Lesson 53: How direct clients go about getting translation?

Lesson 53: How direct clients go about getting translation?

Last week I spent three days in Germany at one of the biggest IT fairs in Europe – CeBIT – together with Rose Newell from The Translator’s Teacup (lingocode). The event was co-hosted by Poland, with over 200 Polish companies exhibiting. Apart from networking and chatting with potential clients, I also picked their brains about the ways they are getting translation and localisation done. Below are some of my observations that I drew from conversations with small and medium companies. So, this is how they go about getting things translated and what that means to us.

1. Translation and localisation handled by the parent company

A number of companies I talked to are subsidiaries (or local branches) of bigger American parent companies. A fair proportion of them told me they get their translations and localisations done in America and local branches have access to the files prepared for them. In such cases, the big American parent company usually works with an agency to handle the various multilingual projects. The results, according to the exhibitors I talked to, are not always satisfactory and they end up amending texts in-house using people without any linguistic background.

2. Translation and localisation outsourced locally

These exhibitors said they receive texts in English from their parent companies and then they look for people to translate documents into their local languages. These companies usually use translation agencies without putting much thought into their choices and often end up dissatisfied with end results.

3. Marketing department handling translation and localisation

For some companies, translation and localisation are part of marketing. I think it’s important to find out who handles translation and localisation at a potential client’s company, because the approach we’d take to pitch to a marketing person would be slightly different from trying to convince a CEO. Another positive side to dealing with the marketing department is that we can offer more services.

4. Bilingual in-house staff does the translation

What struck me most was the fact that plenty of companies were so dissatisfied with the quality of translation provided by agencies that they resorted to using their in-house bilingual staff UNTRAINED in translation or localisation. These companies are not usually happy about that, because their staff “should be doing something else”, but they feel they have no other choice.

5. In-house professional translator does the translation

Finally, some companies appreciate the value of translation so much that they hire in-house translators to cope with the workload and ensure quality. Exhibitors working with in-house translators emphasise that they are happy with the quality and are ready to reward their professional translators accordingly.

What does it mean to us?

I can see plenty of ways we can broaden our offering or tailor our marketing to appeal to different direct clients. It’s important, though, to find out more about their modes of operation. One way of doing that is attending trade fairs. Here’s a video I recorded with Rose to help you out a bit:


  1. Nick Rosenthal , on Mar 13, 2013 at 13:45 Reply

    Then there’s another category of client, who you don’t seem to have met there. Those who work closely with translation companies to develop a successful strategy; one that involved project managers who are themselves qualified translators, and involves not just using professionally qualified translators but also providing them with with product training; and one that involves a feedback loop to continuously improve the quality of the source documentation.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Mar 13, 2013 at 13:52 Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Nick!

      I’m sure there are clients who are extremely happy when working with high quality agencies, no doubt about that. I didn’t want to give any other impression in the post, but I decided to concentrate on these scenarios when freelancers can actually convince the clients to change their non-functional strategies.

  2. Marga Burke , on Mar 13, 2013 at 13:54 Reply

    A very interesting post – thanks for sharing, Marta! I was especially struck that the companies who used untrained in-house staff said they found translation agencies unsatisfactory in terms of quality. It’s so easy to assume that when a company does this, it’s because they don’t really value or understand quality in translation, but here it sounds as though it’s almost the opposite reason – they had such poor experiences with agencies that using their own non-translation staff was the better option.Very useful food for thought.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Mar 13, 2013 at 13:59 Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Marga!

      I was quite surprised when talking to some clients, too. The general vibe was that they felt disappointed by low quality agencies and they had to resort to other solutions. This is an entirely new perspective for me in terms of understanding clients.

  3. Tess Whitty , on Mar 14, 2013 at 06:42 Reply

    Thank you for a very interesting post. I agree with the comments above, the most striking thing is that companies are dissatisfied with translation agencies and start using inhouse non-translators for their translations instead. That is a clear argument for using professional freelance translators. I look forward to hearing if the conference gave any solid results later on.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 4, 2015 at 01:47 Reply

      Thank you, Tess, and I feel it’s always better to work with professionals than otherwise 🙂

  4. Sara Freitas , on Mar 14, 2013 at 13:24 Reply

    It is always helpful to understand how customers view our profession from their side of things. And I can confirm that some of my clients have had so many repeated experiences with poor translation into English that they call me for ***copywriting*** because they are convinced that there is no such thing as a good translation and that writing directly in the target language is the only solution. Depressing for our profession, but encouraging for enterprising freelancers ready to seize these kinds of opportunities!

  5. Lukasz Gos , on Oct 11, 2013 at 14:32 Reply

    So, you need to bridge the connection between #5 and #4 and the #1 and #2 (#3 could be easier because marketers should be sensitive to image issues and smart enough to realise that language is one of the latter). If you had a way to make dudes with in-house professional translators talk to dudes without, you’d be golden. Is there actually a way you could get some comments you could use, anyway?

    However, the delicate problem here is that #4 creates the correct impression that translators live off a soft skill, which it then takes to an extreme, suggesting that translation is a low-level task that assistants shouldn’t be wasting time on. That’s a little similar to bad experience from #1-#2, as, after all, the people who made those bad translations were supposed to be professional translators. The result is that the pros are atypically seen as weaker than the amateurs. Emphasising the word ‘professional’ is not the cure, as it only further pushes the translator down the slippery slope of apology and justification in his outreach to potential clients.

    Guess this is what led to the value proposition less a dozen instalments forward?

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 4, 2015 at 01:52 Reply

      I guess the moral is that if you call yourself a professional, you better work like one and this should(?) be enough 😉

  6. Lukasz Gos , on Oct 11, 2013 at 14:36 Reply

    Sara, it’s possible to be both, and perhaps better for the translator anyway. Having marketing translated, and agreeing to translate marketing, is bound to lead to misunderstandings, the first of them being the fact that translators are potentially expected to deliver a better job than the typical marketer, as in connect with the audience, research its habits and unspoken expectations, avoid offending certain sensibilities, make sure to trigger certain other ones on the other hand etc. All of the foregoing at a fraction of what real marketing probably costs.

    On the other hand, we’re writers by necessity, and the line is never sharp, so we end up translating copy or sort-of-copy anyway, which makes us good candidates for the job of copywriting, especially if it’s gotta be someone who can keep in touch with both cultures, not just localise the heck out of the content for the target audience.

  7. Rob Prior , on Jan 13, 2014 at 13:33 Reply

    Good article and video. One problem is that tickets for these trade fairs can often cost several hundred Euros, which can be an issue for people starting out (like me)

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 13, 2014 at 13:34 Reply

      True. However, this particular one was largely free if you looked for tickets at the right websites. Look for free/almost free events in the beginning.

  8. Annie Sapucaia , on Nov 27, 2015 at 16:31 Reply

    Very interesting post. I wonder if any of the clients you interviewed talked about why they’d work with an agency as opposed to a freelancer? Would, despite the lack of quality satisfaction, a company still feel like they’d need to use an agency simply because of the volume of documents that they can handle?

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 30, 2016 at 14:45 Reply

      Sometimes, yes. This is why letting the clients know we can also coordinate projects with other freelancers is so important 🙂

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