Worrying trends in translation agencies’ work methods – how they could turn the tide How translation agencies could get out of the current downward spiral

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    Clients need to have a document translated. They need it soon and preferably at a low cost. That is only natural. However, there is a clear trend that more and more translation agencies sacrifice quality to offer their clients a low price and a quick turnaround. As a translator I have noticed the following worrying trends in the process translation agencies follow. They are based on a competition on prices and are leading to a downward spiral. Translation agencies need to turn the tide – and the good news is they can.

    How low prices are achieved

    Firstly, many translation agencies want to compete on prices. That sounds good when you are the client and you receive the quotation, but some translation agencies focus on a low price to such a degree that they offer their translators very low rates. In fact, I have noticed a decline in the rates that are offered to translators instead of the natural economic trend of a gradual rise. And it is not only the agencies we call “bottom feeders” in our industry – more and more agencies that used to pay decent rates try to get their translators to accept rates that are lower than ever. The result? Qualified and experienced translators refuse such assignments. And the client’s text is often translated by inexperienced, unqualified translators who need the work at any price.

    In order to cut down on prices even further, some agencies skip an important step. Have you ever written a text and reread it several times, fully convinced it did not contain any mistakes – and then one of the first readers pointed out an obvious mistake? We read what we think we wrote, not what we actually wrote. That is why a translation step should always be followed by a proofreading step carried out by a second translator/proofreader. In all my years of proofreading translations from colleagues, even the best, I have only encountered a flawless text a few times – it is truly an essential step. Nevertheless, some agencies just cut this step and send the unproofread text straight to the client, so that they don’t have to pay a proofreader. At the most they carry out their own quality assurance, using software that only detects some errors that machines can spot, such as incorrectly copied figures or forgotten brackets. And since the agency’s project managers do not speak the language, they just send out a list of mainly false positives detected by the QA software to the translator with the request to check them – whereas actual mistakes may be left undetected.

    How a fast turnaround is achieved

    Translation agencies want to make sure clients receive their translation as soon as possible. Whereas before they offered the assignment to one translator especially selected for the client’s specific project – the translator with the right qualifications and experience – nowadays some translation agencies just send a potential project to a large group of translators that offer the language combination and the one that replies first, receives the order. The translator’s expertise and qualifications are no longer the most important selection factors. From a translator’s point of view it is just worrying how often I am offered projects that are not within my expertise. I am not a medical or legal expert, but some agencies do not seem to mind and ask me to translate medical studies meant to be read by doctors, or legal documents for lawyers that most people would not even understand in their native language because the texts are so complicated and the terminology is so specialised. I always refuse assignments that are not within my expertise since I know I cannot guarantee the quality, but unfortunately not everyone does, and the resulting translation may not be what the client expected.

    How clients can suffer if they are put on a pedestal

    Clients just wish to leave their translation work in the capable hands of a translation provider. In the ideal world, a translation order is placed and a perfect translation is delivered soon, without further ado. Of course, nobody wants to bother the client with silly questions or a long list of queries, but sometimes you just need to clear something up. From time to time the translator needs to check if his interpretation is correct, needs more context or just needs to know what the client prefers. That can range from checking a specific specialized term to asking the client if they prefer to use the informal or formal version of the word ‘you’ if the source language does not make that distinction. I work as a full-time translator and I need to ask the client a question about once or twice a month, in other words rarely, but when I have a question, it is an important one.  Some agencies however are so reluctant to bother the client, that they refuse to pass on the translator’s questions. They just tell their translators to use their own judgement and that is that. The potential result: mistakes, misinterpretations or a tone the client would not want to use when addressing customers – often without the client’s knowledge, because they don’t speak the language and cannot check the translation.


    Translation agencies need to make a U turn – these trends cannot lead to a sustainable future, especially in a world where clients can find suitable translators themselves and cut the middleman. Many translation agencies are trying to survive by competing on low rates and trying to sell their services with the promise of a quick turnaround and a smooth process without requiring further input from the client, but that is a strategy that will only lead to a downward spiral. Eventually clients will no longer be satisfied if their translations are of low quality.  Instead agencies need to justify their existence in a different way: by making clients’ lives easier and offering a great selection service on the basis of their extensive translators database – guaranteeing that the translation is done by the best translator for the job. That will only lead to satisfying results for every party: high-quality translations for the client, a higher income for the translator and both a higher revenue and a higher client satisfaction for the agency. It will be a Win-Win-Win strategy for everyone involved.

    8 thoughts on “Worrying trends in translation agencies’ work methods – how they could turn the tide

    1. Hello Els, I have experienced examples of the “misbehaviour” you talk about. Although I agree on the fact that things should take that turn, I am not sure they ever will. Maybe it’s just because I’ve worked in-house or because I’m a pessimist by nature 🙂 However, speaking of nature, I do think that in time a kind of natural selection will indeed take place. There are (mainly) two types of clients: those who are truly interested in offering quality texts to foreign customers/consumers and who prefer being bothered with questions rather than finding out about imprecisions at a later point, and those who do not fully understand the impact that a bad translation can have and consider it a minor step of the whole process, thus not wanting to be bothered (for example). A natural selection process could be that the first type of clients will in most cases shift to enlisting translators who follow better practices and deliver better results, whereas the latter kind won’t ever change their practices, but hey, it’s their loss and no one else’s. What do you think?

      1. You are right, Eleonora – I wanted to give this article a positive spin by suggesting a solution, but it is true that most of these agencies will not change their ways. It is just that it worries me that agencies that were alright before are now using the same techniques to cut costs and to achieve a fast turnaround, which impacts the quality. Several of the agencies I used to work with are now following the downward spiral… Which is a pity because it means I have to let them go and I need to replace them with better-paying clients, which takes time… It worries me that this way of working has become a trend.

        1. Nature abhors a vacuum and I’m sure there’ll be new agencies in place of those who have gone to the Dark Side! Because Eleonora’s right about 2 types of clients. The first type will continue to create demand for quality translation. In other words, I believe in humanity xDD

          1. You’re right to be optimistic, Elena! Pessimism surely leads nowhere. One thing is for sure: there will always be people striving for quality. We must make sure we keep looking out for those 😉

        2. Do not get me wrong, I did not mean to say that your suggestion was unjustified 🙂 It is always worth considering in what way we can change a situation that is not ideal.
          I guess we translators will have to pay increasing attention to these phenomena and, if we cannot control what agencies do, at least we could create and implement new strategies to look after ourselves and to prevent/fix these problems more efficiently.

          1. Thank you for the comments, ladies. Indeed, we need to look after ourselves. The translation world is changing and agencies feel the pressure – let’s hope more agencies choose to give priority to quality rather than price and speed. As for us translators, we’ve got the skills and the talent, so if we can market our services, we will thrive in this new situation as well, whether it is working for direct clients or working for the right agencies.

    2. When some people say women are less intelligent than men they can’t be more wrong (I don’t say this to flirt with anyone here – all women), however I wouldn’t leave the solution in the hands of Darwin or natural selection, because in the process of bad agencies leaving, some good translators can be dragged out due to bottom fees and not being able to access enough job opportunities.

    3. Very much true what you are writing. I also work with agencies, and sometimes when i cant find a direct client at one time, I almost feel the need to accept anything from an agency. But that cant be done. I cant translate medical texts, and they even offer a tremendously low rate. Agencies work with too high margins, with translators not even getting half of the final rate the customers have to pay. unfair and unjust

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