Why are translation agencies necessary and are they necessary at all?

13.03.2018
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Clients and translators often have the desire to work together directly, bypassing translation agencies as an intermediary. A number of industry prognosticators have predicted that translation agencies are going to go extinct because it is going to become really easy for clients and translators to find one another. Despite the predictions, however, agencies continue to be established and grow and sometimes even find investors who are prepared to purchase them for a price that exceeds 10 years of their profits. Why is this the case?

A little theory (not entirely scientific)...

Imagine you have to buy a kilogram of cucumbers. It’s unlikely that you would make the trip to a farmer for them, and it’s also unlikely that the farmer would deliver them to you. If you value your time, you’ll go to the nearest store, but if you want to save a little money, you might go to a wholesale market. The farmer, for the same reasons, is going to sell produce either to wholesale markets or directly to stores. Between the farmer and the end-user, there may be several intermediaries, each of which simplifies delivery or improves the product in some way (if we’re talking about cucumbers, they sort, wash and pack them).

The farmer could put an ad online, find buyers on their own and also deliver the cucumbers to each of them personally. In practice, however, no one operates this way since it involves unnecessary complications for both the farmer and their buyers. The farmer would have to create and maintain a website, arrange deliveries and also find buyers and convince them to buy their produce. And you would have to agree on where, when and at what price you’d be willing to purchase the produce. And then you’d have to buy carrots from another farmer and beef from yet another. With this sort of approach, it would be difficult for you as a consumer to verify the conditions in which each of them makes their products: there are a lot of farmers, and you’re not familiar with them. Wouldn’t this be more trouble than it’s worth?

The situation in the translation market is similar. Some customers do indeed work directly with translators, but this is more likely an exception. We’ll analyze below why the world of translation is structured this way.

How to find one another

If you’re reading this article, then you probably have some experience with the translation industry, so we’ll use some analogies.

Let’s say you need a table, but you’ve decided that rather than buying one at a furniture store, you’ll find someone yourself who can build you one. You don’t know any furniture makers. How would you find one? What criteria would you use to choose someone? How would you be able to determine their qualifications if you don’t have any experience related to the production of furniture? Would you take them at their word? Trust your intuition? Would you ask them to make you a simple chair before ordering furniture for your entire apartment? And how many furniture makers would you have to try before you found the right one?

A customer in need of a translation is in exactly the same situation. If they don’t already have a translator that comes highly recommended, then sifting through a wide range of candidates and selecting someone suitable is a huge amount of work that is made even more difficult by the fact that the client may not know where to look for a translator or how to evaluate them or may not in fact have any idea about what makes a good translator.

Finding a good translator is even more difficult than finding a good furniture maker. The entry barrier to the translation market is extremely low. Anyone can say they’re a translator, without any qualifications, and real professionals can end up getting lost among the masses of incompetent amateurs especially if they don’t know how to sell themselves properly. If even large agencies experience staff shortages and spend months looking for qualified translators for several projects, then the chances that an inexperienced customer will find them are not great—very few get so lucky.

An agency’s primary function is to select qualified translators. The quality of their selection depends on the level of the agency itself. Some agencies carry out only basic checks and screen out only the worst cases. There are also, however, agencies whose selection procedures are passed by only 1-2 percent of candidates. And in the latter case, the selection takes place in accordance with several criteria: the quality of the text itself, compliance with deadlines, the quality of communication, their aptitude for learning, etc.

Any serious agency spends a lot of money, time and effort on the selection and training of translators and, in doing so, they take this responsibility off their clients’ shoulders. If a customer decided to do all of this on their own, even if they were to copy all of the procedures involved, the cost would still be incommensurably higher since they would, at the least, first have to figure out all the nuances involved and acquire the necessary experience.

Scaling and availability

Let’s say the customer gets lucky and finds an excellent translator who carries out every task perfectly. In such a case, an agency would certainly be an unnecessary intermediary. The question is, however, for how long. A translator is a human being, after all, and there’s only one of them. They have a personal life, they take vacation, they get sick. And, of course, they didn’t swear an oath of fealty: they may have other clients that are overloading them with work if the customer doesn’t guarantee them full employment or put them on a retainer. That’s why freelance translators periodically disappear, sometimes for long periods. The amount of time they can work is limited. If any of their customers is satisfied with the quality of their work, at some point they’ll be forced to turn down work from all the others. And the customers “deserted” by the translator will have to either look for someone new, once again having to endure all of the torment of the selection procedure, or, due to a lack of time, contact an organization where these procedures are part of their work flow, i.e., a translation agency.

