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.