Professional translators typically had their start at translation agencies, working in-house or as a linguist contractor. Many established translators still have translation agencies as half of their source of revenue. My case is quite different in this context because I have solely worked with direct clients for the past seven years. I was extremely lucky to have had my translation skills appreciated by a highly connected mentor who would refer me to all kinds of translation opportunities. After I came to America four years ago, the success story repeated. I've had the honor of working with many well-respected research and advocacy organizations by referrals, word of mouth, and by dropping the phrase "I'm a translator" at the right place and at the right time.
Now, after many years of being on my own, I think it's time to explore the mysterious land of translation agencies. After all, committing full-time to a freelance career necessitates striking a good balance between direct clients and agencies: The time, energy, and resources spent on marketing and customer service for direct clients would be compensated by the ease and simplicity of working only on the technical side of a project with a translation agency. But correspondingly, the remuneration you would gain from your direct clients would be spread out among all the people working on an agency's project.
Unfortunately, not all translation agencies are created equal. Professionalism and quality treatment of translators do not automatically come with an agency status. So how do I go about selecting which translation agencies to work with?
Utilize directories of professional translation associations
I'm a member of the American Translators Association (ATA), 've been finding their Directory of Language Companies extremely useful when it comes to researching translation agencies. In my case, my selection of "English-into-Chinese" and "Social Sciences (General)" as my keywords generated 200 results.
Check websites for professionalism and industry specializations
I don't believe in simply sending mass emails when it comes to applying for anything. Working with an agency is forging a long-term partnership, and just like any relationship, compatibility is key. Here are some questions I ask myself when I check an agency out on their website:
1. Do they look and sound professional?
Of course, not everyone shares the same aesthetic preference but signs of making an effort at building a respectful professional image are always detectable. How do they talk about themselves? Do they demonstrate their authority and expertise?
2. Do they serve the industries I specialize in?
Make sure that your specializations fall into the scopes of a translation agency's projects. I've written before about why translators should have specializations. Understanding the fact that no translator can translate anything under the sun is a sign that one is serious about this industry.
3. Do they care about quality?
What do they emphasize: their unbeatable price or their unparalleled expertise? Do they have stringent selection criteria in place for contractors? I want to find an agency that knows a good translator when they see one.
Check their reviews and online reputation
Asking the three initial questions above gives me a list of application-worthy agencies. Then it's time to find out what are some of the agencies I should absolutely be working with. I do this by:
1. Yelping individual agencies. Probably less than 20% of translation agencies are listed on Yelp. Nevertheless, it always helps to take notes of the agencies that receive outstanding reviews.
2. Looking them up on Twitter. Many translation agencies have a Twitter account. While the number of followers and frequency of online activities are important, I pay most attention to how many of my translator colleagues are following each agency. I trust what people I trust find trustworthy.
Tailor my resume and cover letter accordingly
Do as the application instructions say. If they only ask for a resume, only send a resume. If they have an online form, fill out that form. That's the basic part. What I've been paying extra attention to is how my specializations are "branded" by each translation companies. Some say "public sector and nonprofits." Some spell it as "non-profit." Some call it "NGOs and nonprofits." I always make sure I conform to the agency's preferred categorization when I include my specializations. Does this really matter? I don't know. I just happen to delight in being meticulous.
Excel forms are great memory assistants. In my "agency matrix" file, which is what I name my translation agency application record, I note down their websites, specializations, when and how I applied, what I sent with the application, result of my applications, and additional notes such as their reviews and reputation.
That's how I choose what translation agencies to work with. Everyone says applying for agencies is a numbers game, but I think quality is just as important.