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Typical types of translation agencies

For people who aren’t involved in translation, it is often unclear what distinguishes one translation agency from another. After all, they all do the same thing, i.e., translations. At times, however, they may have less in common than a dentist and a cosmetologist.

No one asks a masseuse to fill a tooth or a veterinarian to treat their stomach problems. When choosing a translation agency, however, mistakes are made all the time. In this article, we will try to categorize translation agencies and tell you about what sort of agencies exist and what sorts of orders they fulfill.

There is a small market segment in which translation agencies and freelance translators compete with one another. Independent translators try to convince clients that “the only difference is the price,” while agencies tell them that “they’re more reliable.” Heated debates often flare up between the two. We already looked at this subject in a separate article.

Understanding which of the two deserves your order is no simple task. Both options need to be considered separately: You need to analyze prices, the quality of translations, the level of communications, etc. There are, of course, clients who prefer not to waste time on this and who have their own ironclad rules, e.g., “We only work with freelancers” or “We only send our translations to agencies.”

At times, both agencies and freelancers try to cut corners. For example, a qualified and enterprising freelancer, aware that they aren’t getting orders due to a meaningless formality (they’re “just” an individual and not an “entire” company), sometimes pretend to be an agency: register a company consisting of only one director and create the impression that there is not just a single individual working on orders but an entire team, which is more trustworthy.

This also happens the other way around: a small agency is turned down by a client (“because we only work with freelancers”), after which several of its employees submit offers as freelancers for the same order and are ostensibly working independently, not for an agency. In such a case, the company’s employees also turn out to be its clients: “The tail is wagging the dog.”

One more example: a client contacts a freelancer after a five-year break, during which time the freelancer established their agency and, not wanting to scare off the client with their new status, continues fulfilling orders as a freelancer.

The client is not harmed by such masquerades, whether their orders end up being fulfilled by a qualified freelancer or an agency with well-established procedures. The main limitation of such suppliers is their lack of resources for the completion of large projects and their sudden lack of availability due to orders from other clients.

The most common type of translation agency are companies that primarily translate standardized documents, such as passports, certificates, and diplomas. They aren’t specialized in translation, as the translation of such documents doesn’t require any special skills. Usually, it’s enough to enter a name and personal information into an existing template. For such activities, time is spent not so much on translation as on processing files in inconvenient formats (e.g., PDF) and on the layout of the text. Such agencies are typically either subsidiaries or have partnerships with law firms or notaries.

Therefore, if you have a complicated technical or marketing text, and an agency is advertising translation services for standardized documents or apostilles, there’s no sense in contacting them. For the record, high-quality agencies often refuse to translate passports, certificates, and other standardized documents.

You’ve undoubtedly seen ads of the type, “We translate into 10,000 languages!” Or “We have 10,000 translators!” If such an agency is not a serious player with millions of dollars in turnover, then it is unlikely that it will be able to fulfill your order at a high level. Your order will most likely be sent to a subcontractor or a translator from some sort of freelance exchange, and you’ll get back a rather superficial translation. With such an approach, there is no quality assurance. The websites of such agencies often contain numerous mistakes and typos, and many of them do not use the latest automated translation and localization technologies.

These sorts of companies serve the mass market and use low prices to attract clients. You should contact them if the quality of the translation is not that important to you, e.g., if you know that the translation is just a formality and that no one is going to read it. But if you need a high-quality translation, then it would be better to look for a specialized agency.

Quality assurance requires significant organizational expenditures and profound specialized knowledge. In the case of small companies, this is something they can achieve only by focusing on a narrow specialization. For example, some agencies deal only with simultaneous interpretation, others work only with the corporate sector, while others engage primarily in technical translation or possess certain secrets related to processing exotic file formats. More often than not, these sorts of agencies can’t boast about having an arsenal of hundreds of languages, and they are limited to translating into their native language, but they guarantee quality.

Such agencies tend to have one feature in common: their procedures have been honed to such a degree that there are only a few companies that can compete with them. The threshold for entering the market for high-quality translations is rather high, and all the companies in this market have been well acquainted with one another for a long time.

On the other hand, they rarely encroach upon other niches. For example, an agency that does simultaneous interpretation won’t take on the translation of an instruction manual for a milling machine, while an agency that does technical translations won’t get involved in dubbing films. Specialized agencies will generally refuse orders that aren’t in their area of specialization.

Agencies specialized in translation from English into Ukrainian are unlikely to take on a translation into English. If the client still insists on this, then the agency will undoubtedly warn them that the text will be translated by a non-native speaker and that it will need to be checked by a native.

If an agency decides to expand by adding other specializations, one way to do this is to work with another specialized agency. The implementation of one’s processes requires significant expenditures in terms of time and material resources. This is possible only for large companies that have funds available for investment and opportunities to experiment.

At the very top of the global translation hierarchy are so-called MLVs (multi-language vendors). These are companies with annual turnover of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. In essence, these are agencies that coordinate translations into numerous languages for top-shelf clients: IT companies, banks, oil and gas corporations, automotive and industrial concerns, etc.

Their main function is management. In other words, they save their clients from having to search for numerous vendors in different countries, coordinate their work, and carry out quality control. If a client has to translate 2 million words into 20 languages, it’s easier for them to do business with one large company rather than 20 smaller ones.

As a rule, MLVs cooperate with subcontractors in the form of specialized agencies that work with one or two languages (so-called SLVs, or single-language vendors). Sometimes, they employ freelance translators. They carefully select vendors in each country, strictly monitor compliance with quality standards, and conduct training on new procedures themselves. MLVs often know more about quality control than the end clients do. Therefore, if a local agency has been working with an MLV for years, this is already an indication that it has a good reputation.

Some agencies are difficult to put into any one particular category. An agency may be in a transitional state, for example, and maybe experimenting with various business models. Many local, specialized agencies try to enter the market as MLVs.

It is important to understand which sort of company to entrust your orders to. For example, if you need to translate standardized documents or just need a translation as a formality, the quality of which is unimportant, the majority of agencies will be able to handle this. If, however, your translation is intended for the people that your business depends on, then you better find an agency that specializes in orders similar to yours.

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