Translators’ rates: of guns and hoes

Don’t worry, this post isn’t a homage to gangsta’ rap. The title refers to the implements used by translators to shoot themselves – or, if they’re Italian, hoe themselves – in the foot where pay’s concerned (the Italian expression is “darsi una zappata sui piedi”. Another reason to avoid gardening). Following on from my last two posts – Translators’ pay: how much are you worth? and Job satisfaction… and the UK’s (surprising?) top job – on translators’ pay and rates, I thought it might be useful to give some real-life examples that illustrate how translators all too often undervalue their work and their service to clients. (Please bear with me, non-translator readers – this is relevant to other professions too, I think).

Scenario 1: qualified member of professional organisation, 20 years’ experience, legal and financial specialist

An agency I sometimes work with contacted me a few months ago asking if I could translate a stock option plan. The agency’s client was a corporate law firm, which in turn was working for an Italian company about to be listed on the stock exchange. The translation, of nearly 5000 words (about 23 translation pages), was needed the following day. I couldn’t take it on but found a translator – a qualified member of her national professional organisation with 20 years’ experience and specialising in economic-financial –  who could. Her quote (agency rate) was £0.07 per word, which included an urgency surcharge of, by my calculation but I could well be wrong, around 8% on her standard rate of £0.065.

So that makes a fee of £350 (an hourly rate of £28-35, depending on time taken) for approximately 2 days’ work compressed into 1, and requiring the translator to set aside any existing projects or plans, to translate a complex financial-legal document. The company was duly listed a few days later and raised around $1 billion.

Scenario 2: translators with 5 to 10 years’ experience, no professional membership, no specialist expertise

A few days after this, I received some unsolicited translator CVs in my mailbox (I’m not an agency but get these “job applications” all the same). On average, the translators had been translating for 8 years and their agency fee per word was £0.65 – so the same rate as the translator above. They were all generalists. None of them were qualified members of a professional association. None of them had specialist degrees (eg in translation studies).

Scenario 3: local plumbers

Yes, I know, we always pick on plumbers: “It was a waste of time going to university, I should have trained as a plumber instead and I’d be raking in the money”. Anyway, we had a leaky tap a couple of weeks ago, at 6.30 pm on a Friday. The tap wasn’t just dripping, it was flowing. It was the hot water tap. And it was attached to the wash-hand basin in my daughter’s bedroom. So we needed to get it fixed.

I phoned around some plumbers in our neighbourhood and eventually found one – located 5 minutes away by car – who was available. He gave me a quote of £140, his weekend rate, to fix the tap. His standard call-out rate is £40, making a weekend/after-hours surcharge of (again, my calculation) 250%.

I eventually found another plumber based 5 minutes’ drive away, who came round promptly and repaired the tap for £40. No weekend rate (although I’d have paid an extra charge – just not an additional £100!). It took him about 20 minutes – so £40 for half an hour’s work including travelling time. Paid on the nail.

Some perspective

Let’s put all of this into perspective. Translator A has 20 years experience, has passed her professional exam and has specialist expertise in two difficult fields (fields in which people in other professions make LOTS of money). She charges the same as translators with less than half that experience, no professional membership or specific qualification, and no discernible field of specialist expertise. She applies an urgency surcharge of 8%, compared with an after-hours surcharge of 250% applied by a local plumber. Taking an hourly rate, she charges much less than the standard rate for local plumbers (who admittedly, for longer jobs, are unlikely to charge £40 for every half-hour worked… I hope). The translation she quoted for was required by a corporate lawyer to help a company worth millions of dollars become even richer (much richer).

What price career progression for translators? Any thoughts?

Other posts you might like:

Are your fees high enough? Some food for thought

All about price? Not necessarily

From GIGO to QIQO: the quest for quality

By Marian Dougan

20 responses

  1. Absolutely Marian – I get sick and tired of hammering this home to people! I occasionally outsource work for my former employers and can offer fairly generous urgency surcharges for work required quickly – but translators are often amazed when I suggest that they add a supplement to reflect the fact that they’ve had to put themselves out AND the client is very grateful! We really need to address the value of what we do across the board, but it sometimes feels like you’re banging your head against a wall trying to get colleagues to think and act like the professionals they are…

  2. This was very much the theme of the Budapest conference. We need to think, feel and act like an expert. If people keep giving concrete examples and mentioning actual rates (thanks Marian) hopefully the penny will drop. Not everybody will have the energy and confidence to move ahead and become ‘experts’ and these translators will find themselves at the bottom constantly under price pressure. I can believe the longer-established translator under-quoted because there has been a huge shift in the market in the last few years. A few years ago most translators worked for agencies offering a fairly standard rate across the board. So pleased to see that conferences are really pushing us to establish links with the particular fields we work in and take a look at the rates in that industry, not just what other translators earn. It won’t happen overnight but, the more we do it, the more it will be accepted/expected.

