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The pros and cons of personnel in the translation business

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To be or not to be: operate as a freelancer or as an employer?

Are you planning to set up a translation business? Then there are two or three fundamental questions you will need to consider if you want your business to be a success. One of these, and in fact the most obvious one, is how to attract clients. However, the marketing effort and insight needed to tackle the issue of client acquisition is the subject of another article. In this specific issue I would like to concentrate on a fundamental dilemma that many self-employed translators will face: to work as a freelancer or to take staff on board.

The answer to this question depends in part on you ambitions as a translator. If translation is a job on the side for you, if you are able to combine your translation work with a host of related business concerns, from technical to administrative, and if you don’t mind working in solitary confinement, then it is probably a good idea for you to set up shop as a freelancer. From that position you will be able to work for translation agencies and specific clients alike, decide for yourself how much work to take on and when to take days off. One drawback is that you will not always be able to satisfy your clients, especially in terms of volume, forcing them to also engage the services of other translators who may be more specialised or have more capacity. Another drawback is that you will generally be working on your own, without the company of colleagues to chat with or consult. Most of the people you do get in contact with will probably never be known to you other than as a person at the other end of the telephone line. In addition, you will always be responsible for all the aspects of your business, without having the possibility to delegate tasks to people who may be more suitable for them than yourself. This means, for example, that you will have to generate your own business and find ways of attracting clients. On the upside, however, if your translation work is of good quality and you acquire a reputation as a reliable partner, even among a few clients, then you may soon find that business generates itself. 

If a freelance existence does not appeal to you, one alternative is to hire people – translators or other specialists – and to become an employer, rather than principally a translator. This strategy offers a number of obvious and significant benefits. The most important advantage is that by setting up a team you will be able to generate far more turnover than as a freelancer – provided that you generate sufficient business to keep the team running. By multiplying your translation capacity you will be in a much better position to land large-scale orders. If you also manage to find high-quality marketing & sales specialists, moreover, you will be able to convince bigger, high-profile companies of your professional approach and ensure them of the continuity of your business, even when you are not there yourself.

There is an adage that says that big companies prefer to do business with big partners, and even if there are many exceptions to that rule, there is no denying that highly reputed global businesses will obviously tend to select high-profile suppliers for whatever it is they might want to purchase. Even so, you don’t need to be a mega-employer to provide translation services to major industry names. In the commercial translation business, individual agencies with five employees already count and those with twenty or more are the major players.

Of course, employees are a mixed blessing. They will need to be seen to. Employees need attention, encouragement, and guidance. Even if no problems occur, you may find that you are spending more time sorting out employee-related administrative matters than working as a translator – unless of course you hire other employees who can look after employee issues. As long as business is booming – which it may well be if your agency is run effectively, because demand for translation services is immense – there is a risk of ending up in an employment spiral. The dialectics of progress rule that the more you grow, the less benefit your growth will bring, so clearly this is a situation you want to avoid. Carefully controlled expansion is crucial.

In summary, a freelance business offers a great deal of personal freedom but imposes clear and inevitable limits to the scope of your work. Another downside is that it condemns you to a solitary and essentially domestic career. If you prefer a more dynamic business environment and do not fear employee issues or serious competition, you might consider setting up an agency and taking on people to work for you. The size and success of your business will ultimately depend on your professional and commercial ambitions.


About the author

Fester Leenstra is co-owner of Metamorfose Vertalingen, a translation agency in Utrecht (The Netherlands). After having worked for several translation firms in paid employment, he took the plunge in 2004 and incorporated his own company.


For further details about Metamorfose Vertalingen, visit:

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