Distinguishing Between True Translation Companies and Translation Broker-Agencies 
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Distinguishing Between True Translation Companies and Translation Broker-Agencies

(March 8, 2021)

The translation business abounds with entities purporting to be translation companies, but which are actually just translation brokers that purchase and resell translations, with not much value added in the process, and often little ability to ensure (or even know) the quality of the translations they resell.

Unwary customers who believe the hype fed to them by translation brokers will probably get what their credulity deserves, but there are a number of ways to distinguish the two types of players in the translation business. There are a few salient differences.

Quality or CapabilityTrue Translation CompanyTranslation Broker-Agency
In-house translation capability In-house translators, capable of both executing translations and handling any questions arising during or after the execution of the translation, including interaction that requires capability in both the source and target languages. Seldom any significant in-house translation capability, and this extends to the people charged with the task of finding translators (or subcontractors) to do your work, these people themselves often not knowing the languages involved.
Project management Projects are handled from the point of acceptance to the point of delivery by personnel (usually translators themselves) capable in the languages involved and the subject matter involved. Project managers are generally no more than traffic controllers, seldom having any language skills relevant to particular language pairs of translations they are seeking to broker by purchasing and reselling. This can be as serious as not even being able to recognize the language of a document to be translated.
Language specialization Specialized in a small range of language pairs. The best translations are produced by companies specializing in a single language pair. Most translation brokers expect their prospective clients to believe that they can handle translation from any language into any language. This is almost always a serious stretching of the truth, and even when they accept work that they purport to be able to handle, it is a very rare translation broker that can ensure (or even know) the quality (or lack of it) that they provide in many more than just a few language pairs.
Field-specific knowledge Takes on work only in fields in which they are confident of being able to ensure quality, and ensuring quality means more than merely trusting an outside translator or other subcontracting agency-broker to rescue a bad translation done by their first subcontractor; it requires in-house knowledge of the subject matter being translated. It is an extremely rare translation broker-agency that does anything more than simply rely on the subject-specific knowledge of their outside translators or subcontractors. If a poor translation is purchased and resold to a client, they might learn that only if and when the client discovers the problem. For this reason (and because many clients don't themselves have the ability to check quality) the problems sometimes go unnoticed.
Translation certification Certification by a known and identifiable translator, usually the translators who has executed a particular translation. Because the translator who executes your translation is most often not an employee of—and could even be unknown to—the broker (because of several tiers of outsourcing, often to China, as discussed in another article) and/or because the broker is reluctant to reveal the name of a translator (the person who essentially added the value to the translation they are selling), certification letters are often just signed by administrative employees of the broker who can be safely revealed to the client. This often means that the person signing a certifying letter is totally unqualified to judge the quality of the translation being certified, beyond relying on an act of faith.

What Are the Risks Involved in Using Broker-Agencies?

For the unwary customer, and particularly a customer who is not able to judge the quality of a translation, the use of translation brokers is indeed risky.

And the list goes on. Suffice it to say that a bit of care in choosing a translation provider can avoid painful and costly corrective work later. In a law firm, that care must probably be exercised by both attorneys and the paralegals who are charged with the task of ordering translations.

Weeding out the Broker-Agencies

Skepticism.  A healthy bit of skepticism can go a long way in revealing broker-agencies for what they are. "All languages into all languages" claims should light a warning lamp. Claims to have "thousands of registered translators" should also cause a bright blip to appear on a properly calibrated "broker-agency radar" screen.

Looking under the hood  One technique to use when interacting with what might be a broker-agency is to ask the project manager for the name of their in-house person in some particular language, since you might want to call them to ask questions. It would be best to imply that you might be calling them on the phone and might need to communicate in that language. For almost all broker-agencies, this should create quite a bit of anxiety and backpedalling on the part of the broker, and can be useful in revealing the emptiness of their claims.

Many brokers use the Internet and email as shields from such invasive testing of their actual capabilities, and in a phone conversation few are able to handle the languages they translate. They are, after all, brokers, not translation companies with in-house capability.