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Agencies: Small is beautiful
Thread poster: philgoddard

philgoddard
United States
Member (2009)
German to English
+ ...
Aug 27, 2013

I was recently offered a job by a very large international translation company. I hesitated, because I'd blacklisted them many years ago on the grounds that (a) they were totally chaotic and (b) it always took many months and threatening emails to get paid. But I looked them up on BlueBoard, and they weren't too bad, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

I really wish I hadn't. I accepted the job in the morning, but it took a large part of the day to get the go-ahead. They sent me an eleven-page contract to sign, the longest I'd ever seen. I said: I'm sorry, I'm really busy with work for other customers today, and I don't have time to print, sign, scan and email eleven pages. Can it wait till tomorrow? They said "No, if you don't do it now, we can't give you the job. How about if you just send us pages 3, 4 and 5?" So I did.

Another email from someone else: "How many words can you take?" Well, as I've already told your colleague, 2,500.

Another email from a third person: "For some reason, we only have three pages of the contract. Can you send us the rest?" So I reluctantly send them the rest, which takes me 35 minutes.

I do the job, and a few weeks later I send them a friendly email saying jokingly that as they've made me jump through so many hoops, do they have any more work? "Oh, no. You have to do a test translation before we can put you on our books." Even if I've done a real job for you? "Yes."

All this makes me think that there is a certain critical mass in this business. Above this, you may be able to serve large, high-volume customers, but your suppliers cease to be human beings. They're just resources who are there to do your bidding, and if one drops out under the sheer burden of paperwork, there are ten others to step into his or her shoes. We had another much-discussed example of this recently with the big translation company that unilaterally ordered its suppliers to reduce their rates. It generated huge amounts of ill will, but they've gone past the stage where they need to care about developing friendly personal relationships with us.

Fortunately, most companies in this industry have a handful of employees, and are a pleasure to deal with. But I'd be interested in your experiences: is it possible to be a behemoth, and still be efficient and treat your suppliers with respect?

[Edited at 2013-08-27 15:58 GMT]


 

Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 10:01
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
Oh dear, my sympathies Aug 27, 2013

philgoddard wrote:
I hesitated, because I'd blacklisted them many years ago on the grounds that (a) they were totally chaotic and (b) it always took many months and threatening emails to get paid. But I looked them up on BlueBoard, and they weren't too bad, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

I really wish I hadn't.

I've had the same happen to my, Phil. We're just too optimistic when we know, realistically, that it's likely to happen yet again.

I'd be interested in your experiences: is it possible to be a behemoth, and still be efficient and treat your suppliers with respect?

I'm not quite ready to say "No, it's not possible". I've still got some fingers left to be burned, but I am being a lot more careful nowadays about playing with that particular type of fire. There always seems to be some element missing. I would never associate for five minutes with the "much-discussed" one, but I have wasted far too much time on several that have turned out similar to your latest ex-client.

And I've recently had an extremely sad affair with one of the biggest. They had an incredibly interesting job for me - horribly challenging but more addictive than any word game I've ever come across. And they were just so nice, too! A short, plain English contract, a perfectly acceptable NDA and I was a member of the team after a paid training period. Support was provided in handfuls - fast, to the point and willingly-given - and so was feedback. It could, and should, have been my dream job. But the pay was just ridiculous. In the end I had to decide whether I wanted to forget about being a professional with a paid job, instead devoting my life to this new "hobby", or whether I needed to put it behind me and find better clients.

Give me small agencies and direct clients every time.


