Without understanding how translation agencies work today, the reason why there are huge differences in quoted prices for the language services you need can be difficult to determine. Why is one translation agency prepared to do the work for next-to nothing, while another seems to be charging unreasonably high prices?

That’s why we’ve put together this handy behind-the-scenes look into the basic organisational structures of translation companies. We’ve also included a couple of questions you might find it useful to consider when you’re thinking about which translation agency is best for you.How translation agencies really work – business structuresNot every translation company that you contact will be the same in terms of size and organisational structure. Much like businesses in any industry, translation agencies – which are increasingly known as “Language Service Providers” or LSPs these days – vary in size and scope.

You could be dealing with:

• Sole traders – single-person translation companies, solo freelance translators operating under a company name.
• Small “teams” of translators – usually a group of freelancers who work together.
• Small or medium companies – who will occasionally have some in-house translators, as well as project managers and the like, and who hire additional freelancers for most projects.
• Larger companies – who again may have a team of in-house translators, but will almost certainly have an in-house team of Quality Assurance specialists and project managers, a sales team, and so on.

Most translators will be freelancers hired on a job to job basis. Any established LSP will have a network of reliable translators who it knows it can count on for projects which fit within certain parameters, and which match their required language pair. For example:

Translator A

Might have a great track record on English to Chinese translation, particularly in the medical field. When a company has a project which has this language pairing and requires this knowledge base, they’ll see if this translator is available for work.

Translator B

Is a native French speaker with several degrees in engineering subjects. They also speak English and Italian, making them a great choice for projects with these language pairs and subject matter.

The fact that any given project could require a translator with a vastly different set of knowledge and language pairings makes it highly unlikely that most companies will have a large in-house staff of translators. You might occasionally find one that successfully specialises, and thus often requires a certain “type” of translator. Most however, will use freelancers.

To fully explain why, we need to look a little bit about some more general questions about how translation companies operate…How do I know how my translation company operates?This can be difficult to intuit from the outside, but if in doubt – ask! Most agencies will want your business, and thus will be glad to show you why they’re the best choice for you. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for an independent referee or two who’ve used the LSP’s services before and would be happy to talk to you about the company.

In fact, there are many simple steps you can take to help you in choosing a translation provider, including considering:Step 1: What are you actually getting from your translation agency?This is almost always where you’ll see the factor behind the huge variances in quoted price that you’ve found. Because included in the package of what you, as the client, might think of as “translation”, one company might:

• Translate your document into another language
• Proofread the document to make sure the translation is accurate

While another might:

• Create Translation Memories (TMs) and glossaries, build a style guide, and gather more information about the topic
• Localise your document into another language, taking cultural norms into account
• Have the translation checked for accuracy and polished for style by a senior editor
• Have a Quality Assurance specialist check the document
• Send it back to the original translator for comments and final review
• Archive all materials for 7 years so translation assets such as the TMs can be leveraged to improve the quality and reduce the cost of future projects
• …and do all this in a secure IT environment which is auditable to verify the safety of the client’s confidential information

So while you’re getting a document “translated” in both cases, clearly there’s one service which does it more comprehensively than the other.

You also might want to look into whether editing, proofreading and reviewing are all the same when they’re something your agency promises.Step 2: Do you know “how much translation should cost?”Quoted rates do vary, and certain projects might cost more than others. For example, a Language Service Provider which uses Translation Memories might offer you lower rates for a technical project which will include a large amount of phrase repetition.

But there are established industry averages for many languages. Check out Proz.com if you want a decent source – it’s an online marketplace for translators. Bear in mind that these will be basic rates offered by individual translators who may be engaged by a translation company (see the comments about translation agency business structures above), and thus the actual rates you can expect to pay will likely be higher depending on aspects such as:

  • Whether you’re getting basic translation or true, effective localisation (it’s always a good idea to learn more about the difference between translation and localisation)
  • Whether your project is short notice, urgent, or long-term
  • Whether you’re getting translation and proofreading (TP), or translation, editing, and proofreading (TEP) – as discussed above
  • The agency’s profit margin

Step 3: How do you know if your translator is qualified?This can be another huge determinant in any translation company’s quoted rate. In many countries, a small amount of research will tell you if there are established standards to which a translator is held accountable by law.

For instance in Australia, many government bodies require a translator to have NAATI (National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters) qualifications in order to work on their projects.

Be sure that if your translation company is accredited to a certain standard, or by a certain agency, that:

  • It’s their language services that are actually the aspect of their operation which is accredited – and not their accounting or sales expertise, for example.
  • The actual translator who’ll be completing your project is likewise certified. If in any doubt who’ll be completing your project – definitely ask!

How translation agencies work – frequently asked questionsQ: If an individual or freelance translator is cheaper, why don’t I just hire one directly?

A: This can actually occasionally be a good idea, but it very much depends on the type of project you have. For simple jobs – which only include one or two languages, and which aren’t going to require that much in the way of Quality Assurance, directly hiring a freelance translator can be a way to keep costs down. Most freelancers by nature won’t have a Quality Assurance specialist working with them, and as is often the case, two sets of eyes are better than one when it comes to translation.

Also, if you will need help with other projects in future you won’t be able to guarantee that the same freelancer will always be available – as an occasional buyer your projects are unlikely to be prioritised by a busy freelancer. If you continually hire different freelance translators, you’ll have no way of maintaining consistency across multiple projects. Assuming you want to enjoy the benefits of Translation Memories and other translation assets across multiple projects you would need to manage them yourself too.

Q: What’s the most important thing about choosing a translator?

A: If there’s one thing to be absolutely sure of when choosing a translator, it’s that they’re a native speaker of the language in which you want your target document (the outcome of your project) to be produced.

Q: Why are some languages more expensive than others?

A: This depends on a number of factors, supply and demand not least of them. It’s also tied to the above rule that being a native speaker of the target language is one the most important parts of what makes a good translator…

By way of example, a native speaker of Finnish or Danish or Norwegian will most likely live in their home country. These are places which have a generally high cost of living. Thus, you’ll find that these languages tend to be more expensive.

It’s possible, of course, to find cheaper translators of these languages working in other countries. And, as long as they are native speakers – and they regularly speak to friends and family back home, for example (to keep their knowledge of the language current) – that may be absolutely fine. It is, however, generally considered to be best practice to use a translator who lives in the country they’re translating for.So what does all this have to do with how translation companies work?A little bit of behind the scenes and background knowledge about the industry, and the way certain companies within it work, is always going to stand you in good stead when choosing the right translator.

Make sure you know the sort of company you’re hiring, the way they work, and bear in mind the type of project you have and your priorities, and you’ll be able to use this knowledge to your advantage.Need to know more about how translation agencies work today?Leave any questions you might have in the comments section below. We’ll always do our best to help you get more information!

Do you run a translation agency yourself? Or do you have an idea how things should work differently? Just comment! We’d be very interested to hear your thoughts too.