... I've been wondering how accurately the "aggregate rate information" at ProZ represents real rates... These are target word rates, but I wonder how much lower actual rates are? I know that I sometimes charge less than my target rate (up to 20% or so) if other conditions of a given assignment make it a good deal overall.Here we go again. I find the assumption that actual rates are lower to be quite an interesting one, reflecting an interesting mindset. Why should they in fact be lower? "Actual rates" to me reflect those to be had in various market segments, and these tend to be a lot higher than many translators on ProZ assume. Not always, but often enough that I would not make the assumption that actual rates received are lower than the target rate. I myself have a target rate, but given the individual situation of a business transaction I often charge quite a bit above the "target". For me the target reflects an average expectation for an average situation. Just as something may prove simpler and justify a rate cut (like a recent job I did with 53% repetition that I discounted when I wrote the invoice, although my client expected no such break), special complexity (really crappy source scans, difficult texts, extreme amounts of source text errors, dealing with almost anything Swiss, etc.) more than justifies a premium.
The assumption of lower rates isn't entirely daft, however, depending on what exactly you consider the rate to be. With Client A I might charge in full for all source text regardless of any repetitions or TM matches. My effective rate is the same as the simple published rate. For Client B I might have negotiated a reduction in fees for TM matches above 90% if the older material was written by me. In that case, my effective rate is lower, of course, though my earnings for actual effort are most likely not any less. But that is not the writer's point as I understood it.
The assumption that translators will be paid less or should accept less because some sectors of the economy are experiencing difficulty is unfortunate and misguided. Certainly some in our profession are affected, but the challenges faced are very much related to individual situations, business forms and language pairs. Some months ago I had an interesting conversation with an agency owner whom I respect very much, because she has a well-run operation with an emphasis on quality. She complained of a 40% drop in end customer volume, though she was able (at that point) to maintain the rates themselves at previous levels. The primary declines were said to be in minor languages: instead of translating dog food advertising into 15 languages, a client of hers might choose to focus only on 5 target languages and let the Croatians struggle to understand the list of ingredients in Italian or English. Some clients looked for cheaper service elsewhere, but this was less of an issue, because most were too smart to have important marketing materials or technical instructions entrusted to unserious non-professionals willing to take on real jobs for pocket change. Since then a number of my other agency clients have mentioned declines in overall volume, some greater, some less.
Does this affect me? Not really. As another blogging translator (can't remember which - sorry) pointed out recently, agencies have other options to stay afloat, like cutting staff, changing phone plans or moving to less expensive office space. Individual translators have fewer options. The space under my local bridge is already taken up by other hobos, so I prefer to stay in my house. And WLAN in front of a campfire sucks.
But the good translators I know in my language pair are all rather busy. At least they are when I try to refer clients to them, which happens several times a week at least. They might be less busy with particular agencies, but overall they are doing well, and the trend of companies to cut out the middlemen and go directly to a good freelance translator is not hurting them at all. These end customers are more work sometimes, but they pay much better. How much better? One company whose materials I used to translate through an agency approached me a few years after I ended my relationship with the agency because I was deemed "too expensive". I get 58.8% more per line from the direct relationship as well as very generous compensation for revisions, terminology work and other incidentals, and the company is paying a good bit less than the agency charged previously. The project management by the company's employees is better too - questions get answered more quickly without an agency PM sitting on them like a hen on a nest full of eggs.
Better rates like that are actual rates that are part of actual markets. Just like a better rate I might give to a friend who needs a web page translated to sell his puppies or a break I might give to a recent college grad with no job prospects in Germany who has chosen to emigrate to Canada with the clothes on his back. Rather than worry about market generalizations, I think it's more important to look at our own range of services, our personal niche markets (if any), the types of clients we deal with (the BDÜ has 5 categories in its rate survey, but one could just as well define 15 types or more) and research specifics for those markets that we intend to be part of. Anything else is really mental masturbation.
As an example, a young wannabe colleague (recent university grad) posted a note in the German forum of ProZ a few days ago wanting to know (among other things) if 70 euro cents per line is a good rate for EN>DE or FR>DE work. I do know people who have worked for less, but I responded rather bluntly that I would not have gotten out of bed for that 10 years ago, and I certainly would not today. She didn't say what field was involved (since the question was about agency rates that probably isn't terribly relevant), but in the area of banking and finance, for example, I haven't encountered a colleague anyone was willing to recommend who charges less than € 1.60 per line. Most charge well upwards of € 2.00 per line. Plus rush charges and other relevant surcharges, of course. Those too are actual rates.
So rather than obsess about how low one must go - or even how high one can go in a field in which one has no expertise - I'll choose to keep my blinders on and look straight ahead at what is possible and reasonable in my own areas. I talk to a lot of colleagues about a lot of issues, rates included, and even those who are closest in specialties or skills have unique characteristics that affect the rates that they can and should charge for the same service I give. We can give each other advice all week long, but what really matters is how each of us filters that advice and applies it, accepting responsibility and learning from the results. In the long