Working for Translation Agencies as a Freelancer: A Guide for Novice Translators
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translation profession has recently undergone three important
changes: globalization, professionalization, and specialization.
Not so long ago translators would mainly operate on local
markets, delivering their translations in person. With the
advent of the Internet and e-mail, the profession has gone
global and geographical boundaries have disappeared. On
the one hand, this means that translators may solicit clients
from all over the world; on the other hand, it means a markedly
larger pool of translators agencies may choose from; hence,
increased competition. Combined with the recent rapid development
of translator education, the increased competition means
that it is more difficult to get into the profession if
you do not have sufficient education and training. The market
has also evolved into higher specialization which is driven
by the growing knowledge of languages, in particular of
English, among employees. Easier texts are translated in-house
by clients themselves, while more specialized or technically
complex ones are outsourced to translation agencies.
My short survey of translation agencies' recruitment
websites shows that most agencies require translators to
have at least 2 to 5 years' experience (in addition to a
language degree and specialist knowledge). It is a recurrent
problem of novice translators how to acquire experience
if agencies do not want to work with them exactly because
they do not have experience, which seems to be a
vicious circle. Frustrating as it may seem, remember that
many people do get into the profession every year. There
are times when professional translators are on holidays
or the job is rush and nobody else is available. Your chance
will come sooner or later but you have to be ready to emulate
and surpass your competitors.
Here are a few tips on how to work with translation agencies.
Before you accept the job...
- Check the agency. There are several websites
where you can do it, for example, Hall of Fame and Shame
BlueBoard at http://proz.com,
Untrustworthy Translation Agencies at http://translationdirectory.com,
(Polish). In general, it is quite risky to accept an assignment
from an agency which does not have a website, uses a yahoo
e-mail address or does not answer a phone provided as
a contact number. There may be exceptions to this rule,
- Before you accept the job, check whether you are comfortable
with its subject matter. If you do not feel competent
enough to translate for example a forklift truck manual,
refuse the job. The FIT Translator Charter emphasizes
that the translator should "have a broad general knowledge
and know the subject matter of the translation sufficiently
well and refrain from undertaking a translation in a field
beyond his competence." As an independent service provider,
you are liable for your translation and, anyway, under
certain circumstances it may be wise to consider buying
a professional indemnity insurance.
- Before you accept the job, estimate the time
you will need to complete it and if it matches
the delivery time. You should know your translation speed
and the ability to estimate the completion time is part
of your translator competence.
- Check whether the file opens and whether
it is the right file for translation. Send a return email
confirming its receipt. If a message is of an inquiry-only
type, wait for the go-ahead before you start translating.
- Ask for a Purchase Order/Work Order with payment terms.
Check whether it has the right word count (or character
count, line count, etc.). The easiest way to do it is
to check Statistics in Microsoft Word (Tools>Word Count).
Remember to discuss all payment issues before you accept
the assignment; for example, whether you charge by a source
or target word count, whether your standard translation
page is 1800, 1600 or 1500 characters with or without
spaces. It is unprofessional to raise your rate during
or after the translation process unless you have a really
good reason for it.
The Translation Process
- Read carefully the translation brief/instructions
and follow them closely.
- File name: do not change the file name but simply
add an international language code at its end, e.g. PL
for Polish, EN for English, unless an agency requests
- Layout: it is an industry standard to preserve the
source text layout in the target text.
- If you have a source file in an editable format, simply
overwrite source sentences. Do not do any additional
formatting. In particular, do not use the spacebar to
create an indent or start a new page because it may
damage the layout. Remember Samuelsson-Brown's commandment
"Thou shalt not use the spacebar" from his excellent
Practical Guide for Translators (2004: 114).
- If you use a CAT tool, such as SDL Trados, it will
be easier to keep the right layout. You will not have
to delete the source text as the CAT will do it for
you when you clean the file.
