Which suits you best: a freelance translator, a translation agency or a translation company?
Creation Date: 06/Jul/2010
Before answering that, we must first answer the following questions:
What is each of these entities?
A translation agency is mainly a business that acts as a middleman between someone that needs to translate a document (the end-client) and the translators that do the job. Usually an agency has no translators in its staff. The owner can be a translator that has "evolved" towards outsourcing other translator's services. The rest of the staff includes office clerks and project managers (those who process your translation). Translators are hired on a one-time basis either fishing them out of their own internationally mapped data bases or asking for worldwide quotes at specialised websites. The quality of the screening process can vary immensely between agencies. The size of the agency, its length of service or its transnational scope is no guarantee that the translators chosen will be competent. Furthermore, due to competition and economies of scale there is a trend among these companies to dictate predatory fees accepted by amateur and desperate translators.
A translation company is mainly a business whose staff includes office clerks, project managers and in-house translators. The size of the staff depends on the amount of languages covered and the work demand. These companies offer their translators full time employment and stability, in exchange for lower fees. Usually these translators are novice professionals that still haven't built their own pool of clients. This gives these businesses, as middlemen, the possibility to cover their management costs and rescue a profit. Rarely one can find some specialty businesses that staff experienced translators, but with concurrent rates.
A freelance translator is a professional that works in close contact with his end-clients. He works at home or at an office away from home. He can work alone, with staff (i.e. a secretary), or work in a team of freelance translators, all in the same office or at venues in different streets, cities or countries. These translators can survive financially thanks to an adequate pool of clients or thanks to additional income from some other source. Among freelance translators one can find a great variety of experience, quality and fees. From those that overrate their competencies and their fees, to those who underrate their competencies and fees.
How do they compare?
1) Direct communication between the translator and the client.
Most agencies and companies forbid contact between translator and client. This precludes the development of a more intimate and long term relationship, getting the translator involved with the companies values and strategic plans; without control over the translators strengths and weaknesses.
On the other hand, in the case of a freelance, if he is a specialist, he shall be able to discuss complex technical details with the client’s experts without the mediation of a project manager.
2) Assigning tasks
In the case of businesses, you won't be able to assure that the same translator is assigned consecutive tasks. The agency or company won't want to lose the assignment and it will allot the task to the first translator available. That translator will be writing with a different style; he'll have a different cultural background; and he won't be acquainted with your needs, your scope, or with the documents translated previously - elements that usually conform to a consistent course of action.
A translator should only translate those texts that belong to his fields of specialty and only into his active languages (A language or B language of which he has perfect command). If you repeatedly allot different tasks to the same translator he will become familiar with your business, and he will behave like a co-worker not like a supplier.
3) Loyalty and Multiple Translations
The survival of an agency depends on high turnover, due to small margins and costs. This forces them to build a great pool of clients. Unless you need to translate about 100.000 words, you'll be just another client.
A freelance translator can survive comfortably translating 50.000 words or less per month. If you need to translate about 5.000 words you'll be an important item in a freelancer's economy, binding his loyalty in the long term. A team of two or more translators can cover the same volumes of an agency, without their weaknesses.
4) Higher Costs
Under the same framework mentioned above an agency or a company can't charge the same fees as a freelance translator, unless they pay the translator a lower fee, equivalent to a lower quality. It is obvious that the best translators expect to earn more, not less.
If you want an agency or a company to deliver you the same quality you can get from a freelance translator, you'll have to pay more, and that fee will include additional costs like the lease of an office, salaries of clerical staff, advertising, travel allowances, accounting, utilities bills, corporate charter, lawyers, etc. A freelancer doesn't have these kinds of expenses (or they are marginal) because he runs a small business.
5) Economies of Scale
In a business where the main cost is an intellectual service we can't apply economies of scale without affecting the quality of the product (lower salary : lower quality; multiple translators : incoherence or additional costs for harmonizing) and the translator's loyalty (due to a lower salary, he'll be looking for another employer or he'll go freelance), and any cost reduction due to economies of scale (software prices, utilities, integration of information, etc.) probably won't be passed on to the client, who must pay a higher fee than he would pay to a freelancer.
