Small agency, quality hungry: moving forward?
Thread poster: BabelOn-line

United Kingdom
Local time: 18:08
English to French
+ ...
Sep 6, 2017

Dear Colleagues,

Just read a few recent posts in Proz's Art & Business section dealing with quality, machine translation, post-editing, rates. Apparently, all is not well and rosy in the Land of Linguists...

First, anticipated apologies if this post somewhat lacks clarity of purpose. I am in rambling mode here. But please feel free to comment if this echoes something you know or if you have any input.

1/ My agency is a small one, a lot of my revenue derives from my own translations– English into French. 20 years in the trade. I used to have a steady stream of volumes (mainly automotive) for brand magazines, but this had slowly dwindled over the years.

It indeed feels like the entire trade is in a downward spiral. 20 years ago, the guys who commissioned my translations were trained journos or at least people who had an idea of what quality should look like. Clients wanted quality. We had language sub-editors, proofreaders to insure consistency and quality. Today, you are far more likely to get a mail from an overworked agency PM simply asking how much you would charge to straighten up a Google Translate job. For tomorrow. For a song.

There is of course no point in regretting the good old days.

I am now revamping my website - creating a really modern WordPress site (colourful, friendly, using simple words and borderline vapid as is now the style).

This website is an attempt to market the business as an high-end agency, offering entirely hand made translations (Trados is a good booster but Google Translate is a no-no). USP: using not only proper linguists but people who have the best possible understanding of the topic at hand. And then I will have to evangelise the masses (in other terms, find clients that need quality, got burned and are now ready to fork out for the decent stuff).

2/ Problem is therefore one of structure. I have a brilliant freelance PM. A good address book with the name of a few good linguists. So, small and nimble, low overheads.

But I find it increasingly difficult to be available for clients, translate, check the progress of projects and be out there to convince prospects they need better translations.

Did anyone go through this phase? How did you handle it? I am now thinking about finding a partner as a possible way to move forward.

Thoughts, anyone?



Jean Lachaud  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:08
English to French
+ ...
Join the club Sep 6, 2017

BabelOn-line wrote:
But I find it increasingly difficult to be available for clients, translate, check the progress of projects and be out there to convince prospects they need better translations.


Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:08
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Replace yourself? Sep 6, 2017

BabelOn-line wrote:
But I find it increasingly difficult to be available for clients, translate, check the progress of projects and be out there to convince prospects they need better translations.

I cannot offer advice from the perspective of somebody who has been there and done that. However, I have frequently pondered the issue of moving into the boutique agency space.

Would my revenue be significantly higher? Would the increase in revenue, if any, compensate for greater stress and perhaps longer working hours? Would such a move improve the long-term probability of survival for the business? Would I be as successful in managing a business consisting of multiple individuals as I have been in managing a business consisting largely of myself? These are questions that do not necessarily have easy answers.

The limiting factor, ultimately, would be myself. There is only one of me, and (setting aside the issue of whether or not this is advisable) realistically I can only work 12 to 16 hours a day. I cannot plan, market, recruit and manage other people as well as translate. So, if I were to go into the boutique business I would need to find, quite early on, a small group of translators who, in aggregate, would replace my translation contribution in its entirety, thus freeing me up to concentrate on growing the business.

So perhaps you need to think about whether you should not be finding people to take over the translation work that you currently do. If the thought of no longer translating makes you unhappy, perhaps you need to think about whether growing the business is the right strategy for you as a person.


[Edited at 2017-09-06 19:29 GMT]


Tim Friese  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:08
Member (2013)
Arabic to English
+ ...
Or consider replacing yourself as manager instead of as translator Sep 6, 2017

Dan Lucas wrote:

So perhaps you need to think about whether you should not be finding people to take over the translation work that you currently do. If the thought of no longer translating makes you unhappy, perhaps you need to think about whether growing the business is the right strategy for you as a person.

[Edited at 2017-09-06 19:29 GMT]

Another option is to continue to delegate more of the administrative tasks onto the freelance PM, as appropriate. OP, you may find you like checking more than managing or vice versa. Outsource the other task!

My personal experience is the higher ranks of the translation market are doing quite well. I consistently have way more work than I can do and it's work that pays well and is from reliable clients. The solution is definitely out there; keep it up!


Haneder  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:08
Member (2016)
German to French
+ ...
Gone from translator back to agency back to translator Sep 7, 2017


I feel what you have been thinking, in my own case i threw the towel for the agency part and went back to translating myself. I might be getting old, i might not have crossed the threasehold for having somebody backing me all the time.
I think 15 years ago (still) it was viable being a small agency in (in my case) a rich country. Today the margin are so low, the unpaid paperwork (and formatting issues as well as advising clients who might suddendly disappear with my advice to a freelancer) is such that i earn more spending my time working for other than having someone working for me (because even for formatting and reviewing i can only do one document at a time).