- It is natural that the text 'swells' in translation
and becomes longer than the source text. It is mainly
due to explicitation (regarded by Mona Baker as one
of translation universals) whereby information that
is implicit in the source text becomes explicit in the
target text to enhance its comprehension or fill in
knowledge gaps. Secondly, swelling may be caused by
systematic differences between languages; for example,
a Polish translation is on average 10-20% longer than
the corresponding English original, English being a
more synthetic and 'compact' language. This may be a
problem when translating text fields or forms that have
to fit into a predefined space. In such a case you should
clarify with the client whether you are to adjust the
format (e.g. by decreasing the font by 1 point) or leave
it as it is.
- Tailored style and readability. If you
look at a couple of translation agencies' websites and
see how they advertise themselves to end clients, you
will soon realize that emphasis is placed on functionality
and readability: stylistic aptness, lucid translations
that read like original, a tailored language style.
To prepare a fluent and readable translation, try to adopt
your reader's point of view, think of his/her expectations,
needs, potential knowledge/cultural gaps. Use an unmarked
language--language that does not draw attention to itself,
is natural, and idiomatic. It is not infrequent that the
source language shows through the translation, the language
of translation being referred to as translationese or
a third language. It may be difficult to eradicate all
source-language interference; nevertheless, it should
be limited to the minimum. You should also focus on conveying
the meaning in a clear and lucid way. If you don't understand
the sentence you've just translated, there's little chance
your reader will.
- Accuracy. Nearly all translation agencies advertise
their ability to ensure the highest accuracy. This feature
seems to be most appealing to end clients of translations
and is an industry standard. As noted in the FIT Translator
Charter, "Every translation shall be faithful and render
exactly the idea and form of the original--this fidelity
constituting both a moral and legal obligation for the
translator." Faithfulness is achieved, inter alia,
by attention to detail. For example, 'considerably higher'
is usually not the same as 'higher', 'nearly 5 times faster'
is not the same as '5 times faster', 'beyond reasonable
control' is not the same as 'beyond control'. Novice translators
are more prone to omitting these little words--obviously,
in some cases this may be acceptable but when you are
translating a contract, they can make a difference. More
serious consequences may follow when a numeral is distorted
(e.g. one '0' is lost in the remuneration clause) or when
a negation is overlooked. Problems with negation are well
illustrated by the case of German surgeons reported by
Der Tagesspiegel (http://www.pssjournal.com/content/1/1/5).
Having read English instructions, the surgeons understood
"non-modular cemented" as "non cemented"/"without cement"
and implanted total knee arthroplasties to 47 patients
without cement. As a result, most of the patients had
to undergo a surgical revision since the procedure required
cemented use only.
- Terminological consistency. You should use consistent
terminology within the text as well as in connection with
texts that constitute previous discourse. Ask for reference
materials, do some research first, go to the company's
website to learn their lingo. Queries: if you have
terminological problems, report them or ask for clarification
in sufficient time to ensure they will not jeopardize
the delivery time.
- Spotting errors: If you spot an error, notify
the client or add a translator's note. As recommended
by the ITI, "be an independent problem solver, spot things
like missing pages and don't pretend that the source text
is all right if there is a glaring error. Clients and
authors make mistakes and you can actually score brownie
points by drawing these to your client's attention".
- Deadlines (delivery dates)--always keep them.
Do not accept a job if it has an unrealistic deadline.
If for some unforeseen reason you are unable to meet the
deadline, notify the agency in advance so that it can
arrange a substitute. The worst thing you can do when
you fail to meet the deadline is to stop answering the
phone or responding to e-mails; face it and notify the
agency how long the delay will be. Most agencies advertise
themselves as offering fast turnarounds; if you are late
with your translation, the agency will also be late and
may face penalties.
- Do not send incomplete, unfinished or DRAFT translations--only
finalized, thoroughly checked files. It is your
duty to provide a spotless text so do not expect a reviewer
to do a QA check for you. Reviewers are usually remunerated
on an hourly basis and it is more expensive for an agency
to review a draft translation than a finalized one.
- Develop your own QA procedures. It is advisable
to print out the translation, and read it in paper. Anachronistic
as it may seem, you will be surprised how many issues
you have overlooked on the screen. A day's interval between
translation and proofreading may do miracles (rarely possible,
though, when you're faced with fast turnaround times).
