Regaining Common Ground in the Language Service Industry

By Ana Sofia Correia


t is a fact that innovation has brought the language service industry to a pivotal moment. In this bustling environment, language service companies — referred to in this article as “agencies” for ease of reading — and freelance language service providers — referred to as “freelancers” — are fundamental players whose symbiosis is essential for the sector’s progress. However, their relationship is characterized by an intricate dance of challenges, expectations, and concerns.

Industry rankings by Slator, Nimdzi, and CSA Research offer a quantifiable measure of success. Yet, these rankings only paint part of the picture, as the feedback from platforms like the Blue Board and social media (such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and X) reveals the qualitative, often unspoken realities of the industry.

These dual lenses — the numerical rankings and the qualitative feedback — reveal much about the current dynamics between agencies and freelancers, reflecting a market that is as challenging as it is rewarding.

This article delves into these dimensions, unraveling the complexities of the agency partnership to understand how it can be fortified for a future of collective growth.


The Changing Landscape

As we crest the wave of artificial intelligence (AI), the language service industry finds itself at a significant turning point. The rapid evolution within this sector is about not only adopting new technologies and expanding into new markets, but also the necessary foundational shift towards collaborative models that leverage both the irreplaceable nuance of human expertise and the efficiency of cutting-edge technology.

Growth, while a sign of vitality and potential, brings its own set of challenges. The market expansion has been swift, leading to a surge in demand for language services across a spectrum of industries, from legal to healthcare to entertainment. This burgeoning demand has ushered in an era of “growing pains,” as some agencies and freelancers struggle to scale their operations while maintaining the quality and precision that lies at the heart of language services.

Balancing technology and human expertise has become the industry’s lodestar. AI and machine learning can indeed process large volumes of text rapidly. However, complete adequacy in terms of linguistic, cultural, and regulatory aspects remains firmly in the domain of human intelligence. It should not be a question of one replacing the other, but rather how both can work in concert to produce results that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Agencies and freelancers face an array of challenges as they navigate an increasingly complex marketplace, and understanding them is crucial for fostering a robust and transparent partnership between both players.

Challenges on Both Sides

For agencies, continued success in this demanding marketplace means sustaining operational efficiency to manage large volumes of work with faster turnarounds and to localize and deploy content across various markets almost simultaneously. They must do all this while balancing the twin pressures of maintaining competitive pricing and ensuring profitability.

As the industry evolves, so do the tools and technologies. This means that agencies must stay abreast of these developments, particularly concerning AI. However, integrating these tools into existing workflows can be challenging, requiring both financial investment and training for staff and freelancers alike.

In this environment, finding and retaining freelancers with the right language pairs, specialization, and experience is another hurdle. With the industry’s rapid expansion, the demand for specialized knowledge in areas such as legal, medical, and technical has risen sharply. To retain top-notch freelancers, agencies must invest in talent acquisition and create the conditions to nurture the collaboration.

Freelancers provide the specialized skills and expertise that fuel the services offered by agencies. Yet, while the freelance path offers autonomy and flexibility, it is not without significant challenges that test the resilience and adaptability of these professionals.

In an open global market, freelancers compete with a vast network of peers, varying in experience and pricing. The competition can be particularly stiff when it involves bidding on projects where the lowest rate often wins, regardless of quality. When negotiating projects, finding common ground on payment rates, project scope, and deadlines can be tricky amidst a landscape that often favors transactional over relational engagements.

Freelancers must continuously deepen their expertise and diversify their skill sets to remain relevant in a market that increasingly seeks freelancers with specialized knowledge and technological proficiency. Understanding and adapting to these market trends and demands requires freelancers to be industry- and market-savvy and proactive in their personal career development.

Finally, unlike traditional employees, freelancers don’t have a fixed income, which can be a source of stress due to the pressure of having to constantly market themselves and seek new projects to maintain a stable workflow. Striking a healthy balance requires discipline to set work boundaries and dedication to personal time.

Mutual Expectations

For agencies, the expectations set for freelancers are not just a wish list; they are the essential criteria that can make or break a project. Meanwhile, as freelancers are the backbone of language service provision, their expectations are as vital as the services they provide.

