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Translation agencies and translators: friend or foe?

I believe we have great relationships with our translators, some of being true friends; however I must admit that the relationship an agency has with translators often entails grievance from both sides.

Whatever may cause it, let’s go into it anyway. Many translators see translation agencies as mere in-betweens who set out to exploit them. Once a translator posted a message in one of these translator newsgroups saying that “agencies should set a markup of 30% on our work, as it is more than enough for them to make a profit.” Disregarding the nearsightedness in our fellow translator’s vision, I will step back to my college days (I graduated in Business Administration). More specifically, I’ll focus on the class dealing with “The Purpose of a Company.” The answer was, “to maximize the shareholder’s wealth” (or the partners’ wealth in case of a limited liability company). In other words, the purpose of a company is to be profitable; since this is the only way for it to prosper and stay in business. Considering this as the fundamental objective of a corporation, we should take another glance at that translator’s remark. Was he right or wrong? If the purpose of a company is to maximize its shareholder’s wealth, then higher profits are best. So why not increase this margin to 60%, 100% or even 1000%?

The intent in my questioning here was not to confront or outrage translators, but simply to state an obvious truth. In the current capitalist world, companies are out there to make money, hence the highest possible profit. Such statement on its own cannot be challenged for being wrong or immoral. If a company can ethically make a 100% profit in today’s highly competitive market, it deserves to be congratulated on its competence and luck.

I am sure that many should be wondering that, if agencies are making a profit, then they are obviously exploiting translators. Is that true? Maybe… Several companies out there are paying US$5.00 or US$6.00 per page (equivalent to BRL 0.03-0.04/word) to translators. In this case, I’d agree that there is exploitation, however I also think that anyone accepting such compensation 1) lacks the necessary experience or qualifications, 2) is desperate or 3) both (most likely). This not only affects translators but serious agencies as well. After all, if a company pays US$ 6.00 per page they could sell it for, say, US$ 12.00, reflecting a gross margin of 100% and yet offer a very low price to the final client. Fortunately, these clients soon realize that such translation is useless junk, and look for another vendor.

So, answering the question, yes, there may be some exploitation but this grueling concern over how much the company is “making” on each translator should be mitigated. Of course, agencies will pay less than direct clients. Some reasons for doing so are evident: translation agencies are the ones who actively sought the end clients, funded all the marketing and advertising costs, negotiated terms and conditions, secured orders and managed translation projects, and, last but not least, who collected payment. Translators are relieved from the most tedious parts of the work, and can concentrate on what they know best – translation. The price a translator wants to receive from a translation agency as compared to what they would charge a direct client is their own decision.

I would challenge any translator’s perception that an agency is no more than an in-between on their way to the final client. This is simply not true. I’d like to show an example to make it very clear that a translation company in fact adds value for both translator and the end client. We often receive financial statements to translate in PDF file format. So, what do we do? We have a professional to convert these files from PDF to Word-compatible ones, and then formats them before sending to the translator — who will get a clean, neatly formatted, ready to translate file. If the translator had received the copy straight from the client, they would have had to format the text from the PDF file. The file is then translated and returned to us. Afterwards, it goes to a finance-specialized reviewer who will check it (this is where we most certainly add value for both end client and translator —, who did the job and can rest assured that it will be revised). Once the translation has been finalized, it is sent to one of our formatting specialists, who will reassemble it in PDF file format for final delivery (once again, adding value to the end client who will receive a translated and edited file).

Therefore we should regard translators as allies and, likewise, be equally regarded as such. After all, we do rely on good professionals for our success, and we can offer a rewarding workload to translators i.e., generate demand for their work. Our overall relationship with them should be professional, involving mutual respect and trust and, of course, “partnership” (though this word has been much abused lately).