I am often asked by fellow Japanese interpreters about working with international (overseas) agencies, rather than domestic agencies based in Japan. These questions come not only from inexperienced interpreters, but also from seasoned professionals — clearly this is a topic that concerns interpreters at every stage of their careers. This recently prompted me to ask interpreters and business people, such as those involved in ancillary language services like coaches and consultants, about their concerns and interests when it comes to overseas agencies.
Common concerns focused on how overseas agencies are organized and uncertainty about what the agency or multinational does. Some interpreters were also worried that these doubts were holding them back from taking the first step with such agencies. I wonder how many other interpreters think this way?
1. How do you first discover agency connections?
When I first moved to the UK I didn’t know anyone; I had neither industry connections or people who could make introductions for me (see my earlier article about arriving in the UK). Instead, I had to start by gathering agency contact details using the internet. I was well aware that there were different kinds of agencies out there, both good and bad, so I contacted places that seemed reputable and built up professional relationships with them one-by-one.
Nowadays, however, requests usually come from the agencies themselves: “We found your name in the directory” or “We were referred your details by so-and-so.” Although I couldn’t say how many total agencies are in the marketplace at any one time, I am registered with approximately 80.
These 80 agencies include both one-time customers and regular agency clients. Some I have registered with through the general course of my career, but quite a lot of agencies have not yet arranged a single job for me. This is because requests fall through if their bid with the end client doesn’t get the go-ahead, for example. This number does not include my direct clients, of course.
These agency offices are based in the UK and Japan, but also in the US to Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. Major global agencies can be multi-national companies so will have offices in many of the countries listed above and further afield. I will discuss the major characteristics of small, bespoke agencies and major multinationals companies below.
2. How to register and interview for an agency
Agencies that provide language services for the regional diversity of Europe handle an overwhelming number of language pairs. The varied structure of these agencies can cover everything from sole traders to major large-scale agencies that employ hundreds or thousands of staff. Some agencies handle both interpreting and translating services, as they do in Japan, while others specialise in one service or the other. Some you have to apply to register with, closely resembling the system for interpreters in Japan, while other times they will contact you directly.
The first thing that differs between agencies is their registration method. Depending on the company, you may face anything from simply registering by email and completing a registration form, to proving your skills in either an online or on-site meeting or induction course (these can be long!). Even once registered you may also have to undergo a periodic refresher course through the particular agency’s system, although this is not the norm.
As part of the broader registration process, agencies may assess your interpreting skills over the telephone. After you have registered there may be an unexpected performance check, regardless of how much time has passed since you have registered. Among large-scale US agencies, some companies’ registration processes can become cumbersome after a while as there are so many steps to clear. Truth be told, midway through these laborious registration processes I have sometimes wanted to quit, but I always resolve to finish what I’ve started!
3. How to avoid bad agencies
It is important to consider whether the agencies you deal with really exist, and if their businesses are being managed in a stable manner. The dangerous thing is that a company may seem stable and reliable, but may later turn out to be underhanded or second-rate when it comes to paying their interpreters. Be warned that some agencies may claim bankruptcy after they have received your services, change their company name and relaunch themselves to repeat this cycle.
４．How to corroborate what your new agency tells you
The most important thing for a self-employed interpreter is surely getting paid promptly and in line with the terms negotiated beforehand. But how to check the payment history of your new agency client? One quick option is to use the online ProZ BlueBoard, a searchable database of agencies rated by their payment practices. While this is useful at a glance, I would not advise making decisions based on this resource alone.
There are other methods available, such as consulting an interpreting trade association (paid), online databases that collect instances of nonpayment (free or paid services) and online blacklists for serious offenders.
However, as the quality of information available on the internet is undeniably a mix of good and bad, I recommend combining two or three different methods to make your decision. I see this as simple due diligence and by confirming your findings on a new agency, you can determine which information sources can be trusted and develop your intuition around new clients.
- Example of a free database「Translation Payments」(UK only)
- I am registered with this paid service「Payment Practices」(UK only)
- Research UK companies here「Experian Business Express」
- If you are an ITI member, you can access their resources even if based outside the UK (paid service, not included in membership fee)
- Example of a bad payer registered on an ITI report
I will talk more about this topic in the next article. See you then!