How tech can free translators from agency-dependency, obscurity

As translators we’re constantly resisting commoditisation, particularly among even our own colleagues, the agencies said to represent us. It’s common to find yourself waiting 3 months for payments, renegotiating rates on every job with that same awkward client, being offered inhumane deadlines and ‘urgent’ work. Taking control of business and dictating how projects will run on your own terms is the way off the agency treadmill. Unfortunately, you’re then competing with those very same agencies for the very same clients. So how do we make the leap over to a majority of direct clients, without the marketing budgets or big offices and sales forces to compete?

We have a major asset on our side. We are nimble and can react much quicker to change than companies that require meetings, planning and bureaucracy before signing off on new accounts. Our clients are not the same, either. Agencies want the big accounts that can cover the costs of the offices, sales forces and marketing budgets. They need them to stay afloat. They trade on volume. We can make a perfectly good living from lots of smaller clients offering, for example, one or two £3-500 per month, 1-3 days each, for 5 or so jobs. Perfectly acceptable, less stressful and more time to work on the jobs themselves, making everyone happier. Now, you can set about making these sales yourself through a website, trade show visits, cold calls and myriad other ways, such as those I set out in my book which can be read for free online here. But you can also, alongside your (ideally) daily prospecting and promotion efforts, take part in a project that I’ve named, in a wholly corporate-compatible manner, Linguaquote.

LQ will draw in small companies, your ideal direct client, as well as departments of larger companies, and present you and only a select few of your colleagues to them for their translation requirements. They pay us to access quality profiles of vetted professional translators, each having a minimum of either a language or translation degree from a recognised university, and/or a membership of a translation association that can hold them responsible. The catch-all requirements of either a suitable qualification or enough provable qualification or experience to be accepted as a member of a professional association filters out the low-balling competition who do our industry no good, and are constantly driving down prices for everyone. Yes, globalisation is a real force, and yes, living standards vary, but if a company in Europe wants to work with a European for native quality, they should expect to pay European prices.

What about projects we can't handle?

Another problem we face when branching out to cater for direct clients is that we cannot match the agency for one key offer - we can’t easily form multilingual teams for larger projects. We’re forced to reach out to colleagues, make arrangements with fees, payments, invoices and email chains with dozens of contributors. It’s a mess. Enter LQ, once again, offering a simple interface for adding translators of any language pair (provided they are vetted and approved) to any project. Communication via the project comments and brief section is a breeze, and uploaded source or target files can be shared (encrypted with a password of your choosing, if required) with dozens of prject collaborators in minutes, without taking up inbox space or facing size restrictions.

This also means that translation buyers on the LQ site can easily put large or small ad-hoc teams together for short or long-term projects, saving them the hassle and overhead of dealing with an agency. No project management fees. No commissions to pay. No hard sell. Just upload the file, describe it in the brief, answer questions in the comments and provide an invoicing address.

Now, to be clear, LQ accepts agencies as account holders, but these must pass very stringent controls on their background, payment practices, association membership and more besides. Buyers can compare the cost of a hand-picked team of specialists against the typically higher costs of an agency on-site, meaning that we are less likely to lose the buyer who will also be comparing providers off-site. This works in everyone’s interests. If the buyer decides to not manage the picking of their team and just commission the agency in the end, they remain on the site after the project and if there were any issues they may be tempted to try to hand pick the next time. In either case, they remain in the marketplace and we don’t lose them once they’ve picked a larger LSP.

An alternative solution to this problem of trying to compe with agencies could be to rely on being contacted through associations. This is the pre-internet solution, basically, where the gatekeeper for each country was a fine source of reliable translators. The benefit of an online, vetted, marketplace is that you can access the world’s associations in one search. And the translator no longer gets BCCd onto dozens of clearly list-based emails just by virtue of having a public profile on an association site. OK, that might still happen, but it won’t get worse by being an LQ member - contact details are only available to paying members. Going direct and picking their own translation team is the last resort for translation buyers. It’s possible, but still a highly fragmented and time consuming process, trawling individual websites, unvetted platforms, checking references and quality, without ever being able to vouch for the honesty of each profile.

How do you trust a provider?

The reliability of review systems used on platform sites is highly suspect. They can be gamed quite easily and offer little value to the buyer, where any praise is invariably perfect and any complaints mired in debate. Simple, usually easily solvable disputes are rarely black and white. Multiple complaints can be good evidence of poor service, despite qualifications, so strict vetting, as associations do, as LQ does, coupled with a feedback system and report log, can mitigate this risk to a satisfactory degree.

LQ brings the best of all of the above together, focusing on quality and expertise, but also featuring secure file sharing, ridding teams of email deluge issues, sharing info between whole teams at speed, with full backups and security taken care of: an untappable SSL connection to the site (see the padlock in your browser), secure AES encryption that only you can unlock, with all site passwords themselves encrypted and stored away from the public site directory.

Given the desire to see an improvement in the image of the translation industry, and how the translators themselves are the lifeblood of the industry, accounts for freelancers are cost-free. It would be disingenuous to charge membership or commissions, I think, particularly seeing how much we depend on quality translators working with us. On the other hand, the business needs cash to survive, so will charge for small upgrades, such as visibility and project management options. LQ will charge agencies to join, as mentioned above, and also translation buyers to access the site. With enough accounts on board, the system should start moving in the right direction, allowing for design and structure improvements on an ongoing basis. The feature-set will remain small and focused, keeping the primary goals of the site in mind: more direct work for freelancers, easier access to LSPs for buyers.

What about the competition?

I’m sure there will be very similar competitors emerging soon, but I've been working on this concept for 5 years now and nothing serious has come up yet. Every competitor seems to be a bog-standard translation platform clone, or targeted specifically at software translation. Nothing with strict vetting and high quality standards as of yet. It'll come, but we're still a touch ahead of the curve, if this is the direction of the trend.

It has taken me 5 years to get to this point because when not working on the site I was working freelance to fund the essentials of a new family, materially speaking, then finally concentrating on our baby George for the first year of his life. Now that the brick-dust and feeding has settled I’ve been able to dedicate more time to it this year than ever. With around 200 freelancer accounts collected in the initial iterations of the site (there have been 3 major ones), it’s time to start accepting again and raising that number. LQ already covers many hundreds of language pairs, but it needs wider coverage still to satisfy buyers. That is why, before the sales efforts to small business owners and other translation buyers begin, it’d be perfect to expand our language pair offer.

I’m also sure that the LQ site and concept can be improved upon, but for now it seems to strike the right balance between profit motive and will to benefit the industry that I hope you will appreciate. A charity or cooperative structure might be better, for instance, but it’s a hard sell all round, particularly with little incentive to develop smart and efficient systems. To be honest, I wouldn’t rule out a different structure in the future, but for now LQ is ready for you to come in and take a look. Sign up, wait for approval, then have a quick browse. We’ll be in touch when things start to pick up job-wise, but really appreciate your support at this stage.

Thanks again,

Luke

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