Professional translator or agency? My thoughts on a well-known dilemma.

Written by Aga Gordon

I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts on the dilemma common in the translation industry. Suppose you want to expand your business, or simply have foreign employees in your company (let’s say Polish, because this is my professional translation language).

So what are the main differences in the choice above? Perhaps I should clarify what both expressions mean.

A professional translator is a person who is fluent in both languages, or in the best case is effectively bilingual. This person is either a trained linguist or a naturally excellent linguist, and has a deep knowledge of the syntax, language nuances, idioms, grammar and correct use of the target language. They are familiar with both cultures. A professional translator translates into their native language only, unless like myself they are bilingual. A professional translator is also a good writer, because translation does not mean merely replacing source words with target words, but also conveying the exact meaning of the text in such a way that it reads like native text and not a translation. In addition, high attention to detail, a good client relationship, excellent communication skills, confidentiality, and a generally pleasant attitude are all important.

When it comes to specialised texts, ideally a professional knowledge of the subject area is required. For example, for a medical or scientific translation, a scientifically trained professional translator would be an ideal choice. In my case, holding a PhD in chemistry provides me with a deep enough knowledge to provide accurate translation in most scientific and medical areas. Hiring a professional with an academic background has yet another advantage. Those who have worked in academia often have access to academic journals inaccessible through a standard Google search. Translators with an academic background, like me, can have access to many specialist journals through their University. In addition, most of us have developed a broad network of specialist collaborators. These people can act as consultants should we have doubts about details of particular subject. This is not to say that professional translators with only a linguistic background are not worth hiring for scientific or medical translation. Those with several years of translation experience, who specialise in particular disciplines, may clearly be worth hiring too. You should make sure, however, that they have sufficient familiarity in the specific subject of the translation.

A similar argument applies to all the specialist fields, as you are probably already aware. I would like to mention business translation as in addition to my scientific background I also have a business degree, and far too often see bad translations everywhere. A professional translator with a business degree will almost certainly be your best bet if you want to reach a foreign market. They would not only know the target language and culture, but will also be able to address your customer using their knowledge about marketing, modern business models, practices and frameworks. It can therefore become more than just a translation, but also potentially a great marketing tool to increase your market share in the target country.

Having explored the concept of professional translator, I would now like to concentrate on translation through a translation agency.

Many companies and government organisations choose to sign a contract with a translation agency for the translation of their important documents and other material. I am not surprised as this option often seems to offer better value for money and a quicker turnaround. However, I would like to raise a few points about translation through agencies from the point of view of a freelance translator. I would like to stress that this is based on my own experience, and surely does not apply to all translation agencies. Firstly, seemingly low cost – is that really true? Translation agencies have large overheads and also want to secure big returns – this means that they have to pay very little for the translation itself to keep the cost to the customer low. Their quality process might be good in theory – translation, editing, proofreading and perhaps even research will be involved. However, because of the low rates they offer, no experienced professional translator is likely to undertake the project, but instead non-expert translators who cannot provide a proper appreciation of the subject matter. The result is generally a poor quality, or in extreme cases unreadable, translation. As a result your translation might read as if has just come from Google translate, which you can have for free, so why bother? Or at its best it will simply read awkwardly, might not convey the meaning it should, or even have punctuation, grammatical or spelling errors. I personally encounter many bad translations provided for government and not-for-profit organizations, which often read as if written by someone who lacks basic writing skills. The translator might understand both languages, but their lack of writing skills or specialist subject knowledge make the translated document read like it was written by a primary school pupil. Does such a result justify cost-cutting policies when hiring the translation provider? Such a policy is, in effect, wasting the money spent on a poor translation for the sake of saving a few hundred pounds.

Of course one can say that for larger translation projects the translation agency has an advantage over the professional translator. I do not agree. Most good professional translators have developed excellent networks with other highly professional translators all over the world. They can handle big projects in a highly efficient manner, as they often have superb project management skills in addition to their experience and knowledge. Yes, they might not come cheap, but the quality of their work will be far better than that where the project manager (often) has no knowledge of the language(s) of the project, as may well be the case with an agency.

In summary, before you decide who should handle your important translation, it is worth thinking whether your priority is saving money, or getting your message across in the most effective manner.  Or to put in more colloquially, if you pay peanuts…for an alternative take on this discussion.

I am aware of the limitation of the human being, however skilled and experienced, therefore I would love to see your thoughts on this subject. Please leave your comments and share the knowledge. Thank you.


About acgtranslation

Highly qualified English Polish translator and entrepreneur, business coach and consultant, quantum chemistry researcher and lecturer. Translation specialities: Business, Scientific and Medical Translation. Bilingual with two bilingual daughters; vivid reader.

Posted on February 12, 2011, in Translation quality and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Thank you for discussing this hot topic! I have also discussed it previously on my blog ( Another dilemma when using translation agencies is that you cannot guarantee to get the same translator every time for an ongoing project. This might jeopardize consistency and quality. When using a freelance translator directly, the deadlines cannot be as tight, but you are sure to get the same quality translation and consistency all the time.

    • Hi Tess, thanks very much for your comment and sharing a link to the topic on your blog. Lots of valuable thoughts there! I agree with your comment about consistency and quality. Absolutely spot on:) Best wishes, Aga

    • Thank you Tess for you valuable input and the link to your article. Using agencies can indeed easily jeopardize quality and consistency of the translation, when using different translators for a big project.

  2. Great post!! Thank you!!
    I have added your post to my blogroll on my blog. I keep an eye on this blog 😉

  3. Hi, Aga!

    I touched similar subject in my blog post ( You arguments are brilliant, we have to educate clients and spread the word about professional translations. I wish more direct clines were aware of all mentioned issues.

    P. S. Included your blog on my “Translation and l10n resources” page. Happy translations!

    • Hi Marta,
      Thank you for your comment and the link to your post – I will certainly have a look.
      I fully agree we need to educate those who need translation services in order to enable them to make an informed decision. There are far too many bad translations around, so the more we write about them, the more advice we give on what to look for when hiring the translator provided, the more chance the clients would get it right. Together we are definitely stronger and all can benefit from mutual learning.
      Thank you for including me in your blogroll:)
      Best wishes, Aga

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