    1. Thanks, Alison and Claire. I think that’s one of the good things about attending conferences (as you mention in your blog post, Claire Networking: business essential or extravagant extra?) – sharing ideas, gaining confidence and viewing ourselves more as “professionals” and less as free-lancers labouring in a garret. And we need to assert our profession’s rightful place alongside others of similar expertise and skill.
      Enough of this masochistic “poor cousins” attitude!

  3. Of course specialism and experience must count when presenting clients with the bill, but here is another scenario.
    Linguist with considerable experience has to present a translation of her own degree in English that is then rejected because it is not stamped? Does that mean that a language degree does not even qualify you to translate a simple document unless you are a sworn member of a professional body and pay the fees for the privilege?

    1. Thanks for commenting, Patrizia. I did certified translations even before I joined the ITI. I bought a stamp at Staples with my company logo and information, and used that along with the certification wording.

      Maybe your translation of your degree wasn’t accepted because it was your own document? Have you had problems with other certified translations too?

  4. I’m new to the trade though I have translated in the past (without knowing I could actually charge for it!). So this is an “up-starts'” perspective. I’ve been digging around various translation blogs, books and the industry in general as part of my market research, and it is so tough to find actual rates!

    I translate English>Danish, so not one of the bigger language pairs. But what I found was that the price offered by Danish translators who live in DK is twice, if not thrice, as much as what I see non-DK-living translators charge. I know living costs should be calculated into your pricing, but still. It’s a mine field to figure out exactly how to set your own rates when you can’t even get decent comparisons.

    As a newbie I know I should charge less than the person with 20 years experience, and I do. But if you don’t know what they charge, how can you then figure out what to charge in comparison. I do wish translators could put their prices out there, but I know that is wishful thinking because that could open up an entire new can of worms.

  5. Rikke, I think people are more inclined to discuss rates informally, in person, at networking events rather than be committed to publishing rates which are then set in stone. I personally have a range of rates depending on the client and the technical nature of the work in question, so it’s hard to give a fixed price without more specifics. As for charging less than more experienced translators, that’s true but once you do set a rate for a particular client, it’s very hard to increase it afterwards, so don’t go too low either! One solution might be to set a higher rate (once you’ve decided what that is!) but factor in the cost of having it proof-read by a colleague (and of course let the client know you’re providing a two-pairs-of-eyes service for that rate).

    1. Hello Claire and Rikke – I publish my fees with a “From €xx per page” form of wording to give me the necessary flexibility, and the proviso that they’re meant as guidance only. I think your idea, Claire, of factoring in a proof-reading service is excellent.

  6. Marian, thank you very much for your help. I had a look at Merl Storr’s prices, and in comparison I seem to not be overpricing myself nor undercutting anyone. So, I’m happy. And now I’m considering, when I’ve been working for a little bit, publish my prices on my website. Hmmm….something to think about.

  7. Another interesting post Marian!

    It’s always interesting to compare rates per volume VS per time spent, but there is a third way, which you nearly mentioned in example A: rate as % of product value.

    Here’s the architect’s perspective: architectural fees can be charged as a percentage of the value of the designed building. So, depending on the agreed architectural services, if you’re house costs £500,000.00 to build (that’s a nice house obviously, since it’s yours ☺), the architect fees can range from a few thousands to several tens of thousands.

    If you’re indeed an expert, you should be able to evaluate the approximate value of the finish product, in other words, how much money profit or saving, or time gain equivalent the finish product will bring to your client.

    It’s not always easy, and in certain professions, for certain jobs (where there’s clearly big investments involved), the client will even commission an evaluation (chartered accountant/surveyors, etc.).

    The point is that it is ridiculous to charge per hour when the job is only a few days work but will bring 1 billion pounds to your client, for the simple reason that without you, they won’t get that billion pounds.

    So let’s take example A again and compare experts’ rates:

    A) Per words: shall we say £0,5/word?

    5000 words x 0.5 = £2500

    B) Per hour: shall we say £100/hour?

    3 days work (I’m slow) at 8 hours/day, at £100/h = £2400

    C) Per percentage of the product estimated value: shall we say 0.001%?

