My Agency Horror Stories
Caption: Don’t let a terrible translation agency ruin your life. Take advantage of the freedom in freelancing and escape!
As promised in my last article, this time I’m going to share my worst run-ins with translation agencies. While these episodes were infuriating for me in one way or another, I’ve heard of much, much worse experiences from my colleagues, especially those who work for agencies outside of Japan, which I generally stay away from. The best thing to do is to avoid working for such crummy outsourcers in the first place. My previous post provided a few pointers on that.
So let’s get right to it!
This isn’t actually a horror story, but I want to share it here. It’s more an example of a super cheap agency. This company offered me my first foray in freelance translation. They were the London branch of a translation agency headquartered in China. The rate was cheap, at US$0.05 per English word, or about 20% to 25% what I make now. However, as a noob with no track record in translation to speak of, the opportunity to gain experience was worth more than the pittance I received in compensation. Plus, their quality standards were low and they always paid me on time, so it was actually a pretty good way to get into the business.
Here’s the first real horror story. A few years after I began translating, I started getting some work from an agency based in Osaka. It was a small company, whose owner also acted as the coordinator, so I was always working through him. According to their website, they had been in business for about 15 years, but this would come as quite a shock to me later on as I discovered just how incompetent the owner was.
There was one project where I was asked to translate a short graphic comic, or manga, to promote some kind of toothbrush that can apparently clean your teeth without the use of any toothpaste. I thought it sounded like B.S., but whatever, I went ahead and translated the text. I delivered the translation as simple text in a Word file with numbers indicating which frame or speech bubble each line corresponded to. I had arranged with the owner to deliver in this format when he first ordered the job.
Well, sometime after delivery, the owner came back to me with feedback from the client. He was very distressed. Apparently, the client wanted something entirely different: an entirely new comic with a brand new, original story rewritten and redrawn from scratch to more effectively appeal to an English-speaking audience. He asked me if I could do this.
I was taken aback. I couldn’t do that! I’m a translator, not an artist. Why would he even think to ask me that question? I made it very clear to him that such a project was much more than mere translation and it would have to involve a number of professionals with various skill sets. I suggested that he go back and talk to his client and explain these things. Although actually, he should’ve known this without me having to tell him in the first place.
I remember another ridiculous question I got from the owner. One evening, he called me up on the phone and said his computer wasn’t working and needed help fixing it. Apparently, he wanted me to troubleshoot his technical problems. I explained to him that I was not his tech support and that he should call an expert who is qualified to handle such things.
And remember, this company had been around for 15 years! How in the world had they stayed in business?!
But the worst thing about this agency was payments. The owner often paid me late, and I had to nag him every time I wanted to get what I was owed. One time when a payment was late, it just so happened that I was in the middle of an assignment for him that was due the next day. I called him on the phone to ask about the late payment. He said he was having cash flow problems. I said, “I understand. It just so happens that I’m having this scheduling problem where I can’t make any progress whatsoever on the translation you want me to deliver tomorrow. However, if you can fix your cash flow problem, then I’m pretty sure I can fix my scheduling problem.” I received the payment in 15 minutes. Apparently, he had the cash.
Now I knew that I did not want to be associated with this agency anymore. But I was still working on a new project and I wanted to get paid for it! If the only way I could get my money was to hold a current project ransom, then how could I expect to get paid for that most recent job? I would be caught in an endless cycle.
Well, I gradually reduced the amount of work I was taking from this agency, until finally one month came around where he owed me 3,000 yen for one project and I had not performed or accepted any work since then. Of course, when I checked my account on the due date, the money wasn’t there. But I figured, if it cost me 3,000 yen to never speak to him again, then I decided it was worth it. I never did get the payment, but I never bothered to follow up on it. I was happier for my decision.
This was a somewhat larger agency based in Tokyo. The first time they contacted me, it was about a regularly occurring assignment that would involve same-day translations of transcripts from press conferences provided by a certain Japanese government spokesperson. I was explicitly told right off the bat that this assignment would be challenging not only for the quick turnaround, but also the variety of subject matter each press conference would cover. This would necessitate a general familiarity with the day’s news events and the skills to look up background information efficiently so as to provide quality translations by deadlines. Accuracy was also a very strict requirement, as the coordinator told me that mistakes could lead to problems of a “diplomatic” nature. Despite the challenge, I was excited because I was so interested in the content and I thought it would be nice to have some regular work to flatten out the curve in the otherwise unpredictable workload of a freelancer.
