The agency dilemma

The agency dilemma

Time to get choosy

Last autumn, I wrote a blog post called “Machines on the march” about the threat posed by machine translation to the livelihoods of freelance translators and what I planned to do about it in my own business. I certainly wasn’t the first to see the imminent danger but ever since then, articles and blogs on the subject have been proliferating. Most recently and most forcefully, Kevin Hendzel warned translators to move upmarket now or risk becoming obsolete, while the debate has also moved into the mainstream media, with an article by in The Economist asking “Why translators have the blues“.

Alongside this, I have noticed an increase in complaints about the behaviour of translation agencies.  It seems to me that translators are increasingly unhappy with the demands being made on them and are expressing by asking in translators’ forums whether certain conduct is normal, or by openly complaining in groups like the ever-entertaining Things Translators Never Say. Whether agency demands are actually becoming more onerous or whether translators faced with pressure on rates and tighter deadlines just feel less happy going along with them is unclear, and it may simply be my imagination, but it certainly appears to be a trend.


Now I’m not going to suggest that all translation agencies are bad. As various colleagues have pointed out at different times. if they didn’t perform a function they wouldn’t continue to exist. The idea that all agencies are out to exploit us is certainly not one I subscribe to. However, I am increasingly beginning to question the viability of working for a particular model of agency, a model I think we all know too well. I’m talking about an agency that wants its translators to do free test translations; one that insists on the filling in of complex forms and the signing of extravagant non-disclosure agreements. I’m talking about an agency that dictates which CAT tools we have to use or, worse, insists on the use of an inefficient online platform. I’m talking about an agency that make a translator feel guilty for asking questions or fail to pass them on to the end client. An agency that insists on the use of user-unfriendly so-called quality tools that throw up endless false positives and then compound the waste of the translator’s valuable time with pointless box-ticking exercises. Agencies that don’t acknowledge receipt of a translation and that always take the side of complaining clients, even when they know they are in the wrong. Agencies that insist on invoicing via complicated online platforms and then pay late.  Agencies that act as if they own translators, with demands for weekend working and pressure over holidays. And I haven’t even mentioned low rates.

I don’t know if there are agencies that display all those unenviable characteristics but a good many of them would be guilty of more than a few. And my question is, where precisely do these agencies fit into the strategy I want to follow to survive the onslaught of machine translation? Is this type of agency going to provide me with the kind of work that machines can’t do? Or are they going to become increasing users of machine translation themselves, until the point comes when they only really need low-paid, unsatisfying post-editing work? Will many of them even stay in business when the shake-up comes? And in that case, is there really any point in investing my time in building a relationship with them?


I’m not going to get dramatic about this. I’m not planning to dump my agency clients, who mostly fall into two categories. There are the ordinary agencies for which I now only work when they have a particular requirement or problem that means they’re prepared to pay my rates. And then there are what are sometimes called the “boutique” agencies (a strange term which always makes me think of a business being run from the back of a fashion store). These are just as concerned with quality, and with finding clients willing to pay for it, as I am, and for this reason are generally a pleasure to work with.

I’m not going to stop using CAT tools, or rather my CAT tool, because it saves me work and helps improve the quality of my translations. But I don’t see why I should spend time learning to use anyone else’s tool, and still less anyone’s online platform. If I’m going to spend time learning, I’m going to learn something that I decide will benefit me, not something largely for the convenience of others. And if I have time to spare (and even if I don’t!) I’m going to use it to look for better clients: direct clients willing to pay for what I can offer. I’m also going to phase out the few agency clients I have left with awkward and unnecessarily time-consuming invoicing systems.

What I’ve already stopped doing is actively looking for new agency clients. I decided to do this last year, after extensive networking with agencies at the ELIA conference in Barcelona resulted in virtually no viable working opportunities. I’m even becoming increasingly reluctant to reply to agencies that write to me on spec asking if I’d like to work for them simply because it so often turns out to be a waste of time. And as soon as it becomes clear that an agency is going to behave like the ones I’ve been describing in this post, I’m going to politely inform them that they can look for someone else. Just take my advice, and make sure that someone isn’t you.


  1. Jack Dunwell

    Yes, SJB, when administration and CAT control come before quality then it’s time to look elsewhere.

  2. Allison Wright

    Excellent last sentence, Mr B!
    A good ending to a well-written blog.
    My other favourite bits were:
    "And my question is, where precisely do these agencies fit into the strategy I want to follow to survive the onslaught of machine translation?… Will many of them even stay in business when the shake-up comes? And in that case, is there really any point in investing my time in building a relationship with them?"
    I daresay that the shake-up started a while ago and that some of the less desirable characteristics currently displayed by agencies are the upshot of the initial jiggles; their response to the situation, in other words.
    I do not have any agencies on my books, and no longer work with them with any degree of regularity. The idea of merging my brain with a Borg-like system proposed by one regular had me beetling off with freelance agility to the other end of the translation galaxy (now there’s a word to settle the industry/sector/profession debate).

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Allison. I’m sure I’ll be out of the agency market at some stage (even if such a thing even exists in a few years’ time) but just at the moment there are some I’m still happy to work for. But in many cases the ones I work for could almost be classed as colleagues because they are one- or two-person operations.

  3. Claire Cox

    I had precisely such a query only this week, Simon. An agency contacted me via LinkedIn, in what was otherwise a nicely worded note, asking if I’d be interested in working with them, but explaining that they worked with MemoQ and Across. I replied to say that I was happy to connect, but personally worked with Trados and Wordfast, although I was able to process MemoQ xliff files for other clients if necessary. They then came back asking if I’d be willing to invest time in learning how to use MemoQ if they provided me with a licence – well, no, actually. Thanks, but no thanks. As you say, our time is precious, and I’d rather invest it for my own ends.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thank you, Claire. I have heard it said at one translator gathering that we need to be flexible and learn to use as many CAT tools as possible. On the surface, that’s a plausible argument, but getting to use a tool well takes a lot of time and effort, not to mention the money you have to spend on buying most of them (I know some are free). Then there’s the confusion generated by constantly switching between one and another. And who is it going to benefit, precisely? Not the translator who has to invest that time, effort and money, but an agency which is going to insist that you give discounts for repetitions and in the current climate will probably ask you to take a pay cut next week. No, not for me either!


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