This post is part of the Ten Golden Rules of Global Content Strategy series.

If you translate into more than one language, you are most likely going to need more than one translator. Perhaps you can find a single individual who can translate into multiple languages. But, in most cases, there is a one-to-one relationship between the language and the person doing the translating.

If you translate into three or four or five languages, you may decide to maintain independent relationships with each individual translator. That’s nice, right? You know them by name, they know you. You probably get to know lots about them, their families, their vacation plans, and so on. It is welcoming, warm, and fuzzy. But it is not realistic and it is certainly not scalable.

Almost all of my customers work with translation agencies to get their content translated. There are different types of agencies, too. Some are SLVs –> Single-Language Vendors. They focus exclusively on one language. Some are MLVs –> Multi-Language Vendors. They handle multiple language translations. Translation agencies are commonly referred to as LSP –> Language Service Providers. LSPs encompass SLVs and MLVs. Clear as alphabet soup?

Well, that doesn’t really matter, as long as you understand that a) if you need more than one language, you likely need more than one translator and b) depending on your needs, you will probably go to an agency of some type.

But how many agencies do you really need? This question is almost existential. There is no right or wrong answer, and there are many reasons to have many agencies. But, beware. Too much of a good thing is never a good thing. So let’s talk about the things to consider when you decide how many language buddies you need.

Here are some of the reasons to consider using multiple agencies:

  • No single point of failure. In other words, your company encourages having multiple vendors as a back up plan. You are not dependent on a single company to provide all of the services you need.
  • Different agencies have different areas of expertise and you need more than one. For example, you decide you want an SLV for a particularly difficult language and you will use an MLV for the others. Agency A provides 6 out of 18 languages that you need. So you need at least Agency B to provide the other 12.
  • Competition. Using multiple agencies, you can encourage them to lower their prices by constantly comparing the price per word of each. This isn’t a very nice thing to do, and I do not recommend it. Unfortunately, I know that it does happen out there.
  • Different content modalities. Some agencies specialize in translating multimedia. Others specialize in translating documentation. Still others specialize in translating the actual software (UI, comments, etc.). Even if they are all translating into the same languages, you may divide up your translations by content type to get “best of class” for each.

It’s not a terrible idea to have more than one translation vendor. It is actually a pretty good idea. Until you go too far. You don’t want to have too many translation agencies. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Organization issues. It is easy to lose track of which agency is responsible for which languages and which content. Sure, you start out saying, “Agency A will do French, Italian, German, and Spanish. Agency B will do Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Agency C will focus on Eastern European languages. And Agency D will provide African languages.” But, before you know it, someone sends something to Agency D and asks for a Bosnian translation. Of course, Agency D is happy to provide additional languages – no questions asked. Before you know it, you have a real mess. The more content you translate into more languages, arranged by more individuals in your company, the more likely it is that things are going to get confused.
  • You can end up with multiple translation memories (TMs) that are not integrated. I have discussed translation memory quite a bit in a previous post. The short of it is this: It is always best to have a single TM that all of your translators (from all of your agencies) use. That way, there is only one version of the database, one master list of translation pairs, and everyone theoretically uses the same translations over and over again. The translated segments stay linked among the languages, and it has the potential to be a much cleaner way of doing things. If you have multiple TMs, you can easily end up with multiple versions of the same translation (see point one, right above). As soon as two agencies work on the same language, you are immediately out of sync. TMs get messy enough without anyone’s help. Of course, having a centralized TM that you control goes a long way towards helping this issue. Unfortunately, most of my customers do not have a single TM and some don’t have a clue where their TMs live. Still others don’t know what a TM is, but I digress.
  • It is inefficient. The more agencies you have, the more vendor paperwork. The more purchase order requests. The more invoices to be paid. And so on. There are a lot of hidden costs associated with using multiple vendors. Rarely do we think about how much it costs our companies to pay an invoice or process a vendor. It can get pretty pricey. That’s part of the reason many large companies go through periodic “vendor consolidation” exercises.

So, how many different agencies do you need? Ultimately, only you can figure it out. The best I can tell you is not too many and not too few.