A Tale of Two Agencies

The freelancer-large agency relationship is often an ambivalent one. On the one hand, the industry behemoths can provide a steady flow of work, which is a good thing if you have bills to pay. On the other hand, larger also means more layers of organization, so the people you talk to don’t have the authority to make decisions, and the people who do tend to be well-protected behind the organizational line of scrimmage. Plus some of them don’t pay a lot. When I first started translating I didn’t realize this was an issue, because I was happy to have work at all and I jumped on every job offer, no questions asked (which, in hindsight, I don’t recommend).


Image: Delmarva.Dealings

But at a certain point I realized that the rates I was agreeing to were on the low end of the scale, and that there were many people with similar skills and experience who were successfully negotiating (much) higher rates. So the next time I traveled to the Netherlands I made an appointment with the senior project manager of one particular large, ubiquitous agency. I primarily wanted to introduce myself in person and build on the e-mail rapport we had established, but I intended to bring up the rate issue as well. So after a wonderful chat over coffee I launched into “oh by the way, before I go…” and nervously gave my spiel. The atmosphere became acutely uncomfortable as the project manager explained that he didn’t recommend such a move and that the best he could do was give me the e-mail address of the vendor manager — who, in response to my subsequent e-mail, flat-out refused to raise my rate.

It was hugely disappointing, but also a much-needed wake-up call. I decided it was time to get me some better clients. I got my ATA certification, hired a designer to create a website, and became active on social media to connect with colleagues and potential clients. It was a gradual process, but one day the tipping point came and I had enough higher-paying clients to drop the McAgency altogether. It felt as good as paying off a huge visa bill.

Most of the agencies I work with now are specialized boutique firms, and I love the informal, professional interaction without the layers and layers of bubble-wrap. A few are larger agencies, though, and one in particular sends me a lot of work. When I signed up with them I gave them my rate in dollars, but they paid me in euros. This was fine as long as the exchange rate was stable, but over the past year the euro has been dropping steadily, and last week I realized that the per-word rate on my work orders was actually 2 cents lower than I had initially contracted for.

So here I was once again, I thought, faced with the daunting task of squeezing an extra few cents out of a large-agency bureaucracy. I dug up the e-mail of the person who recruited me two years ago and sent him a carefully composed e-mail explaining the situation and asking for an adjustment, halfway expecting another sad break-up.

Imagine my surprise when I immediately received the following response:

Nice to hear you enjoy the cooperation and are happy with the projects. The feeling is mutual J. It’s really all up to you to decide on your own rates. Translators change their rates all the time, depending on new exchange rates, need for work, increased ability to provide qualitatively high standard translations etc. etc. So you if you let me know what rate it is you want (in euro please), I’ll change it on the spot.


Image by Martin Smith

If you’ve ever been in a similar situation you know what a rare gem of a response this is, and why I want to shake this man’s hand the next time I go to Holland. His response is a perfect example of the easy professionalism of the best agencies, proving it is possible for large firms to be as responsive and attractive to skilled translators as their smaller, more nimble brethren. He restored my sagging faith in larger agencies and you can bet I will work hard to keep up my end of this business relationship.

What about you, colleagues; can you relate? I’d love to hear about your experiences with smaller and larger agencies that left you either drained or refreshed and energized.

14 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Agencies

  1. Great tips here! I regularly raise my rates, and simply do so by informing the company per email at the end of the year along the lines of “btw in line with inflation/increasing demand etc. I am raising my rate to xx per line/and/or for 24-hour service to enable better scheduling of work etc”. Until now there has never been a whimper (obviously my prices are within reason). But you are right, the massive companies can be intractable. They are best left to the hungry new translators on the market.

  2. Good post. Here is my take on this issue.

    The real question is whether the “nice” agency will continue sending you as much work as before at the higher rate. A “bad” agency will simply say no if you dare to put pressure on their bottom line. I would call such an agency a stupid agency, not really a bad one. A “nice agency” may say yes and continue sending you work until they find suitable replacement, which is the smart approach.

