What Good Does a Good Agency Do?


Caption: “So in the translation, you want me to accurately reproduce the formatting, including all the tables, from this nearly illegible scan of a fax of the source document? And you want it done overnight? And you want a discount? And top-notch quality? And you say we can work out how I’ll get paid sometime after I submit the translation? Hmm… Is this what a good agency does?”

The vast majority of my translation work comes through agencies, and this is the way I prefer it. Let me tell you why.

Early on in my translation career, as I was networking with other fellow newcomers to the profession, I met many who were very eager to find direct clients. Their idea was that they could get more money than what they were earning from agencies. In their eyes, agencies were little more than useless middlemen just taking a slice of the pie without making any sort of positive contribution. It turns out, however, that good agencies do add value, and if you find one, you should hold onto it.

Let me explain what a good agency should do.

  1. Find clients.
    When you start working for an agency, you’ve found not only one customer, but rather a certain number of clients who will feed you work from now until whenever you stop working with that agency. Depending on how your relationship with the agency plays out, it could just be one project, or it could be hundreds or even thousands. Who knows?

  2. Educate clients about what translation is and how it works.
    Some clients think that translation is a word-for-word process. This is particularly annoying if you are involved in creative translation where translating ideas is more important than individual words (more on that here). Other clients may assume you will do all the reformatting, DTP work, or subtitling for their presentation, brochure, website, video, or whatever they require. A good agency will set the client straight and inform them that these are separate jobs that incur an additional fee and will likely be performed by a competent professional other than the translator. This intermediation saves the freelancer a huge amount of hassle.

  3. Simplify payments.
    You can set a rate and not suffer through negotiations for every single project. A good agency will also pay you the correct amount on the correct date, no matter what bullshit their client might try to pull.

  4. Offer flexible scheduling.
    Since the agency has a pool of other freelancers, you can take vacations or turn down assignments because you’re already busy, they’re outside your comfort zone, or because you just don’t feel like doing them. (In that last case, just tell the agency’s coordinator that you’re too busy.)

  5. Provide constructive criticism.
    One major way an agency contributes value is by offering feedback on your work from knowledgeable editors, which then results in the client receiving a product of higher quality. If you bypass agencies and work for direct clients, then you have to pay for a second set of eyes to review your work, cutting into your profits. Is that really worth the hassle? Anyway, the feedback from the agency should be delivered in a way that makes you feel that the editor is trying to help you grow as a translator, not to belittle you and make you feel inferior. This can make a huge difference, as I’ve written about before in “The Value of a Good Editor.”

If you have direct clients, though, then you have to take care of all these things by yourself. Some are easy to work with, while others are a pain in the ass. The latter can make the whole endeavor feel like it is not worthwhile. In these cases, you would make more money by just working through agencies and focusing on the most lucrative step of the translation process: the translating itself.

This is my preference, which I came to realize after a brief stint outsourcing English-to-Japanese projects, i.e. translations from rather than into my native language. I suppose I could have made something more of it if I’d put in the time and effort, but there just didn’t seem to be much point with so much attractive J>E translation work out there from agencies.

There are, of course, bad agencies, too. To differentiate between the good and the bad, let’s get more specific about what an agency should do.

First off, the agency should provide clear instructions, including:

The requested translation should also be within the scope of work. Your contract with the agency will probably define this. If the contract is vague (or you didn’t sign one), don’t be persuaded or bullied into accepting unreasonable requests, such as extensive reformatting of an info-packed PowerPoint or Excel file to make the translation output readable and presentable (a frequent issue in Japanese-to-English translation), creating charts and tables from scratch because the source version isn’t editable, or other non-translation tasks.

Sometimes, the client will make revisions to the source after you’ve already translated it. Don’t retranslate for free! This is extra work that incurs an additional charge. Your agency should back you up on this. Otherwise, they’re not doing their job.

This is because a good agency acts as a fair arbitrator, supporting the translator when the client submits absurd requests or makes baseless complaints about the translation. Of course, if you screw up, then it is the agency’s job to address the issue to the client’s satisfaction, which in the worst case may result in you not getting paid because you delivered substandard work. Before you sign your contract, review any clauses detailing how this process works.

By the way, it’s a good idea to sign a contract before you start working for an agency. Sometimes, if an agency contacts you for the first time out of the blue with a rush job that you really want to take on, there may not be any time for such formalities, or the coordinator may decide not to take the time to draw up a contract or just honestly forget to do so. Some agencies don’t bother with contracts at all. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re shady. They could just be a small operation that hasn’t grown big enough to give such legal matters the serious consideration they probably deserve. I’ll admit that I’ve been lax about insisting on signing a contract when I start working with an agency. That’s something I need to be better about.

Now that we’ve covered what a good agency should do, the question now becomes how to spot a bad or undesirable agency before they have the chance to give you any grief. Here are the things I keep an eye out for:

  1. They are a very large agency.
    In my experience, big companies tend to be impersonal, inflexible, more poorly organized, and unresponsive to questions and requests from freelancers. If, on the other hand, you are working for an agency that has, say, a dozen or so employees, then it can be quite easy to get a quick managerial decision on an issue you are dealing with. You may even be in direct contact with the owner. These agencies also tend to have smaller pools of translators, which means that if you are one of their better freelancers, then they will be more accommodating to make sure you keep working with them. The biggest agencies, meanwhile, probably couldn’t care less if you quit working for them, no matter how good you are.

  2. They ask for your “best rate.”
    This means they are cheap. Avoid unless you are a beginner and you just want some experience before you move on to better things. To learn more about dealing with rates, read here.

  3. They are located in a country with a significantly lower cost of living than yours.
    This means the customers they naturally attract are probably looking for a discount, which therefore means that the agency does not have the budget to offer you a rate you would find acceptable considering your living circumstances. This is not the agency’s fault. It’s just how the world works.

  4. They offer a low rate.
    Cheap agencies tend to be more of a hassle to work with, whereas the ones that pay well are usually more professional, because that’s how they satisfy their clients. They expect the same professionalism of their freelancers. Early in your career, however, it’s hard to land gigs with these premium agencies because they want experienced translators. You’ll probably have to deal with cheapskates in the beginning, but things will likely get better moving forward if you follow the approach I lay out here (same link as in #2 above).

  5. They have a poor rating at the ProZ.com Blue Board.
    This is an essential tool for getting the lowdown on agencies, especially if they’re located outside of Japan. The Blue Board is a place where freelancers can rate and review translation outsourcers. A company with a certain amount of negative feedback is one you’ll want to avoid.

Due to my policy of preferring agencies based in Japan, where I am located, I haven’t seen many of the shenanigans that you can read about at places like the forums at ProZ.com. The Scams forum is particularly eye-opening. I do, though, have a few translation agency horror stories of my own. That will be the topic of my next post (now published here). I’m hoping it will make for an entertaining read!

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