6) Many Languages
It is not possible for one translator to translate into multiple languages with a minimum acceptable quality. A translator should not translate into a language he does not master fluently (Active languages: from near native to educated native) and the possibility that one person has perfect command at near native level of multiple languages is very rare. True bilinguals, those that have been brought up immersed in two cultures are quite common and some can acquire near nativeness in their second language. So a freelance translator rarely can offer quality translations into multiple languages, at most one or two.
Here is where the agencies and companies find their best niche: the need to translate the same document into many languages. You don't have to manage the project, contracting different translators, paying multiple invoices probably towards different countries using different means. You shall save some sweat, but probably, not your money.
However, there are teams of translators that work in different language pairs, and working associated they can deliver a similar service an agency or a company delivers, but offering open communication between the translators and you, and among each other.
7) Translation Memories
In short, a translation memory (TM) is an aggregated list of texts previously translated by a translator; pairs of segments (usually whole sentences) in two languages. When the translation memory scans a new text and recognises a segment similar to one it has in its memory, it offers the partner of that segment in the other language as a possible translation. In this way, identical segments can speed up the translation process by bringing it down to a mere assessment of the adequacy of the translation offered according to the context.
The translation memory softwares are available for whoever wants to buy them, and freelancers, as well as agencies and companies use them. The important thing here isn't that agencies and companies can build-up enormous TMs compared to a freelancer, or the mega-memory that these freelancers can access through the internet, but the quality of the TM. It's no use to have an enormous memory if it's full of errors, different styles, previous segments overwritten by inadequate translations, or contaminated with conflicting terminology from different fields or different varieties of a language, etc. To clean a TM and pick out all its errors is an enormous task, if not impossible, so any serious use of TMs requires preventive measures on principle. When there are many translators inputting information to a TM, its quality and its usefulness, fall in an exponential proportion depending on the amount of translators, and their innate, in some cases, and inevitable differences related to styles, experience, background, ethics, mastering of both languages, perfectionism and knowledge of specialized terminology.
This last problem can be reduced up to some level, creating specialized TMs, but when the quality of those doing the inputs is equivalent to the low fee they receive, the odds of contamination are very high. An agency can't allot various specialists to decontaminate or harmonize each of its specialised TMs without a significant raise in costs.
In the end, the value of a translation memory narrows down to the following factors: a restricted field, numerous texts translated, and one or few harmonized translators inputting information.
Over-specialisation can be a dead-end, with no skills for handling other fields. Absence of specialisation can be the other end, where there is no ability to handle any field in depth.
Most of the business texts (i.e. an annual report), and probably the field with most demand for translators, consider a main specialty (i.e. Finance) and other satellite specialties (i.e. electric systems and environmental issues: for an electric power distributor), so that a good translator should have a sound main specialty and strengths in a few other related specialties.
These strengths may have been built through degrees, studies or work experience, a stock of authoritative glossaries and dictionaries, and good abilities for research and analysis as needed for finding terminology solutions through information networks.
In a country like Chile, with low levels of business due to its small population, it's very difficult to build a specialty through work, and not only in the translation field. For this reason it is so important for a translator to follow studies in a specialty and spend his "free time" pursuing professional development. A freelance translator can build this asset because he can manage his time freely.
Instead, the translator that works at a company, one that pays low wages, has high staff turnover, and doesn't receive a continuum of assignments in those specialities, will have greater difficulty for building that asset. If the company receives a continued demand for translations of a given specialty, its generalists, after about three years, can become experts in that specialty. If that level of demand doesn't occur, those generalists will continue being generalists, because the company will make them translate anything that comes around (maintaining unoccupied staff has a cost). In a company the opportunities for professional development depend on its good practices.
An agency, on the other hand, doesn’t manage its own staff of translators, so theoretically they should be able to hire the best translator for your job. But they are under strong price pressure due to competition, and other economic, social and cultural factors that cross all the industry from client to translator. With this in mind, you can easily envision good agencies and bad agencies, good clients and bad clients, good translators and bad translators. The bad ones are those that fall easily to irresponsible bargaining, and that means not getting the best translator for your job. Those agencies that are choosy, and pay well, not only are they getting the right translator for your job, but they also create loyal and dependable teams for their clients.
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