    After all, agencies are just brokers, and everything is about the bottom line with brokers. Always was and always will be. It’s not personal, it’s business.

    A much safer way to raise your rates, if you are a translator, is to reverse-engineer the approach to this issue of a “nice” (or smart) agency, and only a small minority of agencies belongs to this category.

    Instead of simply raising your rate, you continue working at the rate that was acceptable in the past while keeping an eye out for better payers. Once you find a different and better paying source of work, start occasionally “being too busy” when a nice but cheap agency has work for you. This way you can test the limits of their tolerance to a higher rate. If they really, really need you, they may agree to a raise. You can also ask for a higher rate only for rush jobs and reclassify pretty much everything that does not have a pretty long deadline as “expedited translation”.

    But remember, it is very likely that this means that you are taking money out of their pocket because they are making profit based on the difference between what you can charge them and what they can charge their customer, which is a definition of the term “broker”.

    • Hi Steve, yes, you’re right, of course; in the end an agency is a business, not a charity or a virtual friend, and raising your rate has risks. I just got another job from the second agency in my story this morning but it’s early days yet; we’ll see what happens in the months to come. Your point about phasing out cheaper agencies is a good one, and that’s what I did with that first agency. We should always be working to find new (hopefully ever higher-paying) clients.

    • Hi Vadim, yes, I don’t think it’s possible to make a business work if you’re not willing to step outside of your comfort zone at least every once in a while. It doesn’t always pay off, as in the first example I wrote about, but indirectly it still helped me to reassess the situation and move on. And thank you for the reblog, I really appreciate it!

  3. What a good tale!
    Being a translator is in a way solitary, hidden profession. There is just translator, the document and the computer (it used to be the type writer in the olden days ) and the business is normally done “long distance way” and that poses from the start a great disadvantage…you cannot really sell yourself direct face to face and negotiate or even raise your prices.
    In spite of all these obstacles there are many translators who manage and excell and are on the top of their game. On the top of it they help to raise the awareness and fight for the profession ….. and YOU are one of those few special people who are benefit to all of the hardworking translators in front of monitors, searching for the word perfection. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Diana. We definitely are an isolated breed, and usually this suits most of us just fine 🙂 But we also need that balance of interaction with others and this is a great way to connect. Most of what I’ve learned from my colleagues has been through forums and blogs, and I love reading other people’s thoughts on the issues we all deal with. Hopefully I’ll even make it to a conference or two this year for some actual in-person communication J

      • Which ones are you planning to go?
        When talking about the balance of interaction I need to mention, at least in my case, the balance between the interpretetation and translation.I need both! I sometimes feel that I do not want to communicate face to face and sometimes I crave it…anyway I was always told that being an interpreter goes hand in hand with translation. Actually it makes the interpreter better equipped as it nourishes his or her quest for new words and meanings.

      • I’m a member of the Northern California Translators Association so I’m planning on attending some of their meetings in San Francisco, and I hear that the ATA conference is going to be in San Fransisco next year, so I definitely want to go to that one. I’m always on the lookout for events in California but I’m not aware of any other ones so far…
        I can see how being a translator would also enrich you as an interpreter! I don’t live in a big city and there is not much call for Dutch interpreters here, but I also think I feel more comfortable as a translator. I wish I was more balanced but everyone is unique I guess 🙂

  4. Translation agencies come in all flavors, really. Looking for better clients and dropping those that don’t make the cut anymore is an endless process if you want to keep your business growing,

    While I have some really nice agency clients, though, I am still to get a message as nice as the one you shared with us! I guess there is still room for improvement on my side.

    • Yes, it’s a never-ending process, and actually that is one of the things I enjoy about the translation business. There are always new challenges and possibilities so there is no excuse for stagnation. I’m glad you can relate!

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