What is the difference between freelance translators and translation agencies?

Translation is an investment, and it’s your right to know exactly what service you’re paying for. There are two main ways to buy translations; you either buy services directly from the source (i.e. a freelance translator), or you buy from an outsourcer or translation agency. Each of these options provide a different level of service – each with its own benefits and drawbacks.

If you don’t already know this, I work as both a freelancer translator, and a Project Manager for a couple of translation agencies, so I see things from both sides of the coin.

Knowing what kind of service you need

It really depends. The world of translation is never straightforward and there are a lot of variables that affect the translation output. One thing I can tell you, is that if you want a good quality translation, the following boxes need to be ticked:

✔️ It needs to be done by a professional human translator

✔️ The subject matter of the source text needs to align with the translator’s subject of expertise

✔️ You need to allow an adequate amount of time for the translation project

✔️ The file needs to be in workable format for the linguist

Realistically, you can get this service from either a freelance translator or a translation agency. What’s the difference? A translation agency can add value to translations by providing additional services. They manage their customers’ translation projects from start to finish. This is complex, and good agencies are perfectly positioned and streamlined in their technology and processes to do so. They are a big help when you need to have something translated into several languages, or your translation needs multiple workflow processes (like Editing, Proofreading, or DTP). Agencies have access to lots of translation partners, so they are well-equipped to find the most suitable linguist for a project for you within the desired timeframe. They also add value to freelancers as well because they deal with the client side and file preparation and formatting, which takes up quite a bit of time.

That’s not to say that a freelancer isn’t just as good at streamlining their own process, or using up-to-date translation technology, or capable of adding value.

Reeling you in

Money makes the world go round. You have to pay a premium for translation agencies compared to working directly with freelancers, because they add on additional service(s). However, freelancers often charge direct clients more compared to their agency rates. Fair enough really, because if they have to handle everything, it’s more work for them.

If you scan the internet, you’ll find plenty of ‘How to expand your global market by buying our services’ blogs written by translation agencies.

Without looking at them all, I can probably guess what they’ll say. It’ll be something along the lines of:

  • Up-to-date. We use top of the range translation technology designed to streamline your translation process bla bla, improve efficiently and accuracy, bla bla.
  • All-in-one service. We manage all of your translation workflow processes – from Translation, through to Editing and Proofreading, and DTP/Subtitling services etc, etc.
  • We have a network of over (insert big number here) trusted professional translation partners.
  • The multilingual thing. We can translate your document into over 70 billion languages (ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration 😏)

What’s the truth behind the sales pitches?

Up-to-date technology? Depends on the individual. Most translators use CAT tools these days and have the ability to save you money on repetitions and fuzzy match discounts. Agencies tend to use a slightly different system of Translation Management platforms or systems, which as well as having CAT tool technology, also offer project management solutions and workflow processes, which streamline everything. Again, there’s no hard and fast rule that says only agencies can own this kind of system, but they’re expensive and only worth investing in if you’re going to fully utilise it. In many cases, it’s another added value of an agency. BUT, depending on your project, it might not be a technology you would benefit from.

All-in-one service? There are multiple steps in the translation process, and lots of people need to be involved. Agencies are a one-stop shop. I personally think that it’s safer to have a different pair of eyes on each stage of the process, and that’s a big plus to using a translation agency. If you don’t have the capacity or ability to check purchased translations in-house before you use them, then I would strongly recommend having them checked by a second, sometimes third linguist – particularly if the work is going to be published publicly. This process can be organised quite easily for you by an agency. However, talking about quality…yes, if you use an agency, you might have multiple pairs of eyes poised to spot a typo, BUT, who’s to say there would be mistakes from a professional translator who has access to spellcheck and pays due diligence anyway?

The network of over (insert big number here) translation partners? Well, this is really a question of individual processes. Some agencies have a VERY strict onboarding process whereby you have to do a brain-busting test translation and sign away your left kidney before getting on to their books. And this is good, it means they’re strict about quality, and that they really have vetted their translators. But a less scrupulous agency could just have loads of CVs of translators they’ve never used before in their ‘network’, or they could have completely made the number up (It’s always around 2,000 – who knows why? 🤡). A freelancer might be able to recommend trusted colleagues to you to work with, and some work in teams together to provide this added value. This is awesome, and you’re probably going to get a good recommendation from them, but you might need to deal with the admin and payments yourself, as opposed to a single purchase.

The multilingual thing? You can place one order with one agency for more than one language. Having the ability to get one document translated into let’s say 20 languages? To be fair, that’s a lot of work that your average freelancer couldn’t help you with directly.

Different types of translation agency

You have tiny ones: maybe an individual that has grown so much business that it was a choice of turning business down or start outsourcing to colleagues, and grew from there.

You have small ones with a team of less than 10. These kinds of teams are very personal, you can probably get to know them quite well if you work together regularly.

There are the medium sized ones. They’ve expanded enough to require more job roles. You’ll have your Project Managers, but also In-house Linguists, Vendor Managers, Account Managers, and most likely a Business Development Manager to keep the sales coming in.

The large ones. Won’t ever have an ‘About the team’ on their website because there’s just so many of them.

The giants. Market leaders. Undercut smaller agencies, and drive down the price of translations because they’re only willing to pay translators a third of an acceptable rate. No real screening process. Don’t always pay for work done because of ‘quality issues’. Churn out lots of work quickly. They’re not all bad. They provide a lot of jobs, work very efficiently, and some lead investments in translation technology – but proceed with caution here.

Deciding what kind of service is right for you.

Do you prefer to shop small? When I see translation job adverts posted online, I often see ‘no agencies!’. I get it, and I love the idea of supporting individuals. But to play the devil’s advocate…there are many, many translation agencies out there that DO support individuals. That pay their rates without question (and sometimes then some). That send regular work, provide valuable support to translators, provide added value to end clients, AND pay on time. You’re also supporting the jobs of the many people that work within agencies.

And that’s the good thing about agencies. They provide an extra service. If you have a complex job on your hands, don’t know much about translation, need multiple languages translated, or need someone else to deal with all of the work from start to finish, then I would recommend using an agency. *

You might prefer working with freelancers directly if you prefer to take a hands-on approach to your translations. It’s great to have to opportunity to work with someone at first hand, and it might be that the work you need is quite straightforward, and there’s no need to involve a middle party. Definitely only do this if you pay due diligence in finding the right candidate. The ability to speak another language doesn’t make someone a translator. The ability to translate doesn’t make someone able to translate every subject matter well.

The good thing about both freelancers and agencies, is that they both would be more than happy to help and advise if you’re not sure what you need. Do you need a professional translation? Feel free to contact me and let me know what you need. I can point you in the right direction whatever the case. 😊

*PLEASE do me a favour though? Do some research on your agency partner first, because they are not all built the same. To be quite honest, some of them don’t give two hoots about the quality of output, nor do they pay people properly for their work. If you’re really unlucky, you might get hoodwinked and end up with something translated by a machine when you paid for a human to do it. If in doubt, check the Proz blueboard to see if they’re legit.

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