Subcontracting translations still seem to have a dubious reputation amongst freelance translators. Negative comments about “cutthroat agencies” are commonplace, and usually seem refer to all translation service providers not working as freelancers. There has been a slight shift in recent years, however, and freelance translators and translation companies have started to work together. When speaking about my own company, which works with in-house – as well as external – translators and proof-readers, I prefer the term translation service provider to agency. In fact, the majority of our working hours in the office are spent translating and proofreading. It is when we are fully booked or our customers require language combinations or specialities that extend beyond the expertise of our internal staff that we rely on help from our freelancers. I’ve chosen the word “rely” deliberately, because without our freelancers it would not be possible to provide services in the quality and to the extent our customers have come to expect from us.
Due to the growing complexity of translation projects, project management takes up considerable time and requires particular skills. This is why we manage translation projects, which allows our freelancers to concentrate on translating. For each new project, one of our two project managers start by setting a time schedule, determining the amount of time required for the translation, quality control and any follow-up work, before selecting and contacting a suitable translator and proofreader. Great importance is attached to consistency – we always try to use the same freelancers for projects sent in by the same customers. The project manager then prepares the projects, which includes converting documents into the right format for use with CAT tools, compiling terminology lists, translation memories, style guides and reference texts as well as issuing any other work instructions. During the translation and proofreading stages, our project manager supports translators and proof-readers by clarifying any questions with the customer. Once a translation has been delivered and proofread, the project manager checks the final document, sends it to the customer and completes the project by updating translation memories and terminology databases, as well sending the reviewed version back to the translator as feedback. Before wrapping up the project, they contact the customer to ask if he/she was satisfied with the standard of work provided and, if this is ever not the case, manage any complaints.
Our project managers rely on good, close cooperation with our translators and proof-readers to avoid making this complex workflow even more complicated. That is why they appreciate quick responses to job enquiries from freelancers (within an hour). Clear communication is essential. That is why our project managers love concise answers such as: “I can complete the translation by 12:00pm on Tuesday”, or “I’m afraid I’m fully booked today and tomorrow”. Emails that waffle on for no good reason only hold up the process. It goes without saying that our project managers have to be able to rely on freelancers adhering to the agreed deadlines, as late deliveries may have a domino effect and put a spanner in the entire project workflow. Our freelancers are also required to produce high-quality translations. That may sound obvious, but unfortunately every so often we receive translations that do not contain the provided terminology, have not been thoroughly researched or, in places where the source text is unclear, are quite clearly the product of “guesswork”. Good freelancers are recognised by the fact that they ask questions, point out any errors or ambiguities in the source text, deliver on time and graciously accept feedback.
We know that we expect a lot from “our” freelancers, but we believe that we also offer a few benefits in return. As the interface between customers and translators, we communicate with both parties, negotiate customer prices and delivery dates, clarify any questions and provide all information to the translators in a clear and concise manner. Our project managers resolve any unusable format or formatting issues and select the right terminology databases, style guides and reference materials. Our freelancers can turn to us if they have any questions and receive constructive feedback after each project, helping them to develop further. And last but not least, we are liable for the business risks – should something go wrong with a translation or a customer become bankrupt, we bear the risk. We view our freelancers as true partners. This is also shown by the fact that we do not “dictate” prices. Of course, as a translation service provider, we are not spared from general price pressure, but we stick by the principle that our freelancers set their own prices and not the other way around.
So how do we find these great people? They are certainly not recruited from the kinds of emails sent to a long list of “undisclosed recipients”, with the subject lines reading something like “My services are boundless. My projects are done on schedule” (yes, this is a real-life quote from an email I received). We actively search for and find most of our freelancers, for example through professional organisation directories, and we often continue working with former interns. Once we have found a new candidate whom we believe to be suitable, we first test the waters by sending smaller jobs (but no unpaid test translations!). If the translations are of high quality and delivered on time and all other criteria are met (see above), we strengthen our collaboration and commission an increasing number of longer or more challenging translations, depending on orders. We document all feedback in our project management software, which provides our project managers with a quick overview of which freelancers are particularly suited for which projects.
We now have a large pool of freelancers at our fingertips. Naturally, we have our favourites for certain language combinations and subject areas and always ask them first. We find our collaboration very enriching, both on a professional and personal level. Freelancer days, during which we offer free training, give us a chance to meet the people behind the translations, but we have also formed plenty of close relationships over the phone and by email. We would like to thank our freelance colleagues, who share our work ethics and quality standards, for also helping us to continuously improve and for reminding us how much we love our profession!