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Inherent Problems of the Translation Industry: Agency-Driven Deadlines

This is the first article in a series about some of the most critical challenges our industry faces today. The point is not to rant (I like what I do)—I’m just interested in sharing my perspective with readers like you and getting your feedback. A good example of an inherent industry problem is what’s been happening in healthcare for years. Although many folks, including healthcare practitioners, understand that a body is a self-healing system and the focus of healthcare should be on prevention, the conventional system is designed to focus on drugs and surgery instead. The HCPs just can’t refocus on prevention because this will mean losing clients! This conflict of interest leads to dire consequences such as unnecessary lifestyle-related diseases, premature death, and sky-high medical fees.

Translators Don’t Have a Say

While the magnitude of the challenges in our industry is much lower than the one above, they do have a huge impact on our lives, too. One of the challenges is dealing with the agency-driven deadlines. When a translation agency (and agencies represent a huge part of the market) prepares an estimate for a client, they often do so without negotiating a deadline with a translator upfront. It’s only after the client confirms the estimate that an agency contacts a translator. But a deadline that originally made sense to an agency doesn’t necessarily make sense to a translator. Oftentimes, a translator is already busy with other projects and either grudgingly accepts the deadline, hoping to somehow squeeze it in, or is simply unavailable.

When Something Else Is a Priority, Quality Is Not

  1. A translator, the very person who does the most important and time-consuming part of a translation project, is often unable to have a deadline he/she feels is necessary to do a good job. As translators are expected to work faster with every year, deadlines get increasingly shorter. Many translators find themselves in a situation where they either accept whatever the deadline is on the table or go on without any work for days. Another compelling reason to accept an agency’s deadlines is that a translator doesn’t want to appear uncooperative, which can have a negative impact on his/her relationship with an agency. And I don’t have to tell you what happens to quality when a translator has less time than he/she needs and works under stress as a result.
  2. Now imagine that an agency can’t find a translator immediately, which isn’t that uncommon. While they spend precious time looking, the deadline keeps shrinking. When someone finally accepts a project, he/she has even less time that the agency initially planned. And less time means even lower quality.
  3. Because many translation projects are ongoing, a translation agency ideally wants to use the same translator for each new portion of a project. What happens when that individual is unavailable? Does an agency go back to a client to renegotiate the deadline? Some do, but some choose convenience over quality by simply giving the job to a different translator that has zero knowledge of the project. If an agency is lucky enough, this will only lead to inconsistency of this new portion with the previous ones because the translator will fail to re-use the existing translations. In the worst-case scenario, the new translator will also “improve” them and make errors resulting from misunderstanding.
  4. Another possible consequence is that big players generally prefer faster turnaround as it enables them to invoice clients quickly. As with all large organizations, a positive cash flow is a priority. Waiting longer than they planned is just not an option in this paradigm, and they have to put quick turnaround above all else.

Of course, I am generalizing here. There are agencies and translators that succeed in avoiding this death spiral. But I think my point is clear. Do you agree it makes sense? I barely scratched the surface of this issue. Your comments and additional ideas are more than welcome.


  • You are generalising, and I am sure that you are right.
    At Dixon Servicios Lingüísticos, SL, we always negotiate the longest deadlines possible with the client, based on their real needs (“urgent”, which is very commonly used, is a surprising non-specific and flexible term….) and never accept projects without having first defined an acceptable deadline with the translator. Acceptable for all parties, that is – the client, Dixon and the translators.
    This point is very closely related to another non-specific and flexible term employed in our industry – quality. We make it quite clear to clients who require very short deadlines that the focus of “quality” in such cases must be transferred from the translated text itself to compliance with the delivery deadline.
    As we tell our clients, we perhaps could provide you with an English translation of El Quijote by Monday morning, but please be clear that you won’t be receiving a translation on a par Edith Grossman’s. Your deadline would be met, but it is “highly likely” that the quality of the text will suffer.
    Perhaps we don’t follow industry practice in this sense, but unless the above is clear and accepted by all parties, we prefer not to accept “urgent” projects.

    • Hello Michael. First and foremost, thank you for being a regular reader! What you wrote makes perfect sense to me. I’d love to be in the same place and have clients that totally support this kind of policy. For me, it’s always a balancing act, though, as I juggle the diverse interests of clients, staff, and the bottom line. For example, I might be more willing to accept a project even with a slightly inconvenient deadline when I know that doing otherwise might result in staff downtime. And I love your El Quijote sales pitch 🙂

  • Victor Hertz says:

    While you make many excellent points, I would note that clients set deadlines not LSCs. At best the LSC advises the client.
    The problem of deadlines is a result of real world constraints like legal filing dates and planned meetings. Granted not all companies advise clients properly but you overestimate a company’s or even a client’s control of the situation.
    Finally, in this age of “instant MT”, clients are less willing to understand the time constraints of human translation. As a result, the burden of guiding clients has become more onerous.
    Remember no one likes the added stress of tight deadlines. Companies and translators are in general supporting the same goal.

    • Hello Victor. I appreciate your comment, thank you very much. I like your perspective, and since I was generalizing so aggressively, I totally agree with you—when a client sets a rigid deadline, an LSC can’t do much about it. Perhaps, my mistake was that I didn’t make myself completely clear. By the agency-driven deadlines, I basically mean those situations where a client lets an LSC set the deadline, and the LSC sets a deadline based on their needs and wants rather than those of a translator. I also believe that what Michael said above is absolutely true—“urgent is a surprising non-specific and flexible term.” Just last week, I had a client who originally requested their translation be delivered on Jan 22 (it was very urgent), but eventually agreed to Jan 28, simply because they felt they had no other option. They liked the previous translations we had done for them and didn’t want to go elsewhere.
      Cordially yours,

  • Nadine Touzet says:

    Thank you for taking this up. In a recent very large project I had to fight for reasonable deadlines (and that already meant less than acceptable deadlines) but after accepting them, the client kept insisting for me to complete the translation earlier (using the eternal excuse that my translation would be of excellent quality, anyway…). The reason? They wanted to make sure that the designers were given ample time to finish the job… The way I see it, they were far more interested in design quality than in translation quality.

    • Hello Nadine,
      Thank you for commenting! I totally agree with you. Oftentimes, an agency gives you two days for translation and then sends a PDF for proofreading a week after you delivered. This might be indeed frustrating. In our own projects, we do our best to allocate time to translation and other tasks such as DTP as reasonably as possible. And translation is always a priority in a project schedule.
      Yours sincerely,

  • Maxim says:

    > Переводчиков не спрашивают

    Не спрашивают, если одного исполнителя можно легко заменить другим. А если нельзя, то клиент спрашивает, когда удобно сдать проект, и может подождать, пока переводчик не освободится.

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.