How to spot a good translation agency you will enjoy working with

(from the translator’s perspective)

This article is based on my 13 years of experience working as a translator with various translation agencies all over the world. I am going to tell you how I decide who to work with and who to discard immediately.

Who is a good agency?

This is who I consider to be an ideal agency to work with: They regularly order reasonable quantities of text, they pay reasonable rates, and they don’t annoy me with non-paid administrative tasks (filling out forms of any kind). As a bonus, they maintain a friendly relationship with me and show signs of respect, e.g. they are always willing to discuss deadlines, they are happy to deal with problems, they give reasonable deadlines. And especially: In case of any argument or disagreement, they are ready to discuss it and they will NOT automatically replace me if I complain or show any disagreement with them. If they can do this, then you know you have struck gold. This is definitely an agency to work with even if they don’t pay the highest rate on the market.

It’s as simple as that. But curiously enough, the vast majority of agencies struggle very hard to be such an ideal agency.

And now, let me take a look at various aspects that distinguish good agencies from the bad ones.

First contact

The very first contact is very important, as it makes the first impression, and with a little bit of experience you can already tell if this is someone you would like to work with.

Let’s consider this email:

Dear Jan

We have checked you profile on Proz.com and we think you would be a good match for us.

Right now, we have a translation of approx. 1500 words available and would be happy if you could help us with it.

We can offer you EUR XXX per source word and we would need the translation back within 5 days.

Would that be something you would be interested in? Please let us know.

Thank you,

Kind regards

This is an email I would definitely reply to and I would do my best to develop this into a lasting business relationship. Here is why:

1. Salutation: This is very important and it can have various forms, such as: Dear Jan, Hello Jan, Dear Mr. Kapoun, etc. Why is it important? Because it tells me that the agency or project manager did not send his/her email to thousands of other translators, i.e. it’s not a mass email, they are not just blind shooting, trying to get as many replies as possible. If the salutation is missing, I get very suspicious of them and have my doubts of any further cooperation.

2. They say they have checked my profile, which means they are serious about this, they know what they want and they have actually bothered to select just me or just a few of other translators. This also tells me that they are probably not looking for the lowest price possible, i.e. price might be important to them, but other factors, such as specialization and experience, also play a vital role.

3. They are requiring a reasonable amount of words to be translated. I would say that 1000-2000 words for the very first contact is very reasonable – for me, if they don’t pay, it’s not that big of a deal, and for them, if they are not happy with my translation, they don’t lose that much either.

I cannot really say why, but agencies requiring less than 1000 words for the very first job, tend to never come back again. Agencies requiring more than 2000 words for the first job tend to rise suspicion in me – they might not be willing to pay for it.

4. They know how much they are willing to pay and give a reasonable deadline. That means they have checked the usual rates and know what they want to pay. Also, by giving a reasonable deadline, they respect me as a translator, as they accept the fact that I probably also have other jobs to do and need some reasonable time frame to deliver the job. This is a sign of respect to me, which is good.

5. They seem to be generally very polite and respectful, which are all signs of a potentially very good partner.

On the other hand, consider this email:

We have now 120 words available for an English-Czech translation and we need it back within 1 hour. Please send us your lowest possible rate along with your CV. Also, register your profile here at: https://SOMEURL.com

Applicants not stating their rate and CV will not be considered for cooperation.

Yes, with this kind of emails, I press the DEL key immediately without even responding to. Exactly for the reasons stated above. This will never lead to any successful cooperation and it’s generally a waste of time.

Obviously, there’s no salutation, i.e. they are sending this to a gazillion of other translators, so even if you bother replying, you will most probably never get any reply at all. Also, the tone is generally very arrogant, which is a KO criterion for me. The “lowest rate” expression clearly tells me they want to get the translation ideally free of charge and have no interest in an long-term sustainable business. And as a translator, you definitely don’t want to get a few quick dirty bucks here and there, you want something you can rely your business on in the long-term.

Translation tests

Translation tests seem to be the beloved activity by many translation agencies. The fundamental idea seems to be sound: We have never worked together so we would like to see what you can actually deliver.

I have actually written a separate article on translation tests, which you can find here: https://bohemicus-software.cz/2021/02/12/why-do-translation-agencies-require-translation-tests-free-of-charge-are-they-stupid-or-what/

Sadly, there are a few problems to this testing thing:

1) When I started in the translation industry, it actually worked like this: I did a translation test and if they liked it, they started ordering regular translation jobs from me. Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore: Many agencies would require a test, then perhaps even comment on its very good quality… but then, amazingly enough, never ordering a single word … or perhaps just a few lines of text here and there, but definitely nothing you could rely you business on.

The result? You have lost, all in all, with emailing and translating the actual test, some 1 hour… and nothing came out of it.

They might even pretend it’s a free of charge test… and then actually selling it to their end client as a paid translation.

My attitude towards this: If they write a very polite first-contact email, have good rating on Proz/TC and generally act nicely, I can consider doing a translation test free of charge for them.

