Freelance Translators: The Preferred Solution

There’s been much ado lately about the rise of the freelance economy. More workers want the flexibility of independent careers and more companies need freelancers to scale labor efficiently to meet client demands.

Interestingly, the freelance economy is nothing new when it comes to translation services. Freelancers have long been the backbone of the industry. Most professional translators are actually independent contractors…and prefer it that way. The arrangement benefits translators, language service providers, and where it matters the most: the translation customer. Here’s why:

1.  Autonomy. Historically, translators worked together in offices because they needed the infrastructure. Transmitting information was difficult (faxes, banks of dial-up modems and phone lines), transferring money internationally was expensive, and it was difficult to market services to a large enough audience. However, because of the Internet and international payment systems like PayPal, translators no longer need access to an office. Technology has made it very easy for individuals to “hang a shingle” and work as professional full-time translators without going into an office everyday. The world’s best translators, especially those with experience in highly specialized subjects, prefer to work as freelancers and have so much demand they only accept the jobs they want to do. What could be better?

2.  Specialization.  The best translations come from translators who are subject-matter experts as well as linguists. In the same way that it would be very difficult for someone to explain text about a subject (such as electrical engineering or law) with which they are unfamiliar, it is equally difficult for translators to comprehend and fluidly translate a document about a subject they don’t deeply understand. When you don’t know vocabulary or how terminology is standardly used, the translation does not read smoothly. This is especially problematic because English, a common source language, is highly context-sensitive. For example, the term “derivative” is expressed differently when used in a finance, mathematics or legal context. In fact, many “awkward” translations, often dismissed as “translated by a machine,” are done by a translator who simply does not understand what they are reading. They do a very literal or “wooden” translation.

3. Better outcomes. If a company has in-house translators, they must use them preferentially to keep them busy. So if they receive an assignment for a legal translation from Spanish to English, but only have generalists or technical translators available in-house, the economics mean those employees will be asked to perform the translation. In short, the best translator for the job isn’t necessarily doing the job. Additionally, it is impossible to staff for the highs and lows of translation demand. Either the costs would be astronomically high to pay people to sit in a room and not translate (and those costs would be passed on to customers), or they would not have the capacity to take on large volumes of work. Many of the largest traditional translation agencies outsource translation to other in-country translation companies with their own internal teams – with all the aforementioned issues. Technology enables the management of networks of individual freelance professionals to be easily coordinated and scaled. It’s more efficient and more effective.

Knowing this, having a team of freelancers working on your project shouldn’t alarm you, as it is truly to your advantage. However, you should know about your team’s qualifications. If you are unsure, here are three good questions to ask your language service provider:

  1. How does the company find, test and manage the quality of freelance translators?
  2. How does the company use technology to manage large teams of individual translators?
  3. Do team members have experience with the subject matter?

In the end, this is what’s key to know about these independent contractors:  freelance does not mean part-time or not professional. These individuals have both professional degrees and years of experience in their craft. They are the best in their fields and those who are best equipped to handle your translation needs.

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