Understanding translation agencies

Find people, manage translations, sell services — Nimdzi’s “General Theory of The Translation Company” sums up the current model most translation agencies operate on.

Some agencies excel at one of these three core functions — finding good “translation resources” (my favorite epithet so far), selling language services to companies or handling projects.

As a translator, I find the truth is in the middle part — how an agency does the actual work. Because that’s what sales people or vendor managers don’t tell you till you’ve signed up.

What is their feedback loop, what’s their tech stack? Do they integrate with their customers’ systems, do they build their own software? Do they have engineers to set up workflows or train MT systems? Do they use any feedback tools besides e-mail and the build-in comment function?

Are they able to sell “additional services,” such as terminology management and style guides, which are not optional if you want to have consistent translations? Do they take the time for face-to-face briefings, or do they just throw you the project stats and expect you to get going?

And most of all — do they deeply want their own customers to succeed, or are they just aiming to grab more tasks, like some nefarious shadow department? And no, caring about the bottom line doesn’t mean complex discount models to show how much money your company will save by spending more money on translation…

It means the provider needs to consult with the client to at least try and understand what business impact each translation project will have. And if they identify low-impact content, will they find ways to save costs?

I like asking translation project managers for tricky favors, for example, when I find long lists of non-translatable content like URLs or numbers that’s crept into the project. Or when I find that terms are used inconsistently or translated segments have no context. For example, a column heading like “booking”, could mean lots of different things in German, even within a specialized domain.

You can tell a lot from their responses. They may say things like “yeah, we tried telling the client we need budget for terminology, but Sales didn’t do it, so let’s just go with your best guess” you can tell they’re a word mill. Or “I don’t really know how to format the files, just go with the flow.” And of course they’re only available by email, so no quick questions in between, because they’re busy handling 5 other projects in completely unrelated domains.

Attention is the gold standard. So when getting started with new business partners, pay close attention to how much of theirs they’re willing to give you.

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