Agency Work - An operette in 2 Acts + denouement
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Some translators make almost all of their money by just working for agencies. Why on earth do they do it, you may ask? I shall try to indicate a few reasons here and to weigh the upsides and downsides.
Act 1 - First a few of the upsides:
1. Once you establish a rapport with a few agencies, you will generally find that they keep coming back to you and supplying you with a constant stream of work. This means that you can be working at full-capacity.
2. Scouting for customers is a tricky proposition. If you are constantly supplied with work by agencies then you will no longer have to do that. True, you DO have to put in some effort to get the agencies in the first place; but this is generally a lot less than continually trying to get new customers.
3. Agencies will generally broaden your scope. They will provide you with work in many fields and this will help you mature as a translator (especially if you are new to the job). The downside to this is that you run the risk of being a "jack-of-all-trades", which IMHO is the kiss-of-death to the translator.
4. Certain aspects of product liability tend in these circumstances to be more in your favour. More on that later.
Act II - ... And now a few of the downsides:
1. Agencies pay a lot less than your own customers would (generally speaking at least). This effect is somewhat attenuated by the fact that you no longer need to put too much time and effort into scouting for customers yourself (which translates into real money, believe me). If agencies also provide you with a constant stream of work, then this also makes up for lost dividends.
2. Agencies tend to have a hire-and-fire mentality. There are a lot of good agencies out there, but unfortunately many are no more than "clearing-houses" for translation work (more on this later as well). This means that they are often less interested in fixing a problem than in fixing the blame. If something goes wrong, then you will often tend to get the butt-end of it (again, let me repeat, this is by no means universal, but it is a real problem with some agencies).
3. As agencies can often supply you with lots of work, you may find your list of customers dwindling to less than a half-dozen or so. This makes you completely dependent on these agencies; a dependency that is difficult to get out of. However, for the freelancer this is more a question of "six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other". What do I mean by that? Simply put, a freelance translator is selling a service, not goods. This service requires time. It is therefore endemic to the profession that you can't really have too many customers anyway, as you can not possibly provide them all with a good service at the same time. This is in fact one of the key problems to freelance translating; something that is not often talked about or openly admitted (unfortunately). It is also one of the reasons why many freelancers eventually open their own agencies or begin to outsource (logically).
Denouement - Things to be aware of...
I mentioned product-liability and the "clearing-house" effect; let me come back to them here.
If you work for an agency, then you have a contract solely with them. This means you are in no way liable to their customers. If an operator cuts off a finger at a machine because your translation is faulty, then the agency is the first in the line of fire, not you. You are, of course, second in the line of fire. There are some ways you can limit your liability here. One is to write-up some Standard Business Conditions (in German these are the infamous AGB's - allgemeine Geschäftsbedingungen). Such conditions can be used to severely limit your liability. These are in fact helpful no matter who you are working for. Every freelancer should have some. Make sure that you send your conditions to all of your employers.
Using Standard Business Conditions (AGB') to Limit Liability
Generally, you should include the following in your conditions:
1. Limit your liability to the maximum amount of the contract, and not a penny more.
2. Explicitly exclude any extra liability either arising from late completion or defective work.
3. Use your Conditions to clearly delimit what belongs to a contract and what doesn't. Many customers/agencies tend to think of "additions" to a text as belonging to the same contract. Make it clear that any such additions always constitute a new and unique contract, except when otherwise explicitly agreed upon (or when it is obvious).
4. Use your Conditions to reserve the right to have suitable time to correct work the customer views as unsatisfactory.
5. Include a clause on prompt payment by the customer.
There are a many other things you can include and I can't go into them all here. The Internet is a good source for finding some good general conditions that you can touch up to meet your needs
The "clearing-house" effect (also linked to liability, as you shall see)
Freelancers new to the business often think agencies are these huge corporate businesses with hundreds of employees. Sometimes they are. But more often than not they are very, very small. They may only have one or two employees - or none even! These are small "legal entities" - businessmen- and women like you and me, who have started to outsource. Some outsource 20 or more languages, but only have one employee or so.
One of the common things you hear from these agencies is "we don't have time to look at your work. We need a file we can give to the customer, no questions asked". Maybe they don't use exactly those words, but they let you know all right. At the same time, they don't want YOU contacting their customers either, if you have questions regarding the translation. These are clearing houses.
When I was starting in the translation business, I was told that a good translator asks questions. That is 100% right. But how can you do that if you can't contact the customer and if the agency either won't, or has such ludicrous deadlines (which they often do) that it makes it almost impossible?
The answer: whatever the circumstances, cover yourself! Write a mail with the translation listing the problems. Mark problems in the main text in red and tell the agency that these problems should be dealt with.
The upside: this limits your liability even more! If you are working with a customer directly then YOU have sole responsibility for sorting out problems in the translation. If you are working for an agency and you tell them of these problems and they ignore them (which, I suspect but can not prove that they often do), then you are out of the liability-chain. So when the aforementioned operator chops off his index finger, the agency is fully liable and you aren't.
This all might sound quite brutal and petty, but it isn't. I am actually pleading for honest, conscientious translations. If you are honest and conscientious then there is no reason why YOU should suffer if the agency is little more than a clearing-house.
A closing note...
I have had many, many good experiences with agencies. One pitfall to avoid is in thinking that agencies are the enemy. One way to do this is to try to always be honest and forthcoming when dealing with them. This will pay off in the long run. The serious agencies will respect you for being so forthcoming, and you will develope a good sense for those that are unserious.
End of operette.
If you have enjoyed this FAQ, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy translating!