Are You Swimming with Piranhas? Beware of Bad Agencies

If you’re a freelance translator like me, then you know you have to look out for yourself. Some clients/agencies will try to take advantage of you, so you need to know what to look out for. I’ve had some ridiculously awful interactions with clients and potential clients such that I even have a pet name for them: piranhas. In fact, I even tweeted about “piranha agencies” a while back in the middle of one particularly bad dealing with an agency. I call them piranhas because they’re on the prowl for fresh prey, and if you’re not careful, they’ll take a bite out of you: out of your wallet (by how little they may compensate you), and out of your sanity (because dealing with them can be a real pain). Thus, below I’m listing things you should look out for so know how to recognize a piranha.

1. Do they email you directly, or do they send a mass email to lots of translators all at once?

There are agencies that put you on an email list, and when they have a project available for your language pair, they just send out a short message and award it to whoever responds first. This method of operation absolutely drives me nuts, and I find it shows a deep lack of respect. While I am mindful of my email inbox, I also have actual translations to do, and I have a life to live too. And so do you my fellow translators, right? Expecting a translator to be glued to his/her email inbox is not a good sign. I have decent clients who send me individual emails and give me a reasonable amount of time to respond before they seek another translator. If you see that a customer acts in this fashion, I would not look favorably on them.

2. Are  you interacting with real people or a machine?

Being a freelancer, work ebbs and flows. I once had an interaction with an agency during a slow period. I wrote an email to the agency because they had advertised the need for translators in my language pair. I received a response from their “Admin. Team” at an email like the following: “” The response bore the name of no person. It was signed “Admin Team.”  There was no personal interaction. I was, then, directed to register on their website. I continued on despite the premonition this wasn’t going to work out so well after getting the impersonal response email. The registration was not quick. And when I was finally registered, the system sent a barrage or work requests to my inbox, the links of which didn’t lead to projects that were actually available. It was a mess. If at all possible, work with customers who employ people! Dealing with computer systems is a waste of time and not enjoyable. I would add, too, that this particular interaction had another facet that leads to the next item below.

3.  Do they advertise a certain genre of text (general) and then ask you to translate something different (legal)?

Continuing on from the last point, the agency in question had me register, which was time consuming, then they proceeded to send me work requests for translation work that was not related to the original advertisement. They advertised for general text. Translating general text is less complex than legal text, yet as soon as I was registered, they sent me requests for legal text, which takes more skill and more time. Yet, the original rate I had offered was for general text, but they just kept sending legal text in contradiction with what they advertised. Always bear in mind the complexity of the text you are working on, and make your customers understand it too. Keeping this in mind, we then need to consider the following point.

4. Do they stress how “urgent” the work is but pay rates incommensurate with rush work?

It just so happened that not only did the “Admin Team” send me impersonal messages and falsely advertised text, but they also wanted it “urgently.” In this case, it was turnaround of less than 24 hours. This, too, wasn’t advertised in the original announcement. If a customer wants something done ASAP, they better be willing to pay for it. In essence, they are asking you to stop whatever you are doing and focus on their needs. Fine, this happens in real life. It’s understandable. People get in a bind, and they need a quick resolution to their situation. However, if someone asks you do rush work without compensating for the trouble, then I’d be careful about working for them, or at a minimum I would only accept non-rush work from them. Your time is valuable, and the work you do for other customers is just as important. Why put one customer’s work on the back burner unless someone else is paying you to do so?

5. Do they try to talk down your rate with a phrase like  “Your rate is too high. Other translators are charging X”?

While it’s not unusual to negotiate rates with customers, I think it’s a bad sign when a potential customer tries to talk you down on price by referring to “everyone else.” My folks had a saying about “jumping off bridges” and “everyone else,” and I would kindly invite potential clients who use this tactic to go join everyone else under the bridge themselves. No one likes being baselessly lumped into a vague mass of people against their will simply because “that’s what everyone else is doing.” It’s trite and silly. And it’s even more bothersome when they use emphatic qualifiers like “frankly” or “in all honesty.” Every translator is different and has different skills. And pay can vary depending on this. Of course, you may eventually negotiate a rate that involves a rate lower than what you initially quoted, but be sure that you accept the rate for the right reasons. Perhaps the potential client was recommend by one of your current clients. Maybe the discount is related to volume. It could be a variety of reasons. But I say look out when they just talk about “everyone” else. It’s not about “them.” It’s a matter between you and said potential customer.

6. Where are they located?

Translation is a global industry. Customers exist in every country. Depending on your language pair, however, some countries are better than others. Naturally, some currencies are stronger than others, and different markets dictate varying prices for services. I can’t speak for all language pairs, but I can say that my experience dealing with clients in many countries has shown that some countries value my services better than others. One sure question you have to ask yourself is the following: would you expect there to be a market for your language pair in that country? I’ll give a few true-life examples. I work with SPA->EN. In India, I don’t know that there’s a big natural demand for this language pair. How about in Spain? Yes. Almost all of South America? Yes. India, not really. The trend could eventually change, but so far I never been offered work that pays remotely decent from India. The same goes for Singapore. I’ve also corresponded with potential customers in Russia. For what language pair? French. So far these interactions haven’t been positive. It has not been easy to interact with them, and the wages aren’t great. But it’s not just a question of wages. It has also has to do with point 7, below.

