The ideal translation agency – Part I

This post and the next one were originally published in the Adventures in Freelance Translation blog, by Christos Floros, who kindly authorized this republication. I’ve divided the article into two parts to facilitate the podcast publication. This topic should be of interest to many translation clients—after all, a large number of them are translation agencies. Thanks again, Christos!

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What makes a good translation company to work for, either as a freelancer or an in-house translator? This question comes to me from time to time, but I haven’t found the answer yet. An excellent presentation by Karen Tkaczyk at the 52nd ATA conference, entitled “How to make translators rave about your company,” made me think about this a bit more. After taking into account my experience with translation agencies, I compiled my 10-point wish list regarding the ideal company I would like to work for.

1)      Educate the end client

There are times when the translator is a point of reference for the language s/he translates into. The professional translator who specializes in a certain field is expected to have good knowledge of the language, slang/idioms, culture, field, etc. Sometimes the end client asks for something that cannot be delivered, for example, to fit a slogan translated into Greek in the same space as the original in English. If I inform the agency that it cannot be done without “chopping” the translation beyond recognition, I expect the project manager (PM) to pass this information to the end client. I have occasionally heard a lot of excuses from PMs, or even agency owners, as to why they don’t want to do that: they are afraid that they may lose the client; they don’t want to “upset the client”; they’ll take it up with them at a later stage (coded response for “not in this lifetime”); they’re willing to find someone else who’ll follow the client’s instructions and won’t mind shortening the target text, et cetera, et cetera. Few translation agencies bother to properly educate clients and explain why their instructions sometimes may jeopardize the quality of the translations.

2)      Aim for a good margin of profit without squeezing the translator for all s/he’s worth

I totally understand that profit is a main concern for every company (and for freelancers, for that matter). What I don’t understand is why so many translation companies choose to make low bids in order to win the contract and then expect to balance the loss by squeezing the translator. I’ve come across agencies in Europe that advertise their services online in a specific area (such as gambling & gaming) and offer extremely low rates to the end client. It is highly unlikely that the agency will be able to cover the rates of a specialized translator.

3)      Know your subject areas

In the same area in which I specialize (gambling & gaming), I’ve come across agencies that have no knowledge of either gambling or gaming. In these cases, a lot of specific questions were left unanswered because the PMs didn’t know what I was talking about. They also wanted to hide their ignorance from the client, so I was left in the dark more than once. Their usual reply was to search the term in Wikipedia… What’s the point of advertising that your agency is the leading specialized provider in poker translation if your sales people (i.e. PMs) don’t know anything about poker?

4)      Be technology savvy

Don’t laugh, but I’ve also come across translation agencies that insisted on using Trados without knowing what Trados is! I got suspicious after a few technical questions and some irregularities. For example, they had no idea of ini files that are needed in order to open .html or .xml files through Tag Editor. Another time, they sent me a 100-word MS Word document for translation. My translation memory (TM) showed 0 no matches, 50 reps, and 20 fuzzy matches. They paid me for 70 new words and 20 reps (no idea how they calculated that). One of the advantages of any TM software, especially to translation agencies, is cutting the cost for repetitions, but there is no point in asking for something that you don’t know how to use.

5)      Pay on time

Good relationships are based on honesty. I am more than willing to accept (or consider accepting) longer payment terms if the agency informs me beforehand. If they claim that they have a 30-day policy and pay me after 90 days, something is wrong. If they have the same 30-day policy and pay me in 10 days, I’ll be more willing to work for them in the future. It’s as simple as that. Yet more and more agencies blame the “economic climate” and delay their payments…

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!