Agency Expectations

1. High-quality work is the cornerstone of any reputable agency’s expectations. Agencies operate in a feedback-rich environment where one substandard project can lead to negative reviews that affect future business. Therefore, they seek freelancers who can consistently deliver accurate, culturally nuanced, and contextually relevant work.

2. Specialization and expertise are highly valued by agencies, because they ensure that the output is not only linguistically correct, but also appropriate for the subject matter. This is particularly critical for technical or niche sectors, where understanding specific terminology and concepts is vital.

3. Reliability and timeliness are expected in the language industry. Agencies expect freelancers to adhere to agreed-upon deadlines, as delays can disrupt the entire workflow  and cause a domino effect. Reliable freelancers help agencies maintain a smooth operation, ensuring that projects move forward efficiently and effectively.

4. Professionalism and communication are pivotal in preventing misunderstandings and delays. Agencies expect freelancers to maintain professional conduct and be proactive in communications as well as transparent when issues arise. This level of professionalism fosters a positive working environment and ensures that projects remain on track.

5. Flexibility and adaptability — the flexibility to respond to unforeseen challenges and the ability to adapt to changing project requirements — are critical. This flexibility can involve adjusting to client feedback, adapting to new formats, or managing revisions efficiently.

6. Confidentiality and ethical conduct are required. Freelancers are expected to uphold the highest standards of confidentiality and ethics to protect sensitive information and maintain client trust.

7. Technical proficiency can significantly enhance efficiency and accuracy. Knowledge of management systems and software is expected to ensure consistency across projects.

8. Continuous learning and development demonstrates commitment to delivering high-quality services. Agencies expect freelancers to be knowledgeable about the latest trends and to develop their skills continually.

9. Proactive problem-solving — addressing problems before they escalate — is an essential trait that agencies look for in freelancers. It minimizes the risk of project setbacks and ensures that any issues are resolved swiftly, avoiding any negative impact on the project outcome.

10. Long-term collaboration leads to a deeper understanding of agencies’ processes and preferences, resulting in more efficient and tailored services. Agencies are not just looking for one-off project completions, but rather to establish ongoing relationships with freelancers.

Freelancer Expectations

1. Fair compensation and timely payment is expected by freelancers. This includes not just an equitable rate that reflects their expertise and the complexity of the task, but also a prompt and reliable payment schedule.

2. Clear communication and detailed briefs are the linchpin of successful projects. Freelancers anticipate concise instructions and comprehensive briefs that outline the client’s needs, expectations, and any industry-specific requirements.

3. Respect and recognition go a long way towards fostering a positive relationship. Freelancers thrive on professional respect, which acknowledges their contribution to the agency’s success and nurtures a sense of belonging.

4. Consistent work opportunities offer freelancers predictability. Therefore, freelancers prioritize agencies that can provide a steady stream of work.

5. Reasonable deadlines allow for the delivery of quality work. Unrealistic timelines can lead to undue stress, rushed jobs, and ultimately a compromise on the quality of the work, which neither freelancers nor agencies want.

6. Opportunities for feedback and collaboration are essential for professional growth. Freelancers value agencies that provide feedback, which helps them improve their craft. Furthermore, freelancers expect to be part of a collaborative process where they can discuss challenges and seek solutions, reinforcing the spirit of partnership.

7. Professional development support is appreciated by freelancers — who know that staying competitive means staying educated. This support can include access to new tools, resources for skill development, or opportunities to attend educational events.

8. Respect for autonomy by allowing freelancers to manage their workflow and methods within the project’s requirements can lead to higher satisfaction and better overall work quality. After all, one of the main reasons professionals choose freelancing is the independence it offers.

9. Transparent and ethical practices are expected to ensure a working environment that is just and where terms are transparent and honored.

10. Positive working environments enhance productivity. Freelancers expect to work in a way that is conducive to their professional well-being, where their efforts are valued and their inputs are welcomed.


Points of Friction

While expectations from agencies and freelancers set the stage for a successful partnership, the language industry is fraught with issues that can create friction and hinder progress.

Quality and Reliability Issues. Even a single substandard project can significantly impact client satisfaction and future business opportunities. Therefore, reputable agencies care deeply about the quality and reliability of the work they deliver. This includes linguistic accuracy, the correct use of terminology, adherence to the client’s project specifications, and overall consistency across materials.

