Translation agency or freelance translator?

If you have looked into the translation market before, you will have noticed that there are two main categories of translation providers:

  • Translation agencies/companies; and
  • Freelance translators.

You may already have a list of potential translation providers and you are not sure chich one to contact for a fee quote. This post should help you with the first hurdle of choosing the right category for your project.


Translation Agency Freelance Translator
How they work The majority outsources the work to a pool of known freelance translators.

The usual layers of people involved in a project are:

·        The sales team (the sole contact of clients);

·        The project management team (selects the translators and then allocates and coordinates the work);

·        Freelance translators (to whom the work is outsourced);

·        Proofreaders /revisers (either in-house or outsourced again);

·        Marketing team;

·        Accounting team;

·        Human resources team.

They do the work themselves, either alone or in small teams. They are also the contact person with the client.

For premium legal translations, the team will almost always involve the translator (client’s contact) and a proofreader / reviser.

Some translators team up with other translators to tackle big projects that need to be completed in a short timeframe.

Language combination Usually offers a very wide range of languages The language combination is limited to the languages the translator works with.
Specialisation Can be very wide. The more specialised an agency is, the more likely it is to focus on quality (for example legal, business, finance and insurance). Good translators usually do not have more than 3 or 4 areas of specialisation as they need to keep their knowledge up-to-date.
Price In general, they will charge a higher fee because they have to pay their staff on top of paying the translators and revisers. The usual split is:

50-60% for the translator

15-20% for the proofreader

20-30 % management fee (10-15% for administrative and other costs and 10-15% profit)

In general they will be cheaper than a good translation agency. As in all markets, there is a wide range of prices and it is hard to give a bracket but expect a good legal translator to charge at least £0.14 per word (without the reviser’s fee) or £40-50 per hour.

Note: Some highly skilled translators with years of experience will often charge fees identical or even higher than translation agencies.

Quality This always depends on the translators and the agency’s policy. It is harder to track as you will not know the identity of the translators (who may change in time anyway).

Signs that quality is not likely to be high:

o   Very low rates: good professional legal translators do not work for these rates; people working for low rates need big volumes to survive hence less attention to detail and less time to research.

o   No specialisation: the agencies offers services in all imaginable fields.

o   No quality control processes in place

Signs that the agency is likely to deliver on quality:

·        Careful selection of Translators: selection process, requirements of qualification and a minimum number of years experience

·        Specialisation: the agency specialises on a limited number of fields

·        Translation Memories: This is especially important if a job is split between various translators to ensure consistency.

·        Quality Control Processes: the agency has recognised certificates such as ISO 9001:2008 (an internationally recognized quality management system), ISO 17100:2015 N-15038:2006 (the new European standard for the translation industry)

It is easier to track the translator’s expertise, as you know his/her identity.

Translators offering quality should:

·       Specialise in no more than 3 or 4 areas;

·       Ideally have experience in their field of expertise (e.g. worked as a lawyer or banker before);

·       Have at least 3 years of translation experience;

·       Work with a proofreader /reviser for a double quality check;

·       Have a quality control process in place (details of which they can provide);

·       Follow a CPD plan to keep their knowledge up to date;

·       Display testimonials on their website and keep a professional approach on social medias.

Availability A lot of translation agencies offer a service 24/7. This is because the translators they rely on are based around the world in different timezones. Freelance Translators’ availability will depend on their other work and personal commitments.
Timelines to complete a job Translation agencies will often propose very quick turnaround times (I have seen one proposing 700 pages per day). This is very useful for urgent projects.

However, this means that the project will be split between a number of translators. A good agency will try and compensate this by using a Translation Memory to ensure as much consistency as possible. However, it is never possible to have 100% consistency in this case because every translation has his/her own writing style.

Freelance translators will need more time to translate.

For urgent projects, they often have some solutions to offer such as:

·       Splitting the delivery of documents (different parts delivered on different days);

·       Delivering drafts first and a final translation later; or

·       Teaming up with other trusted translators and one single reviser to ensure consistency.

Client Service Each agency has its own style. The person in contact with clients has a sales and corporate background so will be used to delivering a professional service. Their response time to email is usually quick (some even promise a reply within an hour). Clients are usually treated very well. The only potential issue is that these people are neither translators, neither specialists about the subject matter so in some cases, they may be out of their depth. This is very different from one translator to the other. Some have been freelancing all their life and think it is ok to reply after a few days, others respond in record time.

Early signs that you will receive a premium service:

–     Quick reply to first email (within 24 hours);

–     Experience in the corporate world;

–     Understanding of market


Queries on a completed project

A translation agency will almost never allow a client to speak directly to the translator in the event of queries or requests for clarification (they are too scared to be bypassed in the future). So the client will need to send his comments/queries through the various layers. This means that it may take longer to obtain an answer and the answer may note be as complete. The client can just pick up the phone or send an email to the translator and they can discuss any query. This is usually easy and very useful in a time critical document (for example, I translated a document that needed to be filed to court and spent the last two hours before the filing dealing speaking with the barrister to finalise the translation as they decided the change the original document at the last minute).
Confidentiality More people mean more opportunities for information to leak. If you require an NDA, this should not only be signed by the agency but also by the translators and revisers (or you should ask for evidence that they agreed to be bound by the same terms).

A good translation should have some protection layers in place in the type of software they use to share their documents with translators and their system should be protected with at least 128 SSL bit encryption.

It is easier to track which people have received the information.

If you require and NDA, make sure any proofreader / reviser also signs this.

Certifications / Professional Memberships A serious agency will be member of a professional translation organisation, such as the

The Association of Translation Companies.

A serious professional translator should be a member of a translation association, such as ITI or CIOL in the UK, ATA in the US or SFT in France.

Best for

Multiple languages involved

High volume

Very tight (non-negotiable) deadlines

Various fields of expertise required

Consistency of style and direct contact with the translator is not as important.

Limited number of languages

Small to Medium volume

Flexibility in respect of deadlines

Specific field of expertise

Working as a partner, where frequent communications on text may be needed (e.g. interpretation queries).

I hope this table will prove useful when choosing your translation provider.

To help you with the next stages, you can read the following posts:

  • How to compare fee quotes between Translation Agencies

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