Aug 25, 2009

Clear thoughts on "low" rates from Mr. Watson

Bitching about low rates is a mission in life for some translators, particularly among those who earn them. Translation is an excellent profession which provides a critical service for international trade and many domestic needs, like naturalization, legal proceedings, patent research and myriad other areas (oh yes, and literature too), and in many of these area (except literature usually) there is a decent living to be made. An engineer, attorney or chemist with strong foreign language skills, the ability to write well and a bit of marketing savvy can usually enjoy an equivalent or better income as a translator with some added benefits of flexibility. Even those with more modest educational backgrounds can do very well if they have a solid command of the basic prerequisites for success as a freelance translator. But too many people (not just translators) expect to be taken care of and are unwilling to contribute to their own well-being or are ignorant of how to do so. I am always greatly amused by calls on public forums for rate regulation at an international level, for minimum rates and a variety of other "protections".

First of all, the "minimum" rates are usually a joke - too low to pay my basic overhead for a house payment, transportation expenses and food with no frills. Maybe they work in Peru, but not in Germany. Do I care about that, or about all the silly three cent per word projects offered by agencies in China, India, the UK and other backwaters? No. Like any sensible person in business, I am aware of my costs, the value offered and the market potential, and I set my rates accordingly. Serious clients who want good service may very well be cost-conscious, but above all they are value-conscious, and they all understand that professional work by a professional who isn't living under Mommy's roof or off of hubby's income requires a reasonable rate. In my own experience this whole discussion occurs so seldom that if I didn't read the ProZ forums and various other blogs, I would probably overlook the "problem".

Every week there are silly new online rants about the bottomfeeders and their ripoff rates. I might even have a few in my own blog archive, and once in a while I get annoyed with some twit agency trying to make me part of their cattle call and comment here or elsewhere. In one such rant thread, Italian to English translator Giles Watson injected a much-needed dose of insight and sanity, which I will take the liberty of quoting here:
There is simply no point in complaining about outsourcers who offer low rates. When the client hasn't got any specific translator/translator profile in mind, the rate for the job is hardly likely to be wonderful. As Dante said, only in Italian, "Let us not speak of them but look, and pass on".

Good rates are available, though, if the translator has sufficient business nous to negotiate them, when the outsourcer knows what kind of specialist translator is needed for the job in hand and wants to find out how much his/her services will cost.

These paragons often use the Proz directories to draw up short lists, and that's where you want to be (on their short list!). If the job goes well, you will probably have a long-term client who pays acceptable rates and has decent payment practices.

No one in their right minds is going to post high-paying jobs to the entire Proz membership in any of the popular language combinations. How long would it take just to read all the replies?

We all had to battle with the bottom feeders to start with. The key is to have a clear idea of where you want to get to, which will generally involve acquiring better than average language skills and sector-specific knowledge in areas of the translation market that are likely to be buoyant in the long term.
That is the most clear-headed statement on the subject that I have heard in a while. If I had an important marketing brochure I wanted translated for my product, I most certainly would not make a public post stating a high rate that I would be willing to pay. I would be sorting spam mail from desperate, unqualified persons for the next hundred years if I did that. Using the search filters on ProZ or on the directories for professional translators' associations like the German BDÜ or the ITI takes little time and produces good lists of qualified candidates who might not screw up. Serious professionals who ask - and receive - serious rates. As for the rest? Let us not speak of them but look, and pass on.


  1. Thank you for posting this, Kevin. A post to end all brainless discussions about low rates (although I have my doubts, since, as they say in German "die Dummen werden nicht alle"). But--let us not speak of them...


  2. Couldn't agree more! Giles pointed out something no obvious that it's amazing no one's ever said it before. I'll bet it doesn't stop the endless discussions though - some people just like moaning.

    In any case, I do think that there's some value to the argument that the threads serve the purpose of informing newbies that 2 US cents a word does not constitute a viable rate - and in the absence of sticky threads, which Proz still haven't implemented (are they going to? I can't remember whether they said "good idea" and put it at the end of the list, ignored it or just said "no"), only a constant presence of rate rants can do this.

    I'm also long past the point of having to worry about low rates (or competition from bottom feeders), but there's no denying that when I was a newbie translator I hadn't a clue about what was a reasonable rate. I was lucky enough to have a couple of translator friends to advise me, but even so Proz was invaluable.

  3. Marie-Hélène HaylesAugust 28, 2009 5:06 PM

    Sorry Kevin, I think I forgot to add my name to that last post! 'Tis Marie-Hélène here.

  4. Thanks for a useful post Kevin.

    The more rants that are published in this respect the better, IMO.

    They will serve to educate innocent but misguided translators who are unaware of their own worth. Maybe also a step towards trawling more bottom-feeders to the surface for consignment to the cannery.


  5. Fully agree, Kevin. There is a market for high-quality translations out there, and that is where my market is. I personally refuse to work below by fixed rates, and I am not cheap.

    OK, so I might have some slack and decide to get some work below my usual rate... yes, it can happen. But I'd rather starve than going below my minimum rate, because I can employ my time in much better employments than that.

    Newbies & people that are literally desperate might have no other choice. Similarly, there are countries with living standards well below what we consider acceptable in the western world for which 0.03$/word is a luxury, so actually there ARE people who will work for such rates. It is useless to try to prevent that.

    On the other hand, many of the people who defend "minimum" rates are exactly the people who DO work for such low rates, or people who have so little work (or provide such low quality) that they feel threatened by such "price undercutting". No problem with that on my side.

    My concern is just the opposite, that some job sites (including Proz a few years ago) actually try the contrary, to put a price cap on the amounts that a translator can charge. For example, Translator's Junction limits translator's prices to a maximum of 0.08€. And who the hell are they to say how much I want to charge? If I find a customer who is willing to pay 5€/word (I really hope so), then it's not their business to prevent that. Let the market regulate the tops and the bottoms.

    As you say, look and continue.


    P.D. But once I got this agency offering me a lousy rate, I responded that my rate was four times what they offered... and they accepted my price! :O


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