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Translators & Their Clients

There are translators who work in-house and those who work on their own (there are also those who actually have a completely different job but translate on the side, but I am not talking about them here). I have done both for long stretches of time. Whenever there is a slump in my freelance work flow, I think back on how wonderful my monthly paychecks were back then. Whenever I realize that I am romanticizing my in-house years too much, I try to remember the mind-numbing routines I had to engage in and the stupid requests of my supervisors born out of total lack of understanding of my work. On top of it, it wasn’t really a 9-to-5 job. When deadlines had to be met, I staid way into the night and went to work on Saturdays and Sundays.

Recently, there has been a lot of chatter about freelance work for direct clients vs. working for translation companies. There were session at the recent ATA conference; Corinne McKay picked up the thread in her blog Thoughts on Translation in posts on November 12 and 13 about strategies for increasing one’s income; Susanne Aldridge, her new blog even entitled In-House Translators – A Dying Breed, weighs the pros and cons for a translation buyer of contracting out translation work to freelance translators or to translation agencies; Judy Jenner in Translation Times sings the praise of direct clients in her November 18 post We Heart Our Direct Clients.

I have to confess that I prefer to work with agencies – good agencies, that is. I am in this business for the translation and I would like to concentrate on the translation part of the transaction. I would like someone else to prep files for me (and it is getting increasingly complicated to prep them), to organize editing and proofreading, to make sure the final output is formatted correctly. For 12 years, I managed a translation company in Japan. Perhaps it was particular to Japan, but clients were brutal in their demands. For an individual, it would have been nearly impossible to comply with all the requests, changes in schedule, sudden changes in scope, and, most difficult, payment modalities. We were paid like all suppliers with 6-month notes. If we wanted to pay our translators earlier, which we did, we had to finance the difference.

Not all direct clients are that difficult, just as not all agencies are great. But before working for a direct client I am looking very carefully for signs that the job may turn into more than just a translation.

A couple of days ago I mentioned Gail Armstrong and her blog Open Brackets which she stopped writing back in 2006. Of the many memorable posts, one deals with the translator-agency relationship. It is entitled Snow job in July, and if you haven’t read it, you should do so before the blog disappears from the web.


11 Responses to “Translators & Their Clients”

  1. bonnjill says:

    I’m with you, Michael. I have a couple direct clients, but mostly I prefer to work with translation agencies for the very reasons you mention. I think a balance of both is important. If you have direct clients you are less apt to jet off on an impromptu vacation (ok, not that I’ve ever done that but still…) because they rely on you. It is just nice to work with good translation agencies. I only work with translation agencies that do not send out mass mailings to all the translators in their database or have five pricing gradations for Trados. It’s nice to be able to be picky – and it’s nice to not have to hold the client’s hand.

  2. I totally understand this and it makes sense. If I was a freelancer, I’d probably do the same.
    I am naturally lazy and I prepare my files so they are easy to translate for me. I assume what is easy for me is easy for them since we use the same tools.
    I do have the advantage that we work with the same group of FISP translators since I am here – almost 10 years – so they know our business almost as much as I do (and I actually believe one knows it better).

  3. Great post, Michael, thanks! I have sort of the opposite situation you describe; my direct clients are completely low-maintenance and easy to please, and coincidentally pay double what my agencies pay. When I asked for feedback, one of my direct clients, a major public health institute in Europe, even said “We have no feedback because your translations are always perfect.” Now, even *I* don’t think that about my own work, much less would I think that a client would say that. The thing that sometimes frustrates me about agencies is that so few of them have all of their translations proofed by a second person who reads the source and target language; I think that when only the target is proofed, a lot of mistakes get missed.

    • Interesting replies! So far in my career my direct clients have been much easier to deal with than direct agencies – and pay more to boot. I suppose this also depends on the subject matter which you are translating – if you’re dealing with a video game, formatting is probably much more of an issue than if you mainly translate law or business documents (I’d imagine).

  4. Bettina says:

    If working for an agency means that they do reliable proofreading, prepare files, check formatting I’ll go for it any time and accept lowar rates without flinching, but so far I have not met many agencies of that kind, if any.

  5. Sarah Dillon says:

    Excellent post, Michael, thanks. There are many differences between working for direct clients and working for agencies. It’s important translators know what these differences are and which option(s) best suits them. Of course, in an ideal world, all translators would just be able to attract both types of clients, and would then have the luxury of choosing which they preferred!

  6. Michael says:

    There are, of course, agencies and agencies – just as there are clients and clients. Perhaps it has something to do with the subject matter, but in my universe, the well organized agencies outweigh the ones that cause trouble. I have had good experience with direct clients as well, just not as often. I guess the lesson is to know how much work one is willing to put in over and above translating, how much one has to charge for it, and to ask the right questions before accepting a job.

  7. Laura Tamayo says:

    Working with agencies is a great arrangement for me as well. The agencies are created and run by people with a passion for business and sales… not for formulating the perfect sentence or finding the exact term for something. So I stick to creating translation teams (I like project management) and translating.

    Agencies also have a better understanding of the art of translation and of how to work with translators.

    Great post. Thanks.

  8. And I just noticed this is an incredibly old post!

    • Michael says:


      I wrote this post when “let’s all go and get direct clients” was the big topic of translator discussions. There are colleagues who are successful (and happy) with either arrangement, direct or indirect clients. I think what has become a lot clearer is that the two sides of the coin are good and bad clients (be they agencies or direct clients). For me, the more I can concentrate on the translation (language) aspect of a job, the happier I am.

  9. Thanks for this post. I will take this article into consideration while choosing my customers 🙂

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