    0.001 x 1 billion pounds /100 = £10 000

    Mmh, let’s see… Yes, I think I prefer the third option.

    Obviously, if your client has heard of Proz, she/he will laugh at you and walk away. But if you’re an expert, let her laugh. After all, it’s her billion that is at stake, not yours ☺

    1. Thanks, Pierre – that comment must have taken you quite a while, with all the calculations. I’ve got other posts up my sleeve on pricing models – hourly, daily, as a percentage etc. So I’ll be able to use your sums :-)

  8. And please excuse my typos, I was noir planning on writing such a long comment (or correct them if you can amend this section).

    Best wishes,


  9. What to say… except that translators are clearly their own worst enemies in many cases.
    A few thoughts:
    Your Scenario 1 lady cannot possibly be interacting with clients regularly and in person or she would have a sharper idea of the Big Picture. Actually, I’d go further than that and point out that in many areas of her claimed specialty she may be losing business since prices like hers scream out “not credible”/”amateur”.
    OK, there are sometimes legal issues. Take the US, where ATA members are not allowed to discuss rates in public after a lawsuit and massive legal fees following an investigation by the anti-monopoly people decades ago.
    Other translators don’t talk about rates in public due to anxiety about revealing (1) how little they charge (embarrassing, especially if they are vocal about this, that and the other on, say, social media) or (2) how much they charge (possibly because they fear this could trigger criticism from other translators claiming they are gittin’ too big for their britches?).
    The only solutions I see are for professional associations not bound by legal constraints to keep up their training course (where prices are mentioned) and for established translators to address the topic in posts like this one. (Corinne McKay also “goes there” on her blog, “Thoughts on Translation”). If translators are any good, at some point the penny has got to drop, no?

    1. Thanks, Chris – and indeed everyone else –, for taking the time to reply.
      In Italy, too, the AITI (the Italian) translator/interpreter association isn’t allowed to publish recommended fees on grounds of price fixing (it did publish them up until the early 2000s). I don’t think there’s any law preventing individual translators, companies or agencies from listing their rates – but not many of them do so. And yet price – like it or not – is an important consideration for all of us when making a purchase. It sends out a message: not just of quality, pure and simple, but of overall service and professionalism. I’d like to see more price transparency among translators.
      The Nielsen Norman Group (website usability) strongly recommends listing price on B2B websites:

      “Prospective customers want to know the price as their #1 info need on any website — including B2B sites, but these sites often hide or obscure pricing information.

      Revealing price on your B2B website is one way to earn people’s trust. People view companies that show this key piece of information as being genuine and forthright. Transactions are more likely to occur when people feel educated about your offerings and trust your organization. Not showing pricing works against customer needs and thus introduces hostility into the research and shopping experience. Price is important. Address it.

  10. On reflection, I haven’t seen any associations except ASTTI (Switzerland) publish “recommended” prices — which would be strictly forbidden here in France. But associations can publish “statistics” based on surveys, and that can be useful. SFT has done so in the past and will no doubt do so again.

    For translators who have invested the time and money to specialize (really specialize) and who are looking for business clients, I disagree strongly with Nielsen Norman Group. I’m targeting premium clients who are passionate about what they do and who set the quality bar very high. And I’ve observed again and again that they seek suppliers based on (1) expertise and (2) availability. In that order. (3) might be “pleasant to work with”, with price a distant fourth (or fifth). Displaying pricing on a website can transform that into the no. 1 discussion point, which is not good.

    For the same reason, starting a discussion with “I offer reasonable/low prices” is not something I would ever do. And pitching *hard* on price is nuts. Unless, of course, you are a bulk supplier (which I also see as a poor strategy for a translator who is any good at what she does).

    It’s obviously different for translators selling not to businesses but to individuals (birth certificates, school records and so on), since that public is far more price sensitive.

    But for me the whole point of effective marketing is identifying companies that are a good match for me and finding ways to meet up with them in person, with no pitch at all.

    1. Hello again Chris. I display my rates (indicative) on my website but not as a pitch and certainly not in terms of “reasonable/low”. What I really hate is when translators slap a whopping great “Rates” tab on their site and the page then says “Rates vary depending on the size/complexity etc of the project – please contact me for a free quote”. That’s just wasting people’s time. Either display the rates, or don’t mention them at all.

  11. Translators are free to set their pricing but the market as a whole establishes the “going rate” for services. If pricing is too much above current market rates, there’d better be a good reason. And it better be a reason that matters to customers.

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