The (dis)advantages of working with translation agencies
I have worked with various translation agencies for many years. I have enjoyed working with some more than others but in my particular case, my preference has always been working with translation agencies that provide great/decent pay (essential if you make a living as a freelancer!), interesting projects or projects in my area of specialization and good/open communications. However in my experience, working with translation agencies has as many advantages as disadvantages.
Advantages of working with translation agencies
They can provide steady work and regular payment. The longer you work with them and establish a good and trusting working relationship, the most likely they will come to you first whenever they have a translation job.
Although they will most likely ask you to proofread your translation and submit as if it is going straight to the direct client, translation agencies usually make sure that the translation is proofread and passes an internal quality control process.
A good translation agency facilitates an open communication with its translators from the time they agree on the terms of the assignment to the completion of the work. The project manager remains available to answer any potential questions or address issues the translators may have and acts as a liaison between the client and the translators.
Working with translation agencies is the best way for new translators to start building their resume. Although some agencies may request translators to take a translation test, less experienced translators can develop a long-term cooperation with agencies if they demonstrate translation skills and commitment. Some agencies are even willing to provide feedback on their translations so that they can learn from their mistakes and improve their skills.
More experienced translators working with various translation agencies can afford to be selective contrary to new translators. Once translators are more established and have accumulated years of experience, they can decide which agencies they want to continue working with (higher pay/ projects in areas of specialization/great working relationship) and which ones they can live without (low pay/uninteresting projects/stressful working relationship).
Disadvantages of working with translation agencies
Although they can provide steady work, the translation rate that translation agencies offer translators is lower than (usually half or a third) what a translator would earn working for a direct client.
While most agencies have an internal quality control, some don’t and tend to either rely too much on the translator to ensure quality control without someone else doing a second review of the translation or ask another translator to do that quality control (that a staff would normally do) without properly compensating that translator (unless the agency and the translator both agreed on the terms of that particular work). It is always best to have another person doing a second review.
Unrealistic/Too short deadlines (with low payments) are probably one of the major issues translators have with agencies. Their clients are usually unaware of the whole process involved in a translation project (determining exact need of clients, providing quotes, fixing deadlines, finding right translator, checking his/her availability, etc.) and usually have some unrealistic expectations in terms of deadlines or pricing. It is up to the agency to properly determine the deadlines making sure that the translator has adequate time to translate and the agency the time needed to review. It is becoming increasingly challenging with clients being more demanding but quality work requires an appropriate time investment.
Because new translators need experience, they are willing to accept translating at excessively low rate and under very stressful conditions. This can negatively affect the overall rate in the translation market and lead many agencies to offer very low rates to translators knowing that they will eventually find some translators willing to accept their rates.
There is little room for negotiation when working with translation agencies. They have a fixed rate (because of profit margin) and look for translators who are willing to accept their rate. Some are open to negotiate their rate but it is becoming less common. More experienced translators may not find their rate attractive enough considering their years of experience, accreditation and certification and may seek instead more direct clients.
The translation business is constantly expanding and the need for translators will continue to increase in the coming years. Whether you are a new translator or a more experienced one, working with translation agencies is always useful if you are looking for a steady flow of work/income or seek experience. I would personally recommend working with translation agencies because there is plenty to learn and experience in this field. Eventually you will be able to decide what works best for you.