 

Josephine Cassar  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:01
Member (2012)
Italian to English
+ ...
Dear Sheila Aug 27, 2013

I had the same experience. I refused a job, to my dismay, as I did not want to accept their ridiculous rate- unbelievable, sit down before I tell you- $0.005 or 0.008, I forgot now but still think about it, not even $0.01. I really wanted to do the translation- their excuse was that I would have royalties too- if they sell 10,000 and after, and SHARED- as they needed the translation so it had to be divided between 3. I was really sorry to have to say no, they begged me to accept but would not budge as they might not have been established in country X-they were still setting up there. The problem is that someone accepted, and I have even lost jobs that had a test translation and was told mine was good as contacted immediately after I sent off mine but could I quote my lowest rate? As usual, someone else took the job, and I was sent a note which said-continue to quote for jobs we post!!! Must I go lower? Like you, I have done translation course with WLS, which prepares you for translations, and I did it after having translated, so the theory/information/notes/hints made more sense.
"Philgoddard, I hate companies that send you sheets to read, sign, scan and those that expect a good translation when they ask an impossible amount, where you do not chance to take a breath and see it is not a translation, but as if written from first count.
I still decide to stick with my principles though and not quote low as I am worth more and invested in training, practice.


 

Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 11:01
English to Polish
+ ...
... Aug 27, 2013

Unfortunately, behemoths tend to suffer from bureaucratic ailments. I only wish standards from the construction industry stopped being applied to translation.

Sheila Wilson wrote:

And I've recently had an extremely sad affair with one of the biggest. They had an incredibly interesting job for me - horribly challenging but more addictive than any word game I've ever come across. And they were just so nice, too! A short, plain English contract, a perfectly acceptable NDA and I was a member of the team after a paid training period. Support was provided in handfuls - fast, to the point and willingly-given - and so was feedback. It could, and should, have been my dream job. But the pay was just ridiculous. In the end I had to decide whether I wanted to forget about being a professional with a paid job, instead devoting my life to this new "hobby", or whether I needed to put it behind me and find better clients.

Give me small agencies and direct clients every time.


Sometimes it seems to me agencies compete with translators on the price while translators compete with agencies on complex service and additional services. That's bound to make both keel over. Translators should act like translators and agencies like agencies.

[Edited at 2013-08-27 18:04 GMT]


 

José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 06:01
English to Portuguese
+ ...
It would be hilarious, if it weren't sad Aug 27, 2013

philgoddard wrote:

... so I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

How about if you just send us pages 3, 4 and 5?" So I did.

Another email from a third person: "For some reason, we only have three pages of the contract. Can you send us the rest?" So I reluctantly send them the rest, which takes me 35 minutes.


The problem with large agencies is that they hire awfully nice people as PMs, however these nice people:
a) don't have any vested interest in the company beyond getting the jobs at hand done well and quickly; and
b) have absolutely no clout whatsoever to ensure that the company will fulfill the commitments these nice people made on its behalf, so that in the future they may count on the same valiant translators who got them out of a fix once.

If you ever dare to phone someone in the senior management of such large translation agencies, you'll immediately realize that pleasantness is a blue-collar privilege there. The top brass is ruthless and greedy, and they see translators as a thoroughly noxious yet unavoidable 'resource' they must 'use' to have translation clients, hence profits and consequential bonuses.

In some mid-sized agencies, limited headcount leads to less management levels, so PMs and other functional bureaucrats are peers, directly under the owner's management. They are not merely figures all added up together on reports to stockholders. Hence they must either orchestrate their work together towards the objectives, or the only stakeholder there will quickly replace the troublemaker.

One-person-show agencies are the best. Either that person is a super-duper-manager, or their business won't last long. They believe in teamwork, and involve everyone. Their problem is to balance their selling and managing activities. Their only risk is outgrowing their managerial capacity, which would force them to gradually turn into a mid-sized agency.


 

Simon Chiassai  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 11:01
English to French
+ ...
lower level employees have their hands tied Aug 27, 2013

I used to work in a translation agency that counted about 50 PMs and probably as many other employees (accountants, sales, exec people etc.). As a PM, you are really tied between what the management demands from you, that is, margin, quality, turnaround, workload, and how you want to do your job: being nice to your translators/suppliers, because you know that you need them as much as they need you, not leaving work everyday after 9 pm, and ensuring that the translations you deliver are of a high standard.

It is not always possible. I would sometimes get to look for translators (what they call sourcing) for a project, just to see it pulled from me the next day, because people above me needed me for something else. Now, that would be fine, but what if I had agreed to a higher rate with a translator? The new PM, or their team leader might not sanction the higher rate.