On the other hand, if they give an impression: “We are a big translation agency with thousands of clients all over the world, and you are just a little pitiful translator fuck, who would be happy to get a chance to work with us…”… well, then no, definitely no free of charge test for them, as this will be a waste of time.

To sum it up: The majority, some 90 percent, of my current very good clients never required any free-of-charge translation test. They mostly look at my Proz/TC/webpage profile and probably think: Well, he’s been around for more than 10 years in this industry so we can probably trust him.

Bureaucracy, filling out forms

I will be brief on this: Anyone requiring me to fill out their lengthy forms will generally rise suspicion in me. This is just pure experience: many administrative forms = fewer paid translation jobs. I cannot really be sure why is this like that, but that’s my experience. The worst agencies will even send you to fill out forms regularly to fill them out with the same data again and again. This is very annoying, consumes my production time and is a general sign of disrespect to me as a translator – they are actually requiring me to do their administrative work for free.

Quality assessment forms. This is even worse. Imagine a situation when they require you to do some proofreading, but instead of simply correcting the errors in the text with tracked changes, they require you to fill each error into their Excel form, specifying its type, filling out the proposed translation, even forcing you to explain why is this an error. All of this for you current proofreading rate. As you can imagine, such “proofreading” can easily take 3× more time than usual. … and of course, the agency does not want to pay anything extra for that.

A good translation agency would understand that this takes much more time and would offer adequate compensation for that.

Sadly, there are many agencies today, who try to deliver the best quality to their end clients, but do not want to pay lengthy for this.

Such agencies should be avoided, there will never be any good professional relationship with them.

Mass emailing

This is something I spotted relatively early in my career: Bad agencies would often use mass emails to offer jobs to translators.

It works like this:

A lazy PM would send an email to an exactly one gazillion of translators in their database saying:

“Hello! We have now this EN-CZ job available! 4300 words nomatch and I would need it back tomorrow at 12.00 PST. Please let me know if your are available.”

So you reply to it, trying to accept and confirm the job. But you never get any reply. So you send another email asking what’s going on. And if you are lucky, you receive a reply saying: “Sorry, the job is already taken.” If not, they will just ignore you.

Yes, this can be extremely frustrating, because you receive such an offer and you are happy about it… and then it’s all just for nothing. Also, this is frustrating because you have already invested some of your time: You had to think about the job, if you can squeeze it into your schedule, perhaps you have even moved some other jobs to be able to accommodate this one.

And most importantly: you have been interrupted by this “offer” in whatever you were just doing/translating… and this is something I personally cannot tolerate: It takes so much time and effort to get fully immersed and concentrated on any job or activity, to achieve that “flow” state of your mind when you can work most efficiently. And if an lazy idiot interrupts you with such an “offer”, well, this can really piss you off.

There is only one type of situation when a mass email is fully acceptable: the PM or agency send some project-relevant info to a bunch of translators already working on this project. Perhaps an updated terminology file, a mistake in the source…. something of this sort. In such a case, sure, this is acceptable without any problem.

This is actually one of the reasons I terminated any further cooperation with TransPerfect: they were just crazy about such mass emails! This, their hyper-annoying invoicing system and the U.S. checks payments only, lead to a very frustrated situation that made me end the collaboration.

When I pointed this out to one of the TransPerfect PMs, she said: “Oh, come on! I have to deal with so many translators in so many languages! I don’t have the time to send and wait for emails from each of them!” Yes, exactly, you don’t have the time to deal with us, so I don’t want to have the time to deal with you.

A good agency would never use mass emails to offer jobs to translators. They always take the time and effort to contact several translators one by one, allowing at least 15 mins for each of them to react before they move on to another one.

Frequently changing the scope and type of service they ordered

Imagine this scenario: An agency orders a relatively big translation from you …. two days after that they say: Hi Jan, would it please be possible if you just did the proofreading on this task? or: Hi Jan, we would like to reduce the amount, could you please do only 1/3 of this task?

Well, this can occasionally happen even with the most serious agencies. Because… of reasons. Their clients might change their mind, etc. In any case, a compensation should follow, as you might have already turned some other jobs down.

If they don’t care and are unwilling to offer any such reasonable compensation, ditch them. They lack the fundamental respect towards their translator, and you will only get frustrated working for them.

Tiny jobs and minimum rates

Tiny jobs are a pain in the ass: “Hi Jan, can you please translate these 56 words for us?”.

Of course, every agency needs to deal with this kind of nuisance. Imagine this: You need to write some emails, download this job, import it to your CAT software, familiarize yourself with the topic, perhaps look up a few terms, translate it, zip it up, send it to your agency. And most importantly: You need to adjust your focus from the previous translation to this one. And this can take as much as 30 mins or even more. And then you find yourself actually working for some EUR 5 per hour. Pretty annoying, huh? This is exactly why seasoned translators don’t want to take this kind of shitty jobs.

So, how should you approach this? Well, these jobs are inevitable, every agency will ask for them. But if it’s an agency who normally orders thousands or even tens or hundreds of thousands of words from you…. of course, you gonna deal with these tiny jobs! You will even do them free of charge! Of course you will.

