The translation industry is one which has seen steady growth, particularly in the last two decades, and which is set to continue this trend for the foreseeable future, to the tune of at least 5% per year. The market just for Indian languages is worth around half a billion dollars annually, and the Asian translation market as a whole is worth close to $1.5 billion!
So it is not surprising that translation service providers are myriad – the leading translation portal ProZ.com lists well over 36,000 translation agencies in its directory and there are probably many times more than that which are not listed.
How does the translation business work?
A huge proportion of translation services are provided not by in-house staff but by agencies to which translation projects are outsourced. Translation is the classic example of a largely outsourced business whereby agencies act as “middle men” between clients and freelance translators whom they employ on an ad hoc basis. This arrangement suits everybody concerned, since freelancers come by a steady stream of work, clients for translation services do not have to concern themselves with finding freelancers and managing translation projects, and the agencies in the middle can earn a healthy margin whilst largely acting as brokers, though their task should also be to manage projects closely and provide stringent quality control.
How to start a translation business
A large proportion of the time, translation agencies are founded by freelance translators whose business has outgrown their own capacities and who have begun to outsource work and to take on an increasingly managerial role. Often this does not happen particularly intentionally, but organically, as the volume of business increases. Not every freelance translator will go this route, as running a business can seem a daunting prospect – though any freelance worker in any industry should really be running their affairs as a business from the outset if they want to enjoy real long-term sustainability.
For an existing freelance translator wanting to go to the “next level”, here are a few important steps that they would do well consider:
- Incorporation (if they have not done this already): there are many advantages to actually being registered as a business, but in particular the freelance translator needs to start thinking of him- or herself as a business rather than just a “lone wolf”.
- Building a team: although translation agencies rarely employ translators in-house, the would-be translation business owner needs to begin identifying potential associates – translators and editors with whom they will work more closely on a long-term basis and with whom they can develop a stable relationship and mutual understanding. This is far more preferable to trawling freelance sites every time a new project arrives, looking for translators whose standard of work cannot be verified with certainty and whose reliability is not guaranteed.
- Business profiling: the translation business needs to profile itself to a particular niche or market. There are far too many translation agencies that purport to offer services in “all languages and all fields”. Trust me, this is nonsense – none but the largest companies can possibly provide adequate quality control or reliable service with this approach. Far better to decide on a language combination in which to specialise – the choice will probably be obvious, based on the translator’s existing abilities. When I founded Odista, my own agency, I was very clear with myself that we would only accept Serbian-English translation projects and work on becoming the leading provider for that particular language combination.
However, you may be an entrepreneur who is considering entering this business with no prior experience of it. This is not particularly unusual and can also be successfully achieved: translation companies are run as businesses, and the project managers in charge of clients and vendors (freelance translators) are not in all cases translation professionals. Their job is primarily managerial – translations can go through a quality control process that does not directly involve the project managers, whereby freelancers are employed to conduct translation, proof-reading and editing, without the need for any quality control in-house.
However, it would probably be advisable for any entrepreneur planning to enter the translation market to have on board a language professional who understands what quality means from a linguistic perspective and how to achieve it.
Other than, similar advice applies as to freelance translators starting out in business, especially with respect to profiling your business – it is far better to focus on a limited number of languages for which you have identified quality providers. Also, it is highly advisable to choose carefully the fields in which your company will offer services. For example, medical translation is a very sensitive field requiring a whole level of quality control and expertise that cannot be established overnight. The same might apply for other specialist areas like law or engineering – these areas are best avoided for a startup translation agency until it has gained some experience in the industry.
One last piece of advice
Every company (not just a translation agency) needs to set up procedures for everything it does, so that all work is done according to the same standard workflow and quality control procedure. You can see an example of a basic translation project workflow. This also includes a paper-trail (albeit on-screen), which includes standard forms on which jobs are logged and tracked and purchase orders which are issued to freelancers before work is carried out, to name just a few key examples.
The translation industry can be a profitable one to break into. Provided quality is made paramount and the business carefully builds its own profile and identifies and capitalises on its target market, there is no reason for success not to be forthcoming.
About the author: Mark Daniels manages Odista, the Serbian-English translation agency he owns, based in Novi Sad, Serbia, and is also the author of the ebook “How to Become a Translator: Breaking into the freelance translation business” – a concise guide for would-be freelance translators.