Four Things Freelance Translators can Learn from Translation Agencies

Four Things Freelance Translators can Learn from translation agencies

From time to time, I see discussions among translators about how translation agencies are greedy and how they take most of the profits of translation projects.

You see that in social media, blog posts written by some freelance translators and on other media.

But the most positive discussion I have read recently was between Steve Vitek

and Dmitry Kornyukhov when they discussed how freelance translators can learn from the way translation agencies work, instead of just talking about them and considering them monsters.

Yes, freelance translators can replicate many things from translation agencies. These agencies make millions of dollars each month, which means they are doing something good and profitable.

In this article, I refer to translation agencies who work ethically and professionally.

Here are four things freelance translators can take from translation agencies.

One: Having Systems in Place

A successful agency always has some type of a system for everything they do. They provide guides for each process they follow. These guides explain exactly the steps the employees should follow to execute their assigned tasks. For example, when a new accountant joins the translation agency he/she can easily know exactly how to collect invoices and run payments because this all is written in a guide that explains the whole process of invoicing and payments.

Let’s be honest, many freelance translators are disorganized.

I know some freelance translators who send invoices months after the completion of the jobs. I was guilty of that too! That is because their workflow does not contain set dates for invoicing or a process to check for missing invoices.

As a freelance translator, you need to have a process of how to organize your work folders, at when to prepare your invoices?, how to track unpaid invoices, at what dates to work at your marketing…etc.

Two: Customer Service at Translation Agencies

Language services market is known to be a very fierce competitive market. There are many types of service providers in our industry and “if you are not taking care of your customer, your competitor will.” as Bob Hooey said.

Professional translation agencies know this rule.

The customer needs to be taken care of at all the phases of the business; while doing the sale and after sales.

Many freelance translators do not like to receive feedback from their customers. They take it personally; as if the customer is insulting them.

Freelance translators need to follow up with their clients and know if they have any concerns about their work. You need to build a relationship with the project managers inside the translation agencies or the end client contact you work with.

Be there when they have a problem and need your expertise.

Three: How to Manage Translation Project Effectively

Translation agencies work at different projects in many languages at the same time. This requires a solid background in project management. Each project may involve tens of resources to complete the project in time. Agencies Usually will have a set workflow they use to manage such projects to make their life easier.

Freelance translators need to learn this skill from agencies.

Sometimes freelance translators accept more than one translation task at the same time because they work with different clients too. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you know you can deliver all projects according to their deadlines with the required quality level.

Each freelance translator should have a spreadsheet or an application that logs all projects in progress with their deadlines. Also, a professional linguist knows how to prioritise these projects and how to sign them off.

Four: Consistent Promotion of Their Services

Freelancers in all industries love their professions, but do not have enough marketing skills. This is the same situation for freelancers in web development, photography, graphic designs, content writing and many other domains.

Translation agencies work really hard in their marketing. They take care of their social media channels, run advertisements and attend online and offline events.

As a freelance translator, you do not need to do marketing as much as a translation agency does, but at least work on it to some extent.

Check out local events near you, where your clients participate, try to be in front of your clients as much as you can and in your capacity as a solopreneur.

Your Turn now!

If you see something succeed, you need to see why this happened and try to replicate it. Try to embrace the success of translation agencies and see what they do that works for you as well and do it now!

I really like to hear your thoughts about that, so please do not hesitate to write down your comments.

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  1. I do like this article!
    I feel it as something provides a clear sight with different dimensions.

    1. Sherif Abuzid says:

      Thanks Mohamed for taking time to read and comment.

  2. Mohamed Saber says:

    It is really helpful, looking forward to seeing how freelancers use effective marketing compaigns

    1. Sherif Abuzid says:

      Thanks Mohamed for your nice comment. Yes, you can expect more in the marketing part of our business. Lots of articles coming about sales and marketing. Stay tuned 🙂

  3. Thank you for writing about this. Yes, there is “good and bad” of everything in the world, our profession is not devoid of its own share. Not too long ago I wrote an article about the practices and knowledge I transferred from the private sector to my freelance practice. And the one I find the most important for a freelancer is customer service: being able to take care of your customer before, during and after the sales is important, and takes skill.

    I mean, if they came to you it is because your marketing is working (it may need help, but it is there), if you are still on the market is because you have knowledge (we should always improve on this one), and if you are getting paid it means your invoices are going out (tune up your system, if needed). BUT if you can’t take care of your clients, there is no amount of marketing, knowledge or invoicing that will help you succeed. And I include project management here: not cool to let things fall through the cracks.

    In my opinion, mindset is important: each one of us freelancers is an entrepreneur and needs to look at our practice as such. Self-respect can change the world – and our profession.

    1. Sherif Abuzid says:

      Thanks Gio for your comment. Good business practices are shared by many industries. We need to look out of the translation industry and learn from others. Can you please share the article you wrote about the practices and knowledge you transferred from the private sector to my freelance practice?

  4. Finally an article about how freelancers can learn from translation agencies rather than just complaining about them all the time. I had the chance to work for a good translation agency as project manager and translator for 2.5 years before I started my freelance carrier and I couldn’t agree more with what is written in this article. After only a few months of freelancing, I realized how having worked for this translation agency had given me a HUGE advantage on a lot of freelance translators out there who had more experience than me because I was reusing a lot of good practices I had learnt in this translation agency, things like how to organize effectively your file structure, your emails, your projects, how to set financial goals, how to fruitfully deal with a complaining customer, how to define a strategy and price and sell your services successfully. But probably one of the most important things I have learnt there was that if I wanted to succeed as a freelancer translator, I had to stop thinking and acting like a translator and start thinking and acting like an entrepreneur: even the best translator out there will fail if he or she is not a good entrepreneur!

