There was a time when dinosaurs dominated the world of translation: huge great lumbering beasts of companies with offices in every major world city and thousands of contractors at their fingertips. They offered every language pair, every specialism and every service under the sun, all overseen by huge teams of project managers in vast offices filled with piles of paperwork. But things don’t stay the same forever, and with the rise of the internet and a new focus on niche services a very different kind of professional translation service is on the rise: the boutique translation agency.
They may be small, but don’t underestimate their appeal to translators and clients alike.
What are boutique translation agencies?
Light on their feet
Boutique translation agencies take their cue from boutique advertising companies, the new form of PR that aimed to offer something different to the behemoths of the ad world. Just like their marketing forerunners, boutique translation agencies are small, nimble and fast-paced. Unlike the larger firms that worry so much about economies of scale, boutique agencies offer specialised services with a high degree of personalisation and flexibility.
Boutique firms have staff that can react quickly and flexibly to any new challenge, because they aren’t spending their time churning out huge amounts of repetitive work. They’re free to follow opportunities, evolve and change rapidly through time, leaving big global corporations in their dust. They don’t have a vast translation team of unknown and untested contractors, but rather they work with a small and trusted group of contacts, so the relationships within the agency tend to be closer. This means that quality control is not a matter of ticking boxes as it is with larger companies, but rather comes down to close working relationships where managers have in-depth, detailed knowledge of all their staff’s skills and strengths, and can draw together the perfect team for each project.
Exactly what you need
Specialisation is also one of the biggest strengths of these new and nimble agencies. Unlike massive international companies, they aren’t Jacks of all trades and masters of none. No one can truly specialise in everything, and larger companies run the risk of spreading themselves too thin at the expense of quality. Boutique agencies are at the other end of the scale, offering very specific niche services. They know their strengths and they know their target market’s needs, as well as having a comprehensive understanding of the language, culture or industry they specialise in.
Different firms have different ways of narrowing down to a specialisation. Some focus on a particular subject area or industry, for example legal, marketing or technical translations. These agencies focus on hiring translators who are experts within that industry, many of whom will have had a previous career elsewhere before becoming translators. Other agencies specialise in particular languages, amassing a team of native Russian translators, for example, but with a wide range of interests, knowledge and skills. These teams offer particular advantages because they can combine the different subject specialisms of their translators in line with the client’s needs. Many of these agencies also offer specialised services such as localisation, DTP or web services like SEO and web marketing, all in combination with translation. This allows a team of different professionals, all with a comprehensive understanding of your language pair or industry, to work together fluidly and produce an excellent finished product exactly to your specifications.
The personal touch
In line with the fantastic opportunities for specialisation that boutique agencies offer, clients and staff alike tend to find these firms are much more personal than the big multinationals.
Smaller agencies can offer a highly tailored and personalised service built around your needs rather than the company’s ‘way of doing things’. Instead of forcing you to fit their box, they will shape their work to suit your needs. You’re likely to experience less bureaucracy and paper pushing, because a smaller team can find common sense solutions instead of having to rely on endless protocols. And you’ll have access to the people that matter. Often a smaller translation company will be directly managed by the CEO, who isn’t a fat cat investor sitting in a board meeting or playing golf, but is more likely to be a translator him/herself. At the very least you’ll have a regular, designated contact person within the company over time, so you’ll have an opportunity to build a good working relationship with your own project manager. And with a smaller company the team that wins your business is the exact one that will work on your project; unlike some of the less scrupulous bigger companies they won’t impress you with the CVs of excellent translators and then farm your work out to untrained, poorly qualified individuals.
A by-product of all this is that boutique agencies tend to be more detail-oriented and creative than their larger cousins. Unbound by pointless rules and procedures they’re free to offer the kind of personalised service that has clients returning year after year.
The client is king
Whereas big multinational corporations are bound by the bottom line, long-term relationships, reputation and old-fashioned business values mean everything to smaller companies. As they thrive by word-of-mouth and often keep their client list short, boutique agencies are heavily focused on client satisfaction and building trust. For smaller companies no account is too small to warrant their care and attention, and communication tends to be personal, efficient and meaningful.
Boutique agencies aren’t staffed by managers from other sectors with no real understanding of translation, and they don’t take on new translators with little evidence as to their skills and abilities. They tend to be run by passionate linguists who view their business as a vocation, not just a moneymaking exercise. That’s why you’ll often spot all kinds of added extra value when working with a boutique agency, along with a willingness to source additional services or skills in accordance with your needs. In short, they will go the extra mile for your business, because they know that’s how to win and keep custom.
The bottom line
Finally, you’ll get more bang for your buck with a boutique translation agency, as many of these companies offer outstanding value for money with no compromise on quality – in fact, often providing a more specialised and personalised service than a big provider of ‘off the peg’ translation solutions. They will be able to offer flexibility over rates and often have much lower overheads than multinationals. Some are based in countries with low tax rates and rents, while others save by managing their team online instead of assembling them in an office. Bearing all this in mind, a small budget to a global firm can often be quite a substantial one to a small agency, meaning you can get more for your money.
What aren’t boutique translation agencies?
Exclusive service, everyday prices
Boutique translation agencies needn’t be expensive. Although the term conjures an exclusive tailor-made experience, owing to the nature of these smaller companies you needn’t pay through the nose for it. For a start, they are less profit-oriented and more concerned with providing an excellent service, which is, after all, their unique selling point. Low overheads and innovative working practices also mean that if money is tight in your office a boutique agency might be just the right service provider for you.
Focused, not limited
Boutique translation agencies needn’t be limited in scope. Don’t confuse their emphasis on specialisation with a narrow focus. Any good small agency will have a network of highly skilled individuals on call, and can put together teams to tackle any text. The difference between these smaller translation agencies and the corporate giants is that boutique agencies know their limits and will not take on work on spec without knowing they can deliver. They also don’t keep huge numbers of staff on their permanent payroll just to cover any eventuality, so they can really save you money.
Small translation firms know that you want to pay for fantastic translation, not layer upon layer of middle management. You’ll have a project manager, whose role is to know the team inside out and be able to pick out the best individuals for your project. Good project managers are indispensable after all – but you won’t be paying for heads of business development, corporate strategists, marketing gurus, IT departments or any other of the staff members so indispensable to bigger clients. Instead you’ll find your team is flexible and diverse enough to tackle any of the challenges that come their way.
Up close and personal
Boutique translation agencies are the very opposite of corporate. You’re not just a number on a spreadsheet and you won’t receive formulaic service – rather the whole experience will be shaped around you. These firms don’t tend to be concerned with growth at any cost, but rather they prioritise building and maintaining a cast-iron reputation in a specific field. There are no economies of scale, which means every client matters, and customer service is by nature at the very heart of everything they do.
It easy to see why these agencies are becoming more and more popular, and in some sectors are now starting to corner the translation market. Bigger companies are running scared and looking to find ways to streamline their service offerings, but savvy clients are still abandoning impersonal companies in their droves, looking for something different. In the battle of David and Goliath you’d be forgiven for betting on the big guy, but don’t rule out the underdog. Putting meaning and value back at the heart of the translation process, it looks like these plucky contenders are here to stay.