Sometimes I have the feeling the client does not appreciate the work it means having to overview a job in multiple languages. The client expects prices that are no more than a freelance translator having it done with a certified translator. The website brought me clients but little revenue, I got told that my prices that i hardly increased since 2004 were 40% higher that one finds on the market. In 2004 with these prices i had more work that i could handle with. My groceries shop has not kept its prices to help me compete with *insert whatever postbox agencies with PM in cheap countries and adress in high cost country*.

Sometimes I have the feeling i did not need a degree in language to do what some are expecting. I wish you good luck in your journey. In my case the train has left the station as a small agency in high cost country. I will rather be the small guy in the dark corner, letting other do the PM job and what it means having to deal with the expectations of direct clients. My website is disappearing from the internet, getting hooked on the phone or being required to analyse texts with more and more complex formatting is something hardly paying my meal. Not to speak of the occasions that translators had their own fancies...but here we are between professionals... Time for me to have my fancies.



Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:08
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
My two cents Sep 7, 2017

(I currently own a 4-people office serving about 30 different customers and with plenty of "non-Google" work.)

In my opinion, it all goes down to you. You are the one who makes long-term decisions, and it is you who have to think of what you want for your life. Often, it is not just a decision about how to obtain the maximum income, but the quality of your life in and around work. You clearly should not start something that, if successful, will mean that you will very much ruin your personal and family life and create an imbalance between you as a person and you as a professional.

If you generally enjoy translating, feel that you produce a good work and generate good income out of that, my advice is that you keep on top of things but delegate more and more to the freelance PM, as to free you up to the main source of income: good translations. Maybe you should verify whether this PM is good at dealing with customers and, also most important, whether it is a loyal person that will always think of the company and not of potential other ways of routing the business. One way of ensuring that commitment and loyalty is by hiring the PM as an employee, which costs money, of course.

Now, having you as the hard core of the business, i.e. the one who basically translates everything, puts the business at risk in a way: if you fall ill or need holidays, what happens to your customers? The solution is to have other people you can really trust, and in order to have these reasonably available you need to hire them every now and then, even if you could easily do the work yourself. You will have to review their work (with the PM potentially acting as a final proofreader, if capable of that) and give them a lot of feedback during the span of many months, thus becoming a reviser for a while rather than a translator. While the financial result and your personal satisfaction will drop, you would build a solid base for bigger projects and to be able to enjoy holidays, an occasional long weekend off, etc. (your PM would ensure everything turns out OK with the freelancers).

So, in simple words, becoming the manager and main translator of a small agency will mean: expenses and supervision in a PM; money cashed out to freelancers even in quieter periods in which you do not really need them, and becoming a part-time reviser; adding to your responsibilities, both as an employer and as an outsourcer. If you are ready to make this extra effort and incur this extra financial risk, which will probably make your working day a lot longer, then you should go ahead. If you value a simple life and dislike having people who depend on you, it is best that you stay as a top-notch freelancer.

Along my career in translation of 23 years now, I have mostly been on the "key translator+reviser+manager" role, even if I really dislike revising. While a perfect life for me would be to simply translate for a number of hours a day and forget about revising and having people whose livelihood depends on my firm, I also see that it is possible to build a team that works as a well-oiled machine and that, by virtue of its scale, is capable of capturing work from more sources and smoothing out peaks and valleys in the business, thus ensuring a nice workload for everyone.

There are very many factors involved here and there is simply no single answer to your question! I hope my experiences are useful, if only a bit.


United Kingdom
Local time: 18:08
English to French
+ ...
Thanks for the input. Sep 7, 2017

Makes you think. Thanks for the input, guys.

1/ Competing with large agencies is not in my/our DNA. My small team like and respect translation too much, I'd sooner stack shelves than try to squeeze out average translation from underpaid and under-valued linguists. To compete would mean to try to undercut their prices, this is simply not a possible route.

2/ Being a top notch linguists sounds a value proposition. And you cut the c**p with most of the admin. Some clients, including large agencies, are - if not happy – at least willing to pay for my services when they need something they cannot find in their usual pool of guys.

3/ Still, I have the feeling there is still a small pocket of clients who understand that translation is very much like painting-decorating: Big Dave down the road will paint your room for 100$. Deluxe Deco will charge you 400$. In both cases, it is a couple of gallons paint and the same room. Dave will come with a bucket of paint, get cracking, and if he spill paint on your carpet, tough luck. Deluxe will protect floor and walls, open and fill in cracks, sand down, do three perfect coat and their work will last 20 years...

It is the same service, in appearance. We know it is not. The gist is, there must be clients who went with the equivalent of Big Dave and now want some better translation. Stories like the one of Haneder are saddening: good professionals see work ebbing away because clients have no clue what a good pro is...

Must do some thinking, I guess.


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