Things Translators Should Know Before Ending Their Relationship with Translation Agencies

Many translators wish to get more direct clients, foregoing translation agencies altogether with the hope that in doing so, they could raise their income. It's not incorrect to say you'd get more money from having direct clients, but you might overlook or forget an important part of getting these direct clients.

A translator's client types

We can split up the client base for translators into two types:

Indirect Clients: referring to a middleman; in our case, they are often translation agencies which may also be "Language Service Providers" (LSPs). Middlemen scoop up end-client case commissions, and then forward these cases as project packages to individual translators. After translators have translated the case, these middlemen will do document proofing. Once that's finished, they will send the polished end-product back to the end-client.

Translation agency businesses have a model of generally taking a cut from the total fee to pay for operating costs and earned profits. It's not certain exactly how much of a percentage is taken out, but it's not uncommon to see at least 50%. A translator may think that a cut of more than 50% is a lot because we intuitively believe that translations are mainly done by the translator, and we think it's only reasonable and fair that translators should take the lion's share of the earnings.

It is not uncommon to see middlemen taking more than 50% of the total fee.

But in reality, aside from translations themselves, agencies must still bear the burden of other overhead costs. Apart from rent, utilities, computers, software and other equipment and provisions, etc., agencies still have to hire editors and project managers. They even need to hire other businesses and buy advertising. 

Additionally, before a client has determined whether or not they will commission a case, plenty of costs have already been incurred, for example: the time spent on giving a quote to a client, bargaining, determining the draft content and the clients' needs, signing of a contract, and even explaining to the client what translation actually entails (Many clients aren't a part of our industry and they often don't understand the details of our kind of work). So regardless of whether or not they get the commission, translation agencies often cannot avoid these costs. They can only think of areas where they can cut down on costs.

Once the finished product has been handed back to the client, there are often other costs still, say, the client may have doubts about the end-product and incessantly demands a document revision, even going as far as trying to find any excuse whatsoever not to hand over payment for the product. Some dissatisfaction is to be expected, but some clients' unreasonable expectations arise from them not understanding the translation process. Many similar communication costs like this are something that agencies have to shoulder.

In other words, when a potential client is searching for an agency to provide them with translation services, the entire service really isn't just the one act of translating (transferring information from one language into another). It also includes various other services, and the background of these services are all considerable labor costs. Translation is fundamentally a labor-intensive industry. Even though automated translation and computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools have already brought about an industry-wide lowering of labor costs, the industry at present is still highly dependent upon human labor.

Now that we're finished talking about indirect clients, we'll now take a look at another type of translation client: direct clients.

Direct clients: referring to an end-client that wasn't contacted via a middleman. These clients are mostly small or medium-sized enterprises, often just an individual. Translators can regularly make comparatively large commissions from working with direct clients, and even double that of an agency's rates in some cases since there's no middleman getting involved and taking a cut.

Many translators work with agencies when just starting out because a rookie translator often isn't well-experienced enough to get cases independently. Getting case work from agencies that have abundant sources can help a translator to get work within a relatively short period of time. But in order to increase their earnings, many translators start to think about the possibility of starting up their own shop after working for a while with translation agencies.

But it's like I wrote earlier: when a client is commissioning a case, the costs involved are not at all just for the translation itself. In fact, translation may be the simplest and most straightforward portion of all the costs involved. Generally speaking, the only thing that translators have to do is getting the document translated well. Moreover, this process is largely taken care of by itself and translators don't really need to spend time negotiating a contract, or from an even more complicated point of view, they don't really need to placate another person's emotions.

So, when translators and agencies work together, what basically needs to be considered is the opposite party's prices, project deadline and payment deadline. If these conditions can be accepted by the translator, then they're good to go to start typing away. As for all the above-mentioned additional costs, such as a price offer and negotiations, explaining the work-flow, contract signing, reconciliation, billing, debt collection, and dealing with customer complaints, etc., these costs don't need to be born by the translator.

When cooperating with translation agencies, additional costs, such as negotiations and reconciliation, normally don't need to be born by the translator.

Another benefit of working with an agency is that as long as you tell them in advance, you can have peace of mind when you go on that vacation getaway. You don't have to worry about your trip being suddenly interrupted. That being said, with direct clients, it's not the same. For translators, every direct client is important, especially if their contribution towards your income is quite large or if they're a client with whom you've had a long working relationship. 

You can imagine if you're on vacation and you have a very important client who needs you to produce a rush translation of about ten thousand words, or else they'll lose a very important order. Would you take this case while you're on vacation? In this kind of situation, the considerations for taking or not taking the case are no long whether or not you need the money, but rather whether or not you want to keep a good business relationship with them.

Moving further, without a translation agency for support, your products could be considered the equivalent of an unedited draft. Are you 100% positive that you can get your draft right without errors every single time

Some other translators have told me that some translation agencies actually don't care that much about the end-product quality, and it probably wouldn't matter if they were editing something or not. Even so, when translators and agencies work together, the results of the work will only affect the reputation of the translation agency. A client's wrath wouldn't end up reaching you. But if your direct client contacts you with their complaints and anger, you can be sure that all the blame will go on you (however, there are of course ways of settling issues).

Translating is never just translation

So, if you're sure that you don't want to go through agencies and instead cultivate your own end-clients, then all the responsibilities that agencies take on will come down on your shoulders. Think for a moment: Are you willing to do all these extra business tasks? How much delight or pain do you take in doing these tasks? Is your personality suited for taking care of work that's unrelated to translating?

Many people will consider the amount of income before they start communicating with a client, but a consideration that's much more important than comparing incomes might be personality as well as your career expectations. Some translators are infatuated with translating, with strong skills in pondering about words, but they aren't too keen about communicating on matters outside of translating. If you have a personality or mindset like this, you might need to consider whether or not working with direct clients suits you, or which invested, specialized fields you should start your business from.


1. Working with indirect clients isn't necessarily a bad thing, and conversely, working with direct clients isn't exactly all sunshine and roses. Each type of client has their own advantages and disadvantages. When you're trying to choose, you should remember to consider your personality and expectations towards your career. And whatever you do, do NOT try to balance your options with income as the sole factor. Aside from that, you can also pursue developing your own clientele, finding the ratio of direct and indirect clients most suitable to your needs.

2. Right now is the "If the client succeeds, I succeed" era. The past-its-prime, selfish ("raise my own income"), one-dimensional way of thinking about clients has already become less and less useful. So if you're thinking of developing your own clients, you need to strive hard to remember that it's necessary to place your client front and center in your mind and try to understand their concerns on a deeper level.

This article was originally written in traditional Chinese by Joanne Chou, Co-founder of Termsoup, and later translated into English by Timothy L. Smith.

translation career


Joanne Chou

Joanne is an English-Chinese translator, a UI/UX designer, and the co-founder of Termsoup.