7. Do they have you fill out paper work, take a free test and then never get back to you?

Continuing on with the previous thought, there are potential customers who will have you jump through all the hoops, and then never actually send you any work. And for whatever reason, I’ve had this experience with some Russian agencies. Not only that, on a couple of occasions the content of their emails has led me to think that they were phishing, e.g. a sketchy Facebook link. I don’t click on that stuff in my email, especially from potential customers who contact me out of the blue. And you shouldn’t either. But I digress. Some places will have you fill a bunch of paper work out, and then they’ll ask you to do a test (which can be a leap of faith). I always to try to verify if the company/person I’m dealing with is legit, so that means checking, ATA, LinkedIn, et al. to see that everyone looks good before I do their test. This helps. However, it’s not fool proof. Do your best to vet whoever is contacting you.

8. Do you offer one rate for a specific project and get a response regarding a different project proposing a much lower rate?

This happened to me recently. I answered an ad, and I proposed a moderate rate in the hopes of enticing them to choose my services. I got a response, and I was happy that they were interested in having me do work for them. Yet, the project I had written to them about was no longer in the picture, they had different documents that needed translating. “Okay, that’s fine, I guess,” I thought. But they proposed a rate more than half of the moderate rate I had proposed at the beginning. The actual rate was abysmal! The person I corresponded with was cordial and friendly and cited the project budget as the cause of the low rate. The interaction was nice and amicable, but I didn’t think it was my duty as the translator to make up for the agency’s poor bidding with their end client. I clearly stated my rate in the original email, which was moderate, but I wasn’t about to let them bait and switch me like that. Don’t let it happen to you either.

9. Do they ask you to translate low word count, heavily formatted documents?

There are some documents that really take a lot of time but might not pay off that well. Certain types of certificates (birth, death, et al) can require a significant amount of time if you consider all the tables, stamps, seals, and different types of font formatting. If a customer or potential customer asks you to do these, be sure you get paid fairly because the actual word counts might not be that high. A good customer will at least let you count all words possible (instead of trying to eliminate repeats). In addition, don’t hesitate to say “no” if you can readily see that a potential assignment won’t be worth your time. I had a recent translation proposed to me that fit this description. The agency had already assigned the bulk of said project. It was legal and technical in nature. I work with legal text and also do so with technical topics, but before I accept the work, I make sure that the topic isn’t otherworldly. By that I mean it’s probable that I’m going to have to do some research and reading so that I understand the concepts and have proper parallel texts at my disposal. That’s no problem. I love translating, and I don’t mind reading about new topics. Just make it worth my while. A couple pages with schematics, highly technical concepts and few words, aren’t going to be worth it. It would have been better if those pages were included with other documents with enough words to make the assignment worthwhile. Obviously, another tactic is to simply charge a minimum fee for assignments with low word counts. Good customers will pay you for this. The Piranhas won’t. Just swim away…

10. Do they have you train to use their software? Do you actually get work afterwards?

Why do agencies use software? To save themselves money, not you. Granted, if you learn to use certain software programs well enough it can be beneficial to you too. You might be able work faster and more efficiently. Great! Just remember, though, that companies might ask you to train on their CAT or use their interface. Learning to use new a software/server/interface can be time consuming and sometimes a real pain in the *#@. Do your best to make sure the customer is actually going to give you work for the effort, otherwise it’s time wasted. I’ve had customers ask me to learn their system (and even indicate my availability), but after all this, no work appeared. You can assume that I don’t hold them in very high regard.

11. Do they use euphemistic language to gloss over reality?

I recently read an announcement seeking “Genius” translators. Yes, you read that right. While I’m sure there are some real savants in the translation world, I doubt there are many of them who fit the criteria they listed further on in their ad. Here are three criteria that stuck out to me.

  • Fresh graduate (BA in Translation)
  • Passionate about translation
  • Responsible, trustworthy, strong work ethic, hardworking

I’ve been out of college for some years now, and I’ve had my fair share of professional experience, so this isn’t surprising. And if you know how to read between the lines like I do, you’re on the same page as me. I seriously doubt any real geniuses would answer the call here. Maybe the recruiter should try Val Kilmer and see if he’s available. And by that I mean, turn on TBS on a  Saturday afternoon to see what 80s films are being shown. That’s probably as close to real geniuses as they’re gonna get, I sense.  The real real geniuses of the world are probably occupied with important work that pays them well, and I’m sure if a genius did, in fact, happen by chance to read this, he/she would see right through this attempt to get a cheap (but passionate, responsible, trustworthy, and hardworking) translator.

This is my short list of things to look out for when dealing with customers and potential clients. I hope you swim safe and succeed in avoiding the piranhas.