    1. Sherif Abuzid says:

      Happy you liked the article Amaury. You are completely right we need to “stop thinking and acting like a translator and start thinking and acting like an entrepreneur”. Many freelance translators do not like to move out of their comfort zone, which is the technical part, aka translating. We all need to hone our business skills and act like business owners. Thanks again and expect more articles to come

  5. This article is really helpful!

    1. Sherif Abuzid says:

      Happy you liked it Najla

  6. Some nice thoughts, and you are right.

    But freelancers cannot solve most of these issues on their own.

    Personally I don’t mind that agencies make a lot of money. As a freelancer I am in it for the money as well. But a lot of agencies actually only succeed in finding cheap labour not in running a professional business and delivering projects in a decent linguistic quality. And linguistic quality should at least be part of the equation in the translation business.

    Financial Systems: Most agencies have some sort of system to issues POs, mainly to optimize their internal processes. As a freelancer I am also running a business, and I need to run my own financial system. But guess what? Not a single agency I have worked for allows me to export the POs to a standard format, so that I can easily import them into my own financial system. So that is still a manual process that I cannot optimize any further.

    Translation Systems: For the past 10+ years most translation systems have been deveopled with the engineering processes in mind. Not translation. Lots of new systems have a basic feature like spell checking as an afterthought. Systems are constantly making the translators less and less productive, and that doesn’t exactly support us in accepting lower rates. The worst idea yet is to base machine translation word counts on typing distance effort. I can type 50+ words a minute which equals 3,000+ words an hour. But I can’t translate 3k+ words an hour, so translation is so much more than just typing.

    Translation Quality Systems: A lot of agencies rely on tools to check the quality like double spaces, end periods and other stuff. But the linguistic quality can still be really poor and the text almost unreadable and still pass the tests with flying colors. Your QA systems does not reveal if you found a good translator or not.

    Customer Service: As a freelancer I see customer service from the agencies as delivering the needed reference material and translation files in a way that makes it as easy for me to get the project done as best and fast as possible. But it is a constant mess of 30+ PDF files with instructions about this and that, so in reality we would need to spend 3-4 hours reading all related material even when receiving very small jobs where we are paid for half an hour or less. Another issue is query management. We need to use some odd system, and queries are usually answered long after a project has been finished. If an issue is answered in time it is usually just the PM guessing. But with 25+ years of experience my guesses are a lot better, and I only open a query if I actually need an answer from the end-customer, and not from the PM.

    Promotion/Marketing: We are drowning in NDA’s and strict confidentiality agreements. How can I promote my work when I am not allowed to tell which end-customers I work for, and I am usually not even allowed to tell what agencies I work for? I have actually decided to start a few websites to display my skills, and by using affiliate marketing I actually expect to earn more money on a single article this way than by translating an article of the same size.

    I think that a lot agencies need to remember that we are still quite a few freelancers that used to work in agencies, so we know all of the processes required to run a translation agency. That helps us being extremely flexible in handling projects, but we also charge a higher fee than people that just finished their education.

    So yes, there are lot of room for improvement in the translation business.

    In the past 10 years I have often contacted my customers to ask for minor updates to their internal systems that would make my day easier. Not even one of these suggestions have been implemented yet.

    So no. Translation agencies are not monsters. They are welcome to earn all the money they want. But they also need to accept the benefits of paying a rate that will ensure that their network of professional freelancers stays professional. It is easy to just ask for lower rates, but there are so much more room for improvements that might actually allow us to lower our rates. I don’t just work to make money for the next day or two. I need to be paid a rate that ensures that I can deliver the quality required for the next 20 years despite of all the obstacles that lots of agencies put in my way. 🙂

    1. Sherif Abuzid says:

      Thank Johnny for such a great reply. Of course, I agree with you in many points. But still it is the role of freelancers to figure out solutions for their problems. All I am asking is we look for how such agencies make money and try to model what works for the freelance translation business.
      For the systems, agencies need to talk with translators about some of their new automation before they are developed or at least do not develop systems that add work in the translators side, such as invoicing steps or recruitment. Some agencies ask for forms that include tons of non-sense fields. I am sure translators will give more deep insights and would help agencies develop better systems.
      Yes, translators are underpaid in many cases, but they should learn to look for better clients too. For me, I do not like to work with big agencies as they already have LOTS of options, that is why they are always looking for cheap services. If you do not like the client, look for another one, that is my rule.
      Anyway, thanks a lot for your comment and hope to see more comments in the future 

  7. Bodil Little says:

    I totally agree with you, Johnny. We’ll said!

  8. I really love the article. The marketing part of the business got my attention. I do wonder how freelance translators whose clients are far away can be able to market their skills to these clients and not through agencies. I am from an underdeveloped country where it is very difficult to succeed as a freelance translator because local clients are not that much and translation services are still very less needed. For that reason, I have to rely on agencies,

    1. Sherif Abuzid says:

      Thanks, Fadi. The best way will be to use email and translation jobs websites to market your translation business. Also, it is not that difficult anymore to design a website to use to as a business card for clients outside of your country. Let me know if you have any other questions.

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