Agencies and direct clients: not better or worse, just different

I spend a lot of time explaining the merits of agencies to translators who work with direct clients, and explaining the merits of direct clients to translators who work with agencies. So, I thought I’d offer my explanation to the whole translation blogosphere and solicit your thoughts! Here we go:

Translation agencies are great, because:

  • If the agency does its job right, you just translate. You are freed from such tasks as explaining to the client why the words aren’t in the same order in the translation as they are in the original document, or explaining to the client that words like “software” and “information” are not pluralized as “softwares” and “informations” in English.
  • If the agency likes you, they will keep you busy. They will fill your inbox with requests, rather than the other way around.
  • They have a sense of what you do, and what the constraints of your job are. They know not to ask whether you could translate 25,000 words for 3 days from now, or whether you charge “for the little words.” By the way, that was an actual question I received from a potential client. I apologize if my answer, “Only if you want them translated,” sounded rude or glib.

But translation agencies have their drawbacks, such as:

  • In the agency market, a translator can only compete on quality to a certain extent. It’s in an agency’s best interest to use the cheapest translator whose quality and reliability fit the agency’s purposes. An agency that really likes you might pay you 10% more than what they pay their other translators, but they’re not going to pay you 100% more, whereas a direct client might.
  • They can’t afford to be loyal to you. A direct client might shuffle deadlines, pay rush printing charges or have their own staff work on a weekend in order to snag a translator who they really love. But agencies rarely will: if you’re not available within a reasonable amount of time, they’ll call the next person on their list.
  • Many agencies are not transparent about their teams and processes. When you work on a large project for an agency, the agency may refuse to let you communicate with the other translators. They may decline to tell you whether your work is being proofed a) by another translator in your language pair, b) by a speaker of the target language only or c) not at all.

Direct clients are great, because:

  • At a certain point, you will reach “terminal velocity” in the agency market. You will be charging as much as even the highest-paying agencies will pay, and you can’t increase your speed beyond a certain point if you want to maintain quality. So, the next logical place to look is the direct client market, where the price ceiling is much higher.
  • The business relationship is between you and them. Normally, you can communicate either with the person who wrote the source document or the person who is going to use the target document. In 11+ years of working with agencies, I’ve been in contact with the document’s writer or end user exactly zero times. To put it diplomatically, this model has its problems.
  • Quality is a major competitive advantage. I know for sure (and Chris Durban has said this as well), that some of my direct clients use me for their mission-critical translations; when they’re applying for a large grant or producing a report that will go to potential donors, they’re willing to pay my rate. But for other, less mission-critical things, they use either agencies or less expensive freelancers.
  • Questions and feedback are not only possible, but welcome. In the agency model, there’s pretty much an impenetrable membrane between the translator and the end client; in the direct client market, the back-and-forth flow is what makes the work more satisfying and the translation more accurate and more readable.

But direct clients have their drawbacks, such as:

  • Sometimes, they have no idea how you work, other than that you change documents from one language to another. 12,000 words for tomorrow? Some direct clients don’t know that that’s laughable. And while you’re at it, why don’t you translate into your non-native language? Or interpret for their upcoming conference? It’s not their fault, it’s just not their industry.
  • They may need you only sporadically, or for huge amounts of work at one time. Some direct clients only need a translator for a small job a couple of times a year, for example when they issue earnings reports or press releases. Others may have an onslaught of documents (grant applications, RFPs) a couple of times a year, and then they need 100,000 words in a month. So you absolutely must have a partner or backup person (more on that in another post).
  • Corollary: you really don’t want to turn down their work if you can help it. In the agency market, you can pretty much accept and decline projects at will. As long as you accept at least some of the time, the agency will likely call you again. But if you bail out on a direct client at a key time, your relationship with them may be over, because they have to find someone else immediately (see reference to partner/backup above).

Now, over to you! Thoughts?

27 Responses to “Agencies and direct clients: not better or worse, just different”
  1. Jamie McLennan December 2, 2013
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