Things could also go another way: the volume of work increases to such a degree that your trusted translator is unable to deal with it, and you don’t have anyone else. And once again, you have to carefully select a new translator or resolve the problem more quickly by using the services of an agency.

At times, you may find yourself snowed under with work and in need of dozens of qualified translators all working simultaneously. It takes years to put together such a team. Forming this sort of team independently makes sense only if there’s a constant workload. And even if you had such a team, you’d still need external support during peak periods when your own translators are unable to handle the volume of work.

Project management

Let’s say the customer manages to put together a team of sufficiently qualified freelance translators (they either would have spent several years doing so or a competent headhunter from the industry took care of it or they got extremely lucky). They might think they can relax. But that’s not the case—this is, in fact, where things start to get interesting.

We described above the sort of surprises that might await you when working with one freelancer. Now imagine that you have dozens of them. In theory, any one of them might be able to complete any translation at any time. In practice, however, you can expect some surprises: your trusted translators will inevitably disappear at the most inopportune time, and you’ll have to find new recruits and thus risk quality, meeting deadlines, etc.

Things often follow Murphy’s law, going from bad to worse. For example, a translator takes on a job and realizes that they’re unable to complete it, but they’re afraid to admit this, and you only end up finding out about it after all your deadlines have already passed. Another example: several freelancers take vacation at the same time just as a large project is heating up, forcing you to plug the holes in your team.

In addition, you have to train your translators to work in certain programs, to follow instructions and to submit translations in accordance with particular rules. You’ll constantly have to remind them about this. From time to time, you’ll have to resolve technical issues: someone can’t get the necessary program to start up, someone else suddenly has their electricity shut off, while yet another loses their Internet connection, etc.

Even if everything goes smoothly, however, you’ll still need to coordinate the team: assigning jobs to translators, sending their completed work to editors, compiling instructions, putting together packages of working files and countless other tasks.

All of the problems described above can be resolved, of course. But this needs to be taken care of by a separate individual: the manager of translation projects. It’s necessary to establish procedures, make plans for the completion of projects, monitor deadlines, perform quality control and also resolve any unexpected issues that might arise. In other words, it’s a lot more than simply transferring files: you’ll need to spend more on the employee who’s going to coordinate all this. In addition, it would be good if this person were a competent manager well versed in translation procedures and familiar with specialized software. Otherwise, the head of projects would turn out to be an inexperienced newbie who makes a lot of costly mistakes or tries to reinvent the wheel, enthusiastically discovering techniques that professional agencies have known about for decades.

As a rule, managers are people with a lot of experience in the translation and localization industry. They’re a lot more difficult to find than freelance translators: it either takes a long time or is expensive.

Everything described above involves significant administrative expenses, especially in the absence of experience. In practice, trying to do without a translation agency means establishing your own internal translation agency. This either requires experience or the painful acquisition of such experience through trial and error. It would make sense for the customer to ask whether all this is worth it. Is it worth making the effort necessary to establish procedures that are, in essence, secondary? Wouldn’t it be easier to contact people who have spent years perfecting these procedures?

As a rule, these kinds of experiments are successful only in very large companies that have sufficient resources to cover the unavoidable costs involved in creating a competent team. Even then, however, a large part of the work is performed by subcontractors.

It is important to understand that the main service that translation agencies provide is, oddly enough, not translation. Translations are done by full-time and freelance translators. But agencies manage the processes involved, and they are paid, first and foremost, for management.

And that’s the reason why most freelance translators never start their own agencies, though many have tried. After several attempts to give work to colleagues, one of them misses a deadline, another delegates the job to an incompetent friend, while yet another disappears altogether. As a result, all the freelancer gets are headaches, while also putting their reputation at risk, and so they decide to stop taking responsibility for others.

It is exactly these sorts of problems that translation agencies resolve.

In short...

It is definitely possible to get by without translation agencies. To do this, you need to know how and where to find good translators, how to train them, how to properly organize translation projects, what programs to use and how procedures are arranged at translation agencies. In other words, you have to take on the functions of an agency yourself.

But in order to save money, and with the same degree of success, you could also arrange a kitchen for your employees or build your own office, etc. Doing these things properly would be difficult, time-consuming and, most importantly, expensive, i.e., you won’t end up achieving your original goal of saving money.

Customers need not only someone to do the job but also established procedures. With a translation agency, they are paying not only for the work of translators, but also for streamlined procedures.

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