Freelance translators have their say: Is it better to work with agencies or direct clients?
Part of the joy of being a freelancer is being able to choose exactly who to work with – no more difficult bosses, unreasonable line managers or slacking co-workers, hooray! But with all this freedom to pick and choose, it can be hard to develop a strategy for choosing companies to work with. Is it better to head straight for companies operating directly within your target market, known as ‘direct clients’, or are there more benefits to working for translation agencies? We spoke with some working freelance translators to find out what they thought about this perennial question.
Direct clients: big bucks and big risks
Martin, a freelance German to English translator with a background in marketing and informational texts, is a big fan of direct clients. ‘Some of my most lucrative work since going self-employed a few years ago has been for direct clients. I’ve taken quite a few large projects, one of which for an educational company which ran full-time for a year and paid very well indeed.’ Martin’s experiences seem to be quite typical. Direct clients do often pay quite well as there’s no middleman taking a cut. It’s also quite common to find direct clients with large project requirements, who might take on a team of translators to work on a big project for a number of months.
This sort of contract work suits some people down to the ground, but as Martin says, ‘The problem is that working full-time for one client doesn’t allow you to build a broad client base. When my large educational project ended I was back to square one, with no cash coming in and no clients. Luckily as a single guy this suits me well. With my education contract I saved up plenty of money to tide me over the inevitable dry spell, and I even managed to reward myself for a year of hard work with a dream holiday to Japan. But this might not be an ideal approach for translators who have a family to support.’ Even if you don’t take full-time project work but managed to find a company with an ongoing steady stream of translation needs, you might still be vulnerable to them going out of business, although, of course, the same market forces apply to translation services companies too.
Georgia, who began working as a freelance Spanish to English translator after finishing her prestigious Diploma in Translation, adds that there are other advantages too. ‘I specialise mainly in legal, although I also have medical, business, literary and journalistic translation experience. I’ve found that approaching end clients directly allows me to focus on exactly the kind of translation I enjoy.’
But not all freelancers find it worthwhile to approach clients directly, as Lorna explains: ‘I love literary and academic translation, both fields in which it’s very hard to get direct clients. Although I do work directly for some individuals, particularly academics who regularly publish work, in general I’ve found direct clients don’t provide enough work for me to make a living, and so working for academic and literary translation agencies helps me to fill the gaps. I’ve only been a freelancer for a short time though, so maybe this might change as I get more established.’
Georgia also points out that even though targeting legal clients has been worthwhile for her, there’s still a lot of work involved. ‘Translator friends who work mainly for agencies often look envious when I tell them about the rates I charge, but it’s easy to forget that there’s so much extra work for me. I have over 200 companies on my books now, and it’s so hard to balance all their needs. I’m finding it necessary to outsource some work in order to keep them, which can be stressful – I never wanted to be a project manager! When you add up all the time I’ve spent marketing myself, approaching clients, communicating with them, finding trustworthy outsourcers and paying them, my hourly rate isn’t as amazing as it looks from the outside. Some weeks it’s tumbleweed and silence, and other weeks everyone’s emailing me with urgent deadlines! So there are lots of late nights and my partner suffers a bit. I do wish things were a bit simpler.’
For many freelancers. agencies provide the bread and butter of their work. John, who worked as a court translator in the Greek and English legal systems for many years, became a freelancer after a period of ill health. ‘In 2005 I was diagnosed with ME, which causes inflammation of the brain and spinal chord and leads to chronic exhaustion. I’d had a very successful career so far and was extremely busy, so at first I thought I was just burnt out. After my diagnosis I did take some time off, and my wife supported the family alone, but this was never going to be a long-term solution. For me freelancing allowed me to work more flexibly. Because I have such limited energy levels I work solely for agencies now. Yes, they pay a bit less but it’s a lot less stress, everything is taking care of and I just submit an invoice once a month. I’ve had to let go of some of my old drive and ambition, which is hard, but it’s been the perfect solution for my family.’
But agency work is not incompatible with grand plans to build your career – quite the opposite. Marta started out as an English to Polish translator, but now works as a PM for a small London-based agency. ‘When I started I didn’t have any dreams of being a manager. I always liked language and was very well-organised though. I worked a lot with this one agency and when one of their project managers left they asked me if I would for his job. Three years later I am still doing it! I love communicating with different clients and translators and making sure everyone is happy. Now my goal is to start my own company one day.’
She has plenty of good things to say about agency work. ‘For the translators, we can offer such an interesting range of work. You never know what is going to arrive in your inbox, which makes every day exciting. You can also work with other translators and linguists on a regular basis, which is great for networking. I know someone who met her husband working for an agency! Also we can offer a reliable flow of work to our translators. We have worked with some of our freelancers for many years, and the relationships are really fruitful for everyone.’
Of course, no one is saying that you have to choose between direct clients and agency work, and in fact it might suit you best to have a mix. As your career grows, your personal life changes and your professional goals develop, you might find yourself favouring one or the other. While direct clients can offer big bucks they can also leave you out on a limb. Agencies might not pay quite as well, but they offer practical and social benefits that cannot be discounted.
What do you think? Are you an agitator for agencies or a direct client devotee? Let us know in the comments section!