I feel that there is also a tendency for PMs, especially new ones, who haven't worked in other companies, to assume that every agency works in a similar manner (same contracts, work process etc.), whereas it is not the case. It can lead to a "well duh, you need to sign the NDA/checklist/assignment form/other, isn't it obvious" attitude, and they in turn feel that translators are just silly and careless. They just don't know the reality of the market.

a) don't have any vested interest in the company beyond getting the jobs at hand done well and quickly;

True, but again, I find it hard to blame them. Having been in their shoes, working countless hours for a ridiculous pay, torn between clients' expectations, management's demands and the reality of the translation world, there is only so much a -usually young, freshly out of uni language or translation professional- can do.


 

philgoddard
United States
Member (2009)
German to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Simon Aug 27, 2013

That's a valuable insight from the other side of the fence.

I think your point that they need us as much as we need them is important. I worked inhouse for an agency for a year or so, and I remember spending entire afternoons on the phone trying to place one job when all the good translators were busy.

[Edited at 2013-08-27 20:15 GMT]


 

Steve Kerry  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:01
German to English
Very true Aug 27, 2013

The "one horse" agencies tend to be far more friendly and informal. In general, the larger the organisation, the greater the form-filling and general hassle.

One Polish company almost reduced me to tears with five days of ridiculous administrative demands. In the end I told them to "go fish", despite their entreaties - no money was worth working for such a bunch of .... time consuming people.

Steve K.


 

James_xia  Identity Verified
China
Member
English to Chinese
+ ...
That's the point Aug 28, 2013

Steve Kerry wrote:

The "one horse" agencies tend to be far more friendly and informal. In general, the larger the organisation, the greater the form-filling and general hassle.

...
Steve K.


I share the same feeling with you. After meeting a number of agencies in different sizes, at last one may realize that smaller ones are more beneficial targets to work with.


 

Charlotte Farrell  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:01
Member (2013)
German to English
+ ...
My favourite client is the translation department of a massive company Aug 28, 2013

Out of my main clients, one of my favourites to work with is a very large company with huge clients. They are very professional but also friendly and pay well. Some smaller companies I have worked with have been great, but others have been.... less so. One of my other favourite companies is definitely medium-sized.

The point I'm trying to make is that translation companies of any size don't have any excuse not to be professional and treat their translators well.


 

Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 11:01
English to Polish
+ ...
... Aug 28, 2013

philgoddard wrote:

That's a valuable insight from the other side of the fence.

I think your point that they need us as much as we need them is important. I worked inhouse for an agency for a year or so, and I remember spending entire afternoons on the phone trying to place one job when all the good translators were busy.

[Edited at 2013-08-27 20:15 GMT]


How about the good translators hire the good PMs?icon_razz.gif Wonder how much it would take to go from agency-side PM to translator-side one.

Steve Kerry wrote:

The "one horse" agencies tend to be far more friendly and informal. In general, the larger the organisation, the greater the form-filling and general hassle.

One Polish company almost reduced me to tears with five days of ridiculous administrative demands. In the end I told them to "go fish", despite their entreaties - no money was worth working for such a bunch of .... time consuming people.

Steve K.


Out of curiosity, did they accept your rates?

Also, as a Pole just simply having an American client, the IRS would have me file W8's, possibly some other stuff, get an American tax ID number, all this despite operating from here, doing all my work from here, not having any sort of connection with the USA, and being the resident of a country with which they have a double taxation treaty. The form also requires the poor soul to apply US business classifications instead of whatever you are in your own country. I mean, come on, expecting foreign companies to register just because they have clients who are US companies... Argh. But what should one expect from an organisation that has spawned 25K pages of regulation and writes form instructions that take a rocket scientist to figure (as a simple Ph.D. researcher in legal science, I do struggle with them).

Charlotte Farrell wrote:

Out of my main clients, one of my favourites to work with is a very large company with huge clients. They are very professional but also friendly and pay well. Some smaller companies I have worked with have been great, but others have been.... less so. One of my other favourite companies is definitely medium-sized.

