Greetings, readers! This week’s topic, whether agencies care about quality, or mostly about rates, is based on a question from a reader:
One of my reasons for not wanting to raise my rates with an agency is that it would make me less competitive against other freelancers. However, when some agencies now place jobs on “impersonal” portals, for anyone to grab, I wonder if the agency doesn’t care anymore about the rates … nor about who does a better job. When I worked as an in-house translator, both of these were important factors when outsourcing work. Thus, this has puzzled me for some time, and I don’t feel like I can ask the agencies directly.
This is a pretty loaded question, so let’s take a look at a few different aspects. But first, a couple of disclaimers:
–Agencies are not evil. I honestly really like working for agencies; I just don’t find that many agencies that will pay what I want/need to earn
–Translators are not evil either. Most translators are die-hard word people who are fundamentally good at the job of being a translator, and less good at the job of running a business, and there’s always a balancing act between wanting to charge higher rates and wanting to have enough work that you can pay your bills
–This reader’s fear is rational. Back when I worked mostly for agencies, I lost agency jobs over a difference of one cent per word (maybe even half a cent?), so I think this reader’s fear is based in reality
First off, things change over time, in our profession just as in every other profession. Back in the day (insert nostalgic soundtrack music…) when I started freelancing, agencies did quaint things like call on the phone to see if you were available, and have every one of your translations proofread, and then call you again on the phone to talk about the suggested changes. What used to be the industry-standard TEP (translate, edit, proof) process is, I think, now pretty rare, with the proofreading process often or even usually being compressed, or skipped entirely, except for documents that are going to be published, or where there is a legal or reputation risk. Call me old-fashioned, but it surprises me when agencies even admit to this: like I’ll ask a prospective agency client, “Would my translations be proofed by a second French to English translator?” and the agency will respond, “The project budget doesn’t allow for that.”
By this, I don’t mean that no agencies use proofreaders, or that all agencies are producing slipshod work. I just think that tighter deadlines, tighter budgets, and, to be honest, a higher tolerance for non-perfect work are the new normal. This is true in other word professions as well: there’s even a Twitter account devoted to correcting the New York times; and honestly, very few people care any more about the grammar and word usage rules that those of us who were in school in the 20th century were forced to memorize. At times, I even feel that (at least in the US), being someone who cares that the supermarket express lane sign says “Fifteen items or less” (instead of “…or fewer”), or who knows the difference between “uninterested” and “disinterested” (terms that I recently heard an attorney misuse in court: “The guardian ad litem is an uninterested third party…”) is perceived as fanatically fussy, elitist, snobby, however you want to put it.
So, in one sense, I think that many agencies are simply caught in a bind of providing what the market wants: faster, cheaper, “good-enough” translations, and you honestly cannot blame agencies for using the least expensive translators who produce what the agency perceives as good-enough work. I also think that agencies themselves are under a lot of downward price pressure from end clients who are themselves shopping around for the least expensive translation that meets their quality requirements. This is the cycle that has led to agency rates dropping by approximately half in the time that I’ve been a freelancer; again, not every agency. I work with a small number of agencies that will pay my minimum rate (14-15 cents per word), and they have interesting work and are really great to work with. Here I’m talking more about high-volume agencies that produce millions of words a year for really big clients.
Then we have the role of the translator in all of this. It’s equally true that most translators:
–Are accepting the work that falls in their inbox, at the rate that the client offers, rather than proactively marketing for work that they enjoy and are good at, and that pays enough to meet their income goals
–Are unlikely to negotiate or even leave room for discomfort when a client seems unwilling to pay what they want or need to earn. I had this experience just recently: an interpreting agency contacted me to interpret for a deposition, and when I sent them a quote, they responded, “No one has ever charged us that much before.” I could have immediately written back and offered to charge less, but instead, I told myself, the agency’s response is not a question, it’s a statement, and therefore it doesn’t demand a response from me. And what do you know, the agency responded the next day and said that the end client had given them the green light. It was only because of my willingness to tolerate the agency’s discomfort that this ended up working out, and presumably the agency is also making more money on this project!
–Have an income goal that is unrealistically low. I say this all the time, and I really (really) don’t mean it to sound judgmental. But in the US at least, most freelancers who have an average level of living expenses and want to achieve a similar level of financial security to someone with a salaried job need, in my opinion, to be earning at least $75,000, and probably more like $90,000 when you account for self-employment tax, vacation time, professional development, upgrading computer hardware and software, etc. And, as I said above, it’s really hard to balance wanting to make a decent income with wanting to have enough work.
To me, the bottom line in this “race to the bottom” situation is:
- There are still good agencies out there, that don’t operate in this way, and that value quality, service, and a personal relationship (but there are a lot fewer of them than there used to be).
- Most mainstream agencies, and the vast majority of mega-agencies are in a squeeze of tight deadlines and low budgets, leading them to prioritize price and speed over quality and a personal relationship.
- Price-fixing and rate-shaming are not the way to go, and it is also true that if agencies couldn’t find enough acceptable-quality translators at the rates that they’re offering, they would have two choices: pay more, or go out of business. For example (a topic for another newsletter), I really do not see this type of rate erosion in the conference interpreting world, and I think that this is, at least in part, because conference interpreters exert significant rate pressure on each other, and will even “call out” interpreters who are perceived as undercutting industry standard rates or working conditions. Again, whether this is a good thing or a disruption of the free market is a topic for a different day, but it’s something I’ve observed, as someone who works both as a translator and an interpreter.
This is a complicated topic, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers. If you’d like to add any input, just add a comment below.
Corinne McKay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Training for Translators, and has been a full-time freelancer since 2002. She holds a Master of Conference Interpreting from Glendon College, is an ATA-certified French to English translator, and is Colorado court-certified for French interpreting. If you enjoy her posts, consider joining the Training for Translators mailing list!