Another condition was that at first, my compensation would only be half what I normally charged my existing customers. I understood this to mean that this low rate would apply only to the first job, and that after I had proven my proficiency, we could discuss a higher one. Well, after I turned in my first assignment and brought this matter up with the coordinator, she seemed surprised and offered some clarification: The lower rate would apply for six months, and after that time, we could “possibly” discuss a higher one.
This was annoying, though you can also fault me for not clarifying this point beforehand. It was what she wrote next in her email that set me off. The coordinator went out of her way to ask why I would want a higher rate in the first place, when the work was fairly general and not so challenging.
I was incensed. She had just told me not a few days before how important it was to deliver translations quickly and accurately! Plus, I was spending quite a bit of time following the news more closely than usual and looking up all the proper nouns that came up in each assignment. I set her straight on these matters, and then told her that her company never needed to contact me again. She did not send me a response. I was, however, paid for the one transcript I had translated.
Looking back now, perhaps I overreacted, but I was also absolutely certain that I did not want to work with a coordinator who condescends me that way.
The funny thing is, a year or two later, a different coordinator from that company contacted me about an entirely different project. Apparently, they had kept my information on file! I was surprised, but decided to give the company another shot because this project had good terms of payment and seemed interesting. I went on to do a lot of work for this company over the coming years, but the volume gradually started to drop off as they decided to pursue more low-budget clients. I still consider them one of my occasional customers, though.
The lesson of this story is that one bad apple may not be representative of an entire agency.
You may recall how in my previous article I expressed a preference for working with smaller agencies because the big ones can be impersonal and inflexible. This of course does not mean that all small agencies are good. In fact, Agency #4 was another small enterprise.
This company was fairly new. A Japanese woman had recently founded the business in Tokyo, but she had previous experience as a translation coordinator and some connections from that job she could use to land projects. This was back in 2014. The pay was good and the work itself was interesting. The only problem was the owner/coordinator.
I have to say that she was very nice and I know that she was trying her best, but unfortunately, she was one of the most, if not the most, disorganized people I have ever had the misfortune to work for. I think she was either overwhelmed with work, does not know how to work efficiently, or a combination of the two.
The annoyances for me were numerous, but the worst concerned compensation. (That’s often the case, right?) Often, she would request a translation without providing a character count of the source document. This is what we used to determine how much I would be paid. When I would ask her to verify the number of characters, or even when I would go ahead and count them myself and send her the number to ask her to verify it, I would often get a very late response or sometimes no reply at all. After a while I gave up on trying to get her to confirm these sorts of things and just started counting the characters myself and issuing her an invoice at the end of the month billing her for what I thought was the appropriate amount.
That would have been fine, but there was another problem: the payments themselves. They were usually late or in the incorrect amount, either too little or even too much, which made accounting an enormous hassle for me. The owner also had an agitating tendency to reorganize things that didn’t need to be. At first she accepted my invoices, but then she wanted me to fill out her invoice template on the cloud in Google Documents. However, she handled those in a sloppy manner and payments were still a mess, so I went back to issuing my own invoices in Excel and emailing them to her.
Months later, she suddenly wanted to change the terms of payment by lowering the rate paid to me, retroactive to jobs for which I had already been paid. I guess her clients were squeezing her to charge less. Her plan was to make up for my apparent “excessive compensation” by deducting the amount from my next payment.
That was the last straw. Fortunately, at this time there were no outstanding payments because I had been gradually reducing the amount of work I was doing for her, as I was already incredibly annoyed. So, I decided I would not take any more assignments from her company. Basically, I ghosted her. That’s not a nice thing to do, but I was about to blow my top from the frustration she was causing me. Over the next month or so she contacted me three times asking if I could perform a translation. I ignored the emails. I haven’t heard from her since. And that’s a good thing, at least for me.
And here is my most recent agency horror story. It only concluded last month! In June, I was put in touch with an agency by a colleague of mine who was too busy to take on any more work himself. The agency was bidding on a huge project of nearly 150,000 characters. The content was an annual report by a Japanese government agency totaling nearly 200 pages. It would be a tight schedule, with 10 weeks to complete all the translation work. The pay was also good, in fact, 10% higher than my normal rate. This came in right at the end of a very slow 10-week spell due to the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Landing this project would make up for a dreadful couple of months.
Honestly, I didn’t actually expect the agency to win the bid, but they did! That’s when things started to go downhill.