The point I'm trying to make is that translation companies of any size don't have any excuse not to be professional and treat their translators well.


The problem with small agencies is that they're basically in the bracket where they compete with translators on price, not even other agencies. This means low rates. Then again, big agencies also mean low rates.


 

Steffen Walter  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 11:01
Member (2002)
English to German
+ ...
Not quite, Łukasz Aug 28, 2013

The problem with small agencies is that they're basically in the bracket where they compete with translators on price, not even other agencies. This means low rates. Then again, big agencies also mean low rates.


Depends on the type of small agencies you are looking at. Some of them are true (highly specialised) "boutiques"/translation offices (I wouldn't want to use the term "agency" to refer to them) operating in a secure and comfortable niche market, so this situation eliminates their dependency on the "rat race" for ever-lower rates. (I work for some of these outfits; most of them are based in Germany in my case.)


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 11:01
Spanish to English
+ ...
Agree Aug 28, 2013

José Henrique Lamensdorf wrote...

One-person-show agencies are the best.


I second that! No doubt at all. Big= Bad=Bullies...


 

José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 06:01
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Different shades of "busy" Aug 28, 2013

philgoddard wrote:

I think your point that they need us as much as we need them is important. I worked inhouse for an agency for a year or so, and I remember spending entire afternoons on the phone trying to place one job when all the good translators were busy.


This is one point that few in the "non-production" (and I don't mean "nonproductive", though some of them are) staff of an agency will envision.

Any of these "good" translators, while not being on a slump, and provided they have a healthy number of potentially fruitful estimates out on the street, will say they are "busy" to an agency they consider so-so or worse. They circumvent Murphy's Law by not committing a significant amount of their time to less desirable clients, in the hope that some of the many "better" estimates they have sent will convert into orders in the very near future.

Conversely, they'll stretch or flex their work schedule, sometimes beyond the limits of what's "possible", to accommodate a request from an agency they consider good or better.

The sad thing is that no matter how nice and accommodating a PM may be, unless the agency is small enough for him/her to report directly to a major decision-maker, that PM will have their hands tied to attempt flexing that firm's policies or practices deemed unpopular by translators, even when circumstances so justify.

Theoretically, this would be possible in a larger agency, if PMs were Production Managers, instead of merely Project Managers. They would have budgets, an assigned "capital" to manage cash flow, and would be accountable for the results. However such production managers should be considerably more expensive, so larger agencies go for the "unempowered" project managers, the usual business model in our trade.


 

Simon Chiassai  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 11:01
English to French
+ ...
translation project management isn't really project management Aug 28, 2013

José Henrique Lamensdorf wrote:

Theoretically, this would be possible in a larger agency, if PMs were Production Managers, instead of merely Project Managers. They would have budgets, an assigned "capital" to manage cash flow, and would be accountable for the results.



Where I worked, when we were given a project, we were given a budget, that had been negotiated by the sales department directly with the client. Out of that budget, we needed to make a margin of at least 40%, preferably 50%. It did not matter to the agency how much I was paying whom, as long as the job was done properly, in time, and the margin was 40 or over. The margin could be lowered in extreme cases though : the typical issue would be the ever-feared weekend project with a low budget that comes in on Friday at 16.30 due Monday morning that nobody wants.

There are agencies out-there where PMs are also sales, and handle budget negotiations with the client, sales stepping in in difficult situations. The more it goes, the better I think it is, because it gives the PM more control over his or her work. But I think these are still very rare cases.

José Henrique Lamensdorf wrote:
However such production managers should be considerably more expensive, so larger agencies go for the "unempowered" project managers, the usual business model in our trade.


We also have to keep in mind that project managers, despite their fancy job titles (project executives, project directors, coordinators and the like), are seldom trained or experience in the actual management of projects (no critical path analysis for instance). Most of the time, they have a BA or and MA in translation or not even that. As such, they have little to nothing to say when their manager tells them how to run things. Also, as it has been mentioned, I don't think project managers are willing to bite the bullet to stand up for their suppliers, or try to make a change in the industry.


 
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