1. Don’t be fooled into thinking that working with an agency means guaranteed access to qualified translators. Frequently, translation agencies have no more direct or personal contact with a translator than you would have if you called or emailed a translator yourself. Agency recruitment is often done via mass emails and impersonal questionnaires. In other words, while a few agencies interview and select their translators personally, many do not. In addition, agencies will generally confirm your job before they know whether a translator is available, which means they may cut corners if they can’t find someone quickly to complete your project.
2. Agencies may not use native-speakers of the “target” language. Almost without exception, Italian translation agencies promise that their translators are “rigorosamente di madrelingua inglese” (strictly native English speakers). But can you be sure? In today’s Italian->English translation market, Italian translators who translate into English-as-a-second-language are flooding the market and they generally work for lower rates. In part this is due to fierce competition among the increasing number of Italian “passive” translators, and in part it is a recognition of the fact that their English skills are less than adequate. By using second-language translators, agencies save money. You may never see those savings, but you will notice the low quality of your translation.
3. Can you trust the person who edits your project? Agencies also often promise that your project will be carefully proofread and edited before it is delivered, but can you be certain that the reviser is a native English speaker? In Italian agencies, revisers are frequently Italian citizens and not native speakers of English. Such proofreaders and editors often do not understand English idioms or shades of meaning and introduce errors of grammar, syntax, and word choice—even when the text has been translated correctly!
4. Why pay more for less quality? For the Italian->English combination, agencies generally pay translators one-third to one-half of what they charge you. In other words, if your agency has promised you a “great deal,” it likely means that the translator is being paid badly. Can an agency truly attract experienced native-speaking translators if it offers them starvation wages? Can it honestly provide consistent, native-speaker quality if its translators are barely earning a living? If you hire a translator directly you will very likely pay him or her less than you pay an agency, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re getting your money’s worth.
5. Do you really want a “use-and-discard” translator? Italian translation agencies typically offer their translators lower rates and make them wait 90-120 days or more to be paid. As a result, most agencies lose translators on a regular basis and must constantly recruit new ones. In addition, translation agencies are frequently a temporary “first stop” for brand new translators in search of job experience. This has an impact on your work in two ways: First, the agency may know next to nothing about the translator who handles your project and, second, your translator may know next to nothing about translation. The relationship you establish via a direct contact with a translator is yours to maintain. You alone determine whether your translator is capable.
6. Can you contact your translator directly if you need to? (Part 1) Fear of competition and “client-stealing” means that agencies often go to great lengths to make sure their clients never come into contact with their translators. But what happens if your translator has a question about your project? What happens if additional information or a clarification would significantly improve the translation? Very likely, the agency will never pass the question on to you directly. Rather, agency staff will try to invent an answer on their own. Maybe they know your business, your subject matter, or your writing style well enough to respond accurately to the translator’s queries. But wouldn’t you rather be sure?
7. Can you contact your translator directly if you need to? (Part 2) If you want to see your translator’s credentials, résumé, or publications list, will an agency send them to you? Because of fear of losing translators, they may not. A direct contact, on the other hand, means that you can ask your translator for whatever information you need to feel secure. To put it bluntly: If you use an agency, you may never know who is handling your translation.
8. “A little bit of everything” means an agency with no real focus. Beware of translation agencies that do too much. If they offer translations plus interpreting services plus business consulting plus language courses, proceed at your own risk. Only the rare and extremely well managed company can adequately handle all of those services. Be alert, too, for the promise of translations “to and from every language.” It simply isn’t possible. Especially if your job is in an unusual combination, the agency will accept your order and then go searching for a translator using an online jobber like Proz, Translators’ Café, or others. You could do the same thing yourself, save money, and have the confidence of a personal relationship with a translator who is only doing one job—yours.
9. You can get pizza delivered quickly, too. Agencies that promise to provide “urgent translations” or “instant turnarounds” are fooling you. When it isn’t physically possible for a single translator to complete your project, they’ll break the job up among a group of translators. They’ll use non-native speakers or “outsource” to cut-rate agencies overseas (but still make you pay full-fare). What you’ll get is a hodgepodge of styles and skill levels, along with all the usual problems that come from haste. Working directly with a translator means an honest dialogue about what is and isn’t possible and the ability to plan your work flow with no intermediaries. In addition, most established, professional translators have a network of trusted colleagues they turn to when their workload is too great. For you, such personal references are worth their weight in gold.
10. Most of what you’ve been told about the advantages of translation agencies simply isn’t true. Let’s be honest: the vast majority of translation jobs do not benefit from the presence of a middleman. Translation agencies cannot, contrary to their publicity, necessarily guarantee you greater professionalism, accuracy, or quality. Today, meanwhile, finding a translator is simpler than ever: Reputable groups like the American Translators Association and the Northern California Translators’ Association, to name only two, offer searchable, online directories. Alternately, a simple Google search turns up scores of translators for virtually every language combination. Few agencies screen translators any more carefully than you would do yourself. Finally, a direct contact with a translator will often cost you less than an agency—even as it offers you greater security and control.