First, the coordinator unilaterally reduced the rate by about 10% because she realized she needed to hire a designer to format the translated text for publication. You’d think she would have confirmed that detail before bidding! However, the adjusted rate was still equal to my normal one, so I accepted, albeit somewhat unhappily.
Then, I was told that we would actually have to finish all the work in three weeks instead of 10! Fortunately, the client had provided parallel translations from last year’s report, and this year’s report was very similar. By feeding the parallel translation and the new source documents into my CAT tool, memoQ, I calculated that I could still complete the entire project by myself and by the deadline. Ten weeks of work done in only three! Now things were looking good.
That didn’t last too long. As it turned out, the parallel translation provided by the client did not actually include the final version of last year’s English translations. We would have to pick those out paragraph-by-paragraph, from last year’s English report of 180 pages, if we wanted to feed them into a translation memory. We would also need to do that to satisfy another one of the client’s last-second demands: to submit parallel translations in columns with differences in both the source and target text shown with Word’s Track Changes feature. But we were not told all this until I had already performed two-thirds of the translation work using the old parallel translation! The client can be faulted for being a pain in this case, but it’s also a matter the coordinator should have worked out in advance.
Meanwhile, the coordinator was displaying yet more incompetence. First was the tables in the report. The client had provided us with uneditable images and wanted us to create new tables in English from scratch! The coordinator asked if I could do this. I said of course not, because I am a translator, not a DTP specialist! So she made the tables. I suggested she just ask for the raw data from the client, but apparently that wasn’t going to happen. She spent hours making those tables instead. I felt bad for her, but wondered why her company didn’t provide her the office staff to take on these sorts of tasks.
She also apparently had no staff to help her deal with the aforementioned Track Changes request. I knew how to do it, but it was going to be an incredibly time-consuming task matching all those previous translations with the corresponding Japanese and new translations, and I wanted to focus on the translation work itself so I could meet the deadline. To make a long story short, even though the coordinator apparently had years of experience, she had no idea how Track Changes works, even though I referred her to a website with a thorough explanation in Japanese. I ended up spending a whole day creating documents with the changes between last year’s and this year’s report in both the Japanese and English, one paragraph at a time.
However, it was at this point that the coordinator told me that we would just have to retranslate all the Japanese from scratch again without using the memory that we had created with the earlier parallel translation, even though I was still able to make perfectly good translations of this year’s report and had found a way to show the client the changes as requested. This meant that everything that I had done was for nothing.
It was at that point that I decided to withdraw from the project. Below is a redacted version of the email I sent:
Due to [agency name]‘s inability to provide clear instructions and support, I am hereby withdrawing from this project. A proper translation agency would have performed the following:
- Confirm the scope of work before making the bid. (Because this was not done, the rate was unilaterally reduced from – yen to – yen.)
- Confirm the schedule before making the bid. (Initially, I was told there would be 10 weeks to perform the translation. Instead, I have been given just over 3 weeks.)
- Handle client requests for matters such as files showing revision history. (It amazes me that a translation agency does not have the staff or knowledge to properly handle such tasks.)
- Provide clear instructions in general.
I can only expect that the intolerable incompetence will continue into the revision phase. It is unfortunate that [agency name] does not provide you with the resources you clearly need.
Attached is a revised invoice billing [agency name] only — yen for the time I spent actually translating. This does not include preparation time, hours speaking on the phone, or the revision history files I produced yesterday, but I will not bill [agency name] for those things. This should leave you plenty of budget left over to hire somebody else to complete the project.
A few days later, she responded and apologized for how things had turned out and offered to send me the money I had billed her by the end of the month. She did in fact pay as promised. I don’t think she is a bad person at all, just not cut out for her job. Therefore, I will not be working with that agency again.
As I mentioned recently, while the pandemic has struck the biggest blow yet to my business, as an experienced translator with a wonderful assortment of customers comprising mostly of agencies who are professional at what they do, all I needed to do to get back on my feet was wait for them to come back and send work to me, one of their most valuable translators. I wish I hadn’t signed up to work for Agency #5, as things would’ve turned out fine without it, but I suppose it was a good learning experience. I hope you can learn something from it, too.
Just remember that the most important thing is to avoid working for an awful agency in the first place. If you’d like to know more about that, you can review the tips in my previous article.
Last thought: If you really want to read some horror stories about freelancing in general, check out Clients From Hell. They’re the best.
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