Unfortunately enough, there are some shitty agencies who would order nothing but such tiny jobs. Trust me, you don’t want to end up as a tiny-task translator for any agency. So if they mostly order such tiny tasks, ditch them, there’s nothing good coming out of them.

Minimum rates: A good agency understands that there are some administrative overhead costs associated with every translation and will agree on some minimum rates. In my case, EUR 10 seems to be a good match. But this can differ in every country. You need to find out this minimum rate for yourself.

Payment terms

A good agency pays 30 days NET. It’s as simple as that, there’s no discussion about this.

I have ALWAYS had problems with agencies only willing to pay 45 or even 60 days NET (or even more, for Christ’s sake). Anything above 30 days NET is a K.O. criterion, I have always only got frustrated with agencies with longer payment terms.

Objectively, it does not really matter for me, as I am an extremely lazy person when it comes to invoicing… so I usually end up invoicing stuff 90 or even more days after the task has been delivered. But it’s about the principle – I don’t know why, but agencies with more than 30 days NET tend to be unpleasant to work with. So I avoid them, and you should too.

Low Proz/TC rating

Based on my experience, I am happy to work with the top (5 star) rating agencies only. Because let’s face it: what do translators actually want from an agency? Regular jobs and non-problematic payments. So, if you are an agency and you would like to have a 5 star rating, then just pay on time and don’t annoy your translators with your non-paid administrative crap! It’s as simple as that.

You wanna get your Proz/TC rating instantly ruined? Do what ThePigTurd (ehhm… sorry, The Big Word) once did: Lower your rates for your translators and send your translators an email: Sorry guys, we need to make more money, so we are lowering your rates you have with us! But don’t worry… this is actually a good thing, because if you don’t do any fuss about it, we will order more jobs from you…. ehmmm, I mean, maybe….ehmmm… probably not.

Because if you are a good agency, you will also choose your translators with care… so you don’t end up with psychopaths giving you the worst rating 1 just because you did not smile enough on them.

Well, sometimes, I admit, psychopaths cannot be avoided, so an agency might perhaps get at some 4.9 or 4.8 rating. Anything below that is already suspicious – there is some inner problem with them. Perhaps forgotten payments, perhaps unpleasant projects managers, perhaps some other annoying behavior… Anyway, working with someone below 4.8 cannot be recommended.

CAT tools

This is something I have only realized recently: It is best to work for agencies who do not require any CAT tools at all! Just plain MS Word. And you know why? Because the will pay the full price even for repetitions, matches, etc.! Like this job I have now for tomorrow: some 4000 words, but only 286 words no-match. But I get paid full 4000 words full price. Pretty sweet. Well, they seem to be pretty serious, always addressing me with “Sehr geehrter Herr Kapoun”, which is the most polite you can possibly get in German, but they don’t require any CAT tool. I have no idea why. Maybe my rate is so low for them they don’t even bother with any CAT tool at all. They seem pretty serious, I cannot believe they don’t know anything about CAT tools and CAT grids.

Anyway, by refraining from CAT tools, they are actually paying a very decent money to me even if my rate per word is nothing special…. they are very strict, deadlines are pretty rigid… but they don’t bother me with any administrative crap… so all in all, this is a VIP customer!

On the other hand, there can be agencies, who would force you to work with productivity-hindering tools, such as Across, Transit, XTM etc.

And now, this is key: Sure, agencies might be forced to use these idiotic tools by their end customers, but a VIP agency is always open to a discussion. Like this one I am currently working with: I just told them: Look guys, every translation in this fucking German pinnacle of software engineering takes at least 50 % more time that what it would take in, say, SDL Studio or memoQ. So, I am happy to take this job from you, but let’s agree on a 50 % rate increase, ok?

And sure enough, they did. And this immediately catapulted them to be members of my VIP club. Because 1) I make fair money with them, and 2) they have showed respect to me as a translator.

On the other hand, vast majority of agencies would refuse to pay anything extra. Well, in such a case, it’s up to you: Do they otherwise behave very seriously and show you some due respect? Then I would probably bite the bullet and do the job for them anyway, because respect and polite behavior is just the top priority for me.

But do they treat you like a doormat? Ditch them. Yesterday was too late already.

Sending Christmas cards

This always make a huge impression on me: when they send me a signed, personalized Christmas card… I mean an actual card made from paper with a post stamp! Yes, a nice postcard, with my name on it, their wishes and a hand signature. This tells me: they are really serious about this cooperation and they really value me as a partner!

On the other hand: You don’t hear from the agency all over the year… and suddenly you receive Christmas wishes… as a mass email with no personalization at all? (starting with “Dear partner/translator”). Ditch them. There is nothing good coming out of them, they will never be a good business partner.

I even add this to mail email signature every year: Lets save the planet by NOT sending any unsolicited unsincere mass email Christmas wishes this year!

And that’ it. These are the main points I would consider when starting with someone new.

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