Unfair Practices. One of the most pressing concerns for freelancers is the prevalence of unfair practices within the industry. This includes being offered rates that do not match the complexity and effort of the work, experiencing delayed payments that disrupt their financial stability, and encountering contracts with terms that are unfavorable or otherwise exploitatively one-sided.

Timeline Adherence. For agencies, managing timelines is a critical aspect of project management, where overcommitment or underestimation of the time required to accurately complete a project result in missed deadlines, which may damage client relationships and potentially lead to financial penalties or loss of business.

Workload Management. Freelancers often have to juggle multiple projects with fluctuating work volumes, which can lead to periods of intense workload followed by times of little to no work. This unpredictability makes it difficult for freelancers to plan their time and finances and can lead to stress and professional burnout.

Communication Gaps. Communication gaps resulting in misunderstandings about project requirements or feedback between agencies, their clients, and freelancers can lead to errors in the final product, project delays, and increased operational costs.

Lack of Human Relations. With the rise of management portals, particularly first-come-first-served platforms, many freelancers feel like they’re just another name in a database, interacting with faceless algorithms rather than real people. This depersonalization can lead to a sense of isolation and lack of meaningful connections.

Resistance to Technology. Agencies sometimes encounter resistance from their freelancers who are hesitant to adopt new tools and methodologies — such as AI-powered solutions — due to unfamiliarity, perceived threat, or previous bad experiences.

Technology Misuse. While technology has greatly benefited the language service industry, there are concerns about its misuse. Some freelancers find themselves under pressure to lower their rates under false pretenses and dealing with agencies that use AI tools with minimal to no human supervision as a cost-saving maneuver.

Talent Acquisition and Retention. Finding and keeping freelancers who are skilled in the right language pairs and specializations is another significant hurdle for agencies. The industry’s growth leads to high demand for specialized knowledge, and agencies are constantly seeking to achieve balance in their search of professionals who can meet these needs and align with the company’s expectations, both in terms of quality and budget.

Client Acquisition. The time and resources required for marketing oneself, networking, and building a professional reputation can be substantial. This is accompanied by unfair competition from fellow freelancers and agencies and unrealistic demands from potential clients.

Building Sustainable Relationships

The concerns and expectations of agencies and freelancers in the language service industry are profoundly interconnected. Collaborative solutions, open dialogues, mutual understanding, and shared growth objectives can help turn these challenges into potential opportunities, thereby strengthening the agency relationship.

The path forward lies in rebuilding the lost foundations of trust and transparency. The solutions may not be immediately clear, but they are nonetheless within reach through collective effort and a commitment to addressing the core issues at hand.

The key to fostering long-lasting, sustainable relationships is to prioritize fair compensation practices that reflect the true value of freelancers’ work. Fairness in compensation is more than just ethics; it’s good business that ensures access to a pool of motivated, high-quality freelancers.

Effective communication and detailed feedback mechanisms are vital for fine-tuning the collaborative process, reducing errors, and enhancing project outcomes. When agencies and freelancers actively engage in open, honest dialogues about project requirements, progress, and performance, misunderstandings are minimized and project execution is streamlined.

Balancing technology with human expertise is also crucial. Rather than viewing technology as an efficient replacement solution, both sides should harness it as a tool to complement their skill sets.

Moreover, a focus on professional development is essential. By providing opportunities for freelancers to grow their skills and stay abreast of industry trends, agencies can ensure that their professionals remain up to date with their knowledge.

At the heart of these efforts must be a mutual understanding and respect for the roles each party plays in the industry. Acknowledging the challenges and working collaboratively towards solutions is what will drive the industry forward.

Both agencies and freelancers have a stake in the future of the language service industry. Ultimately, all players must commit to ethical and sustainable business practices that guarantee the long-term viability of the sector and safeguard the well-being of its professionals. It is through this commitment that the much-needed trust can be regained.

ANA SOFIA CORREIA is a medical translator and writer with over 16 years of experience. She works with life sciences companies, medical communication agencies, and language service providers, and is a member of several professional associations. She also runs the Medical Translation Mentoring program.


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