It is also worth subcontracting a third-party reviewer.
- Spelling/typos: switch the spell checker on.
After you finish your translation, highlight the entire
text and change the language setting to your target language
because sometimes the spellchecker still remembers the
source text language. It is also useful to untick "Ignore
words written in capital letters" in Tools>Options,
which is a default setting in MS Word - a spelling error
in a capitalized title will be glaring. Secondly, remember
that the spell checker does not recognize all errors.
To give you a real-life example, an English menu in a
Polish restaurant has an entry tomato soap instead
of tomato soup; obviously, it wouldn't be highlighted
by a spell checker as both words do exist. Now, the restaurant
has to type-set and print the menu again. Guess who will
pay for it?
- Aesthetic qualities of the translation. Remove
any double spaces and check consistency of
punctuation use. For example, do all bullets start with
small/capital letters throughout the text?
- Things to check:
- Numbers: a distorted number may be a critical
error or high-risk error (Pym). For example, if a dose
of 0.05 is erroneously changed into 0.5 in translation,
it may have fatal consequences.
- Completeness. Check if there are no omitted sentences,
paragraphs, bullets in the translation. Omissions are
more likely if you translate from a faxed or scanned original
rather than from a .doc file.
- Conventions. Adjust conventions to the target
audience's expectations: the way numbers are spelled,
capitalization and punctuation, page size (letter format
more popular in the US), weights and measurements, and
currencies if necessary. It is better to spell out dates
due to US and UK differences: 1/10/2007 is 10th
January (or rather January 10) in the US and 1st
October in the UK.
This section may be concluded with the recommendation from
the ITI's guide How to get money working freelance
for translation companies: "Remember that you are only
as good as your last job. Competition is stiff and you can't
afford to let standards drop at any time." How true!
Customer Relationship Management
- You work in the service sector and deal with people.
Be courteous, helpful and reliable to ensure
that the project manager will choose YOU out of 20 other
translators s/he has in the database for your language
- Try to add value to your services. As recommended
by Alex Eames in his Translatortips": give them a little
more than they expect--a little more than the competition."
- Confidentiality. As a translator, you
may have access to protected, restricted,
private, insider information. The FIT Charter emphasizes,
"The translator shall respect the legitimate interests
of the user by treating as a professional secret any information
which may come into his/her possession as a result of
the translation entrusted to him/her." This information
may include trade secrets, proprietary processes and tools
of an agency and of its clients. Some agencies require
translators to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) or
Confidentiality Agreement before they assign any work.
- Non-competition. Be loyal to your direct clients
and do not solicit assignments from your clients' clients.
You may be asked to sign a non-competition/non-solicitation
- Invoice the job: it is convenient to do it on
a monthly basis. The invoice should be prepared in a language
understandable to the client (or use a two-language version)
and should include the agency's PO number. Specify the
method of payment (PayPal/Moneybookers, bank transfer,
check, etc.) and provide all payment details, such as
the SWIFT/BIC code and IBAN number for bank transfers.
- You may consider opening a PayPal or Moneybookers
account which will save you time and money. Wire transfers
are expensive, and agencies usually shift their cost to
translators. It may take a long time to clear a check
outside the USA; for example, from 6 to 12 weeks in Polish
banks. With Paypal or Moneybookers, you have the money
almost instantly at low charges.
- In case of delays in payment, contact the agency
first to clarify the issue. If no payment is forthcoming,
inform the agency politely that unless they pay you by
a specified date, you will send their details to non-payers
lists. This usually works. There are also more refined
ways of getting paid--see discussion forums, for example,
- Don't put all your eggs in one basket! If you work for
a number of agencies, you minimize the risk. And this
will also give you a wonderful feeling of independence.
Useful materials on the web:
Excellent books for novice translators
Samuelsson-Brown, G. 2004. A Practical Guide for Translators.
4th Ed. Multilingual Matters.
Sofer, M. 2006. The Translator's Handbook. 6th
Ed. Schreiber Publishing.
Published - April 2008
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