to mention that motivation is an extra element that tips the scale in favor of high quality.

This is the worst-case scenario everyone wants to avoid. As I said, the low-rate factor alone is an indication of dubious quality, and a short deadline might increase the risk of mistakes and poorly written texts.

Well, I tried looking into my crystal ball, but it’s not easy to predict the quality of a translation under these circumstances. While low rates most likely reduce the translators’ motivation or the priority they give to a project, a long deadline may help them improve the quality. The second case is even more delicate: if the deadline is too short, a better rate can allow the translator to prioritize your project or hire a reviser, for instance. In extreme situations, however, there’s only so much a higher budget can do.

The bottom line is plan ahead. Giving a translator as much time as possible is perhaps the most appropriate way to get the best value for your money.

Last but not least, if you have no time, no money, and no concerns whatsoever with quality, well, machine translation is there to serve you (more on this topic to come). Use at your own risk!