Can translation agencies get too greedy?

In a word, yes.

Once upon a time, I worked for a certain Tokyo-based translation agency. I'll call them "R2D2."

For several years, I had been doing a huge and quite profitable documentation project for R2D2 each year — first the initial version, then yearly updates. I thought it was a win-win situation; I even freely gave them my translation memories, confident that they wouldn't kill the goose that laid the golden eggs by trying to undercut me. Yeah, naivety, thy name is Ryan.

One year, the project got a new coordinator. I'll call her "Hanako." According to another employee of R2D2, Hanako had looked over my invoices for this project over the past few years, and said, "There is no way I'm paying a translator that much for a single month's work."

When the project came around that year, Hanako unilaterally informed me that my payment would be about a third what it had been previously. I really enjoyed this particular project, and knew I was good at it. Also, even a third of my rate would mean around a million yen. So I'm sure it surprised Hanako when I turned her down, and told her that when she was ready to pay my normal rate, to contact me. I was confident because I knew from experience that the material would be quite difficult for another translator without my background.

The weeks passed, with no word from Hanako or R2D2. Then, with about two weeks until the deadline, another R2D2 employee called me up ("Taro"), said that Hanako had been removed from the project, and asked me to do the job at my normal rate. I said that I would accept it, but that I could only do half of the job because time was now too short, and I had also made other commitments. Taro said fine.

A day or two later, another agency I work for ("B") called me up and asked me to do the other half. That's right — R2D2 had been unable to find anyone to do the rest of the job, so had tried to farm it out to another agency — at twice my rate!

B, with whom I have good relations, told me that R2D2 sounded pretty desperate (I bet). Unfortunately, I had to turn down the work because I was busy with the other half. B later told me that they never found another translator to do it, and they didn't know who R2D2 had found, if anyone.

I learned a few weeks later that Hanako had been sacked from R2D2, and that R2D2 had lost the contract with the end client. Their greed had been their downfall — they thought they could squeeze me and make some easy money. What they failed to take into account, however, is that the translator just might not roll over.

Now I just wish I knew what agency won the new contract with that end client!

1 comment to Can translation agencies get too greedy?

  • I love it! Pretty much the exact same thing has happened to me three or four times. Never with a super long or recurring project, but it sure does make you stop and scratch your head each time it happens. Wonder what Hanako’s up to these days…

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