The price is right! Or is it…?

Anyone who has read my posts will know that I am not a translator by profession. At the moment, I have just started my MA in Translation Studies at Cardiff. I am not a professional translator – yet! But I have spent quite a bit of time researching different aspects of the industry to familiarise myself with what it is like on an actual -got-to-pay-my-mortgage basis.

Pricing translations is a tricky topic – language pairs, computer assisted translation tools, word repetition, text length, proof-reading, copy-editing – the list of ‘but’s or ‘if’s are seemingly never ending.

Notwithstanding the actual translation job that you’re doing, you’ve also got to look at the industry as a whole. Whilst many industries – say fashion for instance – may not take into account whether they are undercutting their competitors by much, or if at all – after all there’s a lot of space between Prada and Primark to be filled – the translation industry, from what I’ve seen, is somewhat different.

Unlike fashion, run often by multinational companies, a lot of translation work is done by freelancers, or small translation companies. Whilst they may receive large work from famous companies, the translators themselves are not large or multinational corporations (that is not to say that there aren’t obviously large translation companies – clearly there are!).

Translation as an industry is a lot more personal, and connection based. It’s both what AND who you know. Many freelance translators like to meet up and work together, independently in a café – getting out of the house/office and connecting with likeminded people, but all working on different projects. Because this industry is a lot more ‘personal’ and one-to-one, pricing soon becomes a very different issue.

Everyday, something new will need translated; whilst work is competitive, there is work for everyone, because each person is different with different skills and specialisms and training and experience. Whilst the above statements are correct, that is not to say that pricing isn’t reflected in the demand for competition – as with any sector, translation is supply and demand based.

Price competitiveness is, of course, key to any industry. HOWEVER the old adage is ‘you get what you pay for’. Now when I go to Primark and buy myself a shirt that’s £6, I know what I expect to get. By and large they’re good quality, but I’m not heart broken if it doesn’t last more than a year. If I went and spent £600 on a Prada shirt, and got the same wear out of them both and it wore out at the same speed as the one that’s 1% of the price, then there’s a problem.

But what does that strange analogy have to do with translation, I hear you ask. Well, the problem is that if you price yourself too low, or too high, in such an individual based industry, it’s going to create problems for a lot of people.

In my searches recently, I came across this article from Fluent in 3 Months. This article looks at becoming a freelance translator, who is not location dependent. Great! I hear you cry, what’s wrong with that. Take a look at the quote below…

It is important to have a competitive price! If you have no experience at all, then you should actually start working for next to nothing or for free (or as a volunteer) and have your documents proofread so that you can learn how to actually translate before you start trying it professionally. After my training period, I started off with a kind-of low rate because of my lack of experience and then I raised my price last after a while.

Many translators charge per word, which I much prefer to all my previous monthly wage jobs since I get paid for the actual work that I do. The current global economic situation seemed to have caught up with me that summer as I had no work at all for over a month. I’ve reduced my price back to the previous one and have gotten a flood of work because of it. 

The primary problem with this approach is that it undercuts the market at far too low a price. In the long term, this could effect the whole industry if everyone who became a translator started off in this vain. When would the time come when you were experienced enough to charge more or anything at all? 6 months? One year? How would you fund yourself in the meantime? And what would happen if industry price dropped off at low level? Potentially, you’d be doing twice as much work in order to earn the same as you could have before.

Unlike fashion brand competitiveness, this type of undercutting is much more personal and dangerous. When people start out, they may not have the reserves of money to tide them over until things get better. And though it may be tempting to work for next to nothing in order to make a name for yourself – what will your name be saying about your work?

Price competitiveness is no bad thing, but taking work that is too cheap or free is not the answer to building success in the long term. Whilst there is nothing wrong with volunteer translations, and I actively endorse looking for charities who might need work translated but cannot afford it, trying to start work for free is not the answer. To put it into another example, if you worked in a restaurant, would you volunteer to work there for a week for free before they hired you, so they could see that you didn’t drop the food on the customers. The answer is: Probably not.

In her article on Beginner’s Mistakes, Corrine McKay notes:

DO NOT set your rates suspiciously low. I think that especially in a down economy, many beginning freelancers are tempted to set their rates markedly below the going rate for their languages. I still cringe at some of the rates I accepted when I was first starting out. In one sense, I think that offering attractive terms can help get your business of the ground; in another sense, I think that lowball rates attract bottom-feeding clients who are looking for high-quality work for minimum wage. Personally, I think it’s a better idea to sweeten your offer in other ways; maybe offering night or weekend work without a rush charge, or being available on holidays when other translators aren’t working.

The answer to pricing is doing your research. Whilst it’s important to look at how much people with the same language pair as you are charging, you also have to look at your expenses and what you would ideally like to earn. That doesn’t mean that you can charge £20 per word, so you get to your target income quicker, but it does mean setting a realisitic rate that you can live with and is making you money. Similarly, you might also have to factor in time off, holidays and sickness, which will not come with pay, as it might do with a regular company.

As a beginner, yes the rate you charge is likely to be on the lower end of the scale – but that doesn’t mean that your work is not worth the time and money that it’s due. Unless it’s voluntary work that has been agreed on, there is no sense in wasting time on charging 2p per word just to get your foot in the door. To keep this metaphor going; the longer your foot stays in the door and doesn’t move forward, the more likely it is that it’ll get trapped.

For comprehensive articles on pricing from actual translators please look at:

  1. Lloyd Bingham – Translators on…Setting Rates
  2. Corrine McKay – What is the ‘right rate’ for your translation services? and Sub-optimal rates ‘better than nothing’ or not?
  3. Dennis Brown – The freelance translator’s Fair Pay rates and income calculator
  4. Jayne Fox – Chris Durban on translation pricing
  5. Nikki Graham – Articles of Special Interest to New Translators (articles on anything you can think of about Translation!)

If you have any thoughts on translation pricing, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment below or tweet me at @amsjcorr.



3 thoughts on “The price is right! Or is it…?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s