Standing Up for the Freelancer

Ironically, our industry often suffers from communication-related problems, primarily between agencies and freelancers. What would happen if both parties worked together to achieve a true partnership?

I began my career as a freelance translator, moved into a role as a project manager, and eventually became an agency owner. In 2016, I gave a presentation on looking out for the good of the freelancer at ATA’s Annual Conference in San Francisco. With 31 years of experience in the translation industry, I wanted to emphasize the importance of the freelancer’s role, speaking from my own personal experience.

As we all know, the translation industry has three key players: 1) the client, who purchases translations from the translation company, 2) the translation company, 3) and the freelance translator. There are thousands of freelancers crafting awesomeness for us all.

Freelancers work long, lonely hours. Their role is multi-purpose. Freelancers have to figure out what the source author is trying to say. They also have to deal with calls from frantic project managers begging them to take on another job. They are, in short, the pillars of our industry. Because of this, shouldn’t we, agencies, take special care of them? Shouldn’t we cater to their every need? I don’t think agencies give freelancers the appreciation
they deserve.

In 2007, I conducted research and asked translation companies to tell me the two main reasons why they chose one translator over another. The number one reason was quality, and the second reason was tools and technology (e.g., Does the translator use Trados?). I asked the same question nine years later, and the number one reason was subject matter expertise followed by price. It’s interesting to see how this has changed over the years and what’s considered most valuable in the industry.

A Shift in Perspective

I looked at how our agency was handling our freelance selection practices and relationships. Our resource manager would email candidates asking if they wanted to work with us. We would send them our rates and, if they agreed, we would test them. Once they passed our test, these translators would be incorporated into our workflow system for our project managers to use.

The resource manager would test our translators on a regular basis to make sure they were doing a great job. In short, our relationship with our freelancers was transactional, nothing more, nothing less. We knew freelancers were part of our process, but they were out there, somewhere in space, and we almost never spoke with them.

We kept this model for years until one of our employees asked, “Why don’t we re-think how we treat translators? Why don’t we make them key players in our business? Why not create a position where the job is to champion for the freelancer?”

It was a simple idea, but one that we had never thought of before. I was immediately sold on the concept. The first thing we did was to rename the resource manager position. We wanted a title that would summarize two concepts. The first, define who freelancers really are: they’re the talent in translation. Second, we wanted a word or phrase to describe the go-between freelancers and our in-house team. We created a new name for this very important position: talent liaison.

Making the Change

We then looked for the person in our company who would be best suited for this new position. Although our previous resource manager was awesome in many areas, she was not an out-of-the-box thinker. The person who would fill our talent liaison position needed to have excellent communication skills, since it would require communicating with freelancers, mostly in English. Although our standard practice when looking for a translator is to consult ATA’s online directories, some language requirements require the use of alternative search methods instead of a public database.

Let me share this example. Years ago, we were asked to provide interpreting services for an injured worker who spoke Nahuatl. He was to be seen by a doctor who spoke only English. We searched high and low and couldn’t find such a language combination. Finally, we found a priest in San Diego, California, who spoke both Spanish and Nahuatl. We then secured an interpreter for Spanish and English. Yes, you’re ahead of me, we used two interpreters and the project was a success.

How did we achieve this? Our talent liaison looked for innovative ways to solve our problem. She was an out-of-the-box thinker. One can have great ideas, but if you don’t have the ability to carry them out with the proper authority, your ideas will stay shelved. Our talent liaison was given total authority on all translator-related issues, which she needed to make things happen.

She also needed experience in conflict resolution. Business relationships are never perfect and, yes, sometimes agencies and freelancers don’t view things the same way. To make things worse, many of us allow our emotions to dictate how we communicate. For this reason, the talent liaison must negotiate challenging problems so everyone is happy. I know what you’re thinking: this talent liaison is more like Superman or Superwoman. You’re right.

Updating Old Workflows

Project managers prefer the first freelancer they contact to take the assignment, and they know those freelancers who are unfamiliar with the word “no.” We decided to look at our database of freelancers, which hadn’t been cleaned up in years. We had over 3,000 freelancers, and 200 of them were used on 90% of our projects. Only 151 had updated files, and the categories we used for subject matter experience were too broad.

Because of this, we cleaned up our database and forced project managers to use new freelancers. This was not an easy task. We found that project managers are often too busy to want to try new freelancers. Instead, they prefer to go with what they know. But they were given quotas to meet and asked to make sure a seasoned editor was on the project to minimize potential risks. Within the first month of cleaning up our database, we were able to add more than 84 new freelancers to our projects.

Another eye-opening experience was the realization that we treat freelancers as employees. I’m not referring to the legal definition of employees, but the fact that we count on freelancers to handle tasks that are not related to their job as a translator (i.e., “Can you just perform a light formatting task on this project?” “Can you work out terminology differences with the editor?”).

We, as agencies, need to at least thank and, even better, compensate translators for such efforts. This brings me to the word “loyalty.” Agencies should understand that freelancers are in business to be as profitable as they can. They have many clients asking them to take on a job, so it’s normal for them to accept the project that earns them the most profit.

The interaction between a freelancer and an agency is a relationship. And just like any relationship, it takes time, understanding, patience, and hard work. Maintaining a strong relationship with freelancers will make a world of difference to an agency’s day-to-day operations.

Building Relationships from the Beginning

Our agency also changed the way we originally made contact with freelancers. Before, we would ask them if they wanted to work with us. If they did, we would tell them what we were willing to pay and ask that they take a test. This type of introduction was cold. Would you ever want to do business with or date someone whose introduction was so limited?

I always compare business to personal transactions. Think about it—freelancers have a choice. Why not differentiate ourselves from the start? We now include information about who we are and why we look forward to working with the candidate. It’s been a year since we started this initiative and now our freelancers feel part of the team. They’re important, and we listen.

We also improved on business practices while we created this new talent liaison position. When there was an issue with a project, we found that freelancers wouldn’t be open to too much negotiation since both the freelancers and the project manager were personally involved with the problem. Bringing in a third party helped diffuse the issues.

Finally, we were able to improve the lag time between when a query would come in concerning an invoice and the response time from our accounting department, who receives hundreds of emails a day. The talent liaison would step in immediately and resolve all accounting-related issues.

There was also a list of issues we had with freelancers that was not being addressed. For instance, many freelancers working in some countries can receive payment using traditional payment methods (i.e., wire transfers, PayPal, etc.), but others are limited in terms of how they can receive payment. We would either need to stop working with freelancers who wouldn’t accept our payment options, or be flexible and pay through other means. We chose to do the later.

Better Relationships, Better Results

When our agency started to evolve our company’s operations and stand up for one of the cornerstone roles in our industry, it helped improve communication, collaboration, and productivity. But it also helped us strengthen our relationships with our freelance team and provide better solutions going forward.


Michael Cárdenas is the president and founder of Local Concept, an international corporation that has been doing business in the language industry for over 31 years. He works closely with international advertising agencies and corporations in the production of multilingual advertising and marketing campaigns. He was introduced to the translation industry as a freelance translator, which inspired him to start his own company. He is a frequent speaker at international conferences, government agencies, and universities. He has a juris doctorate from the California Western School of Law. Contact: mcardenas@localconcept.com.

1 Responses to "Standing Up for the Freelancer"

  1. Helen Eby says:

    I would love to hear what freelancers who have worked with you have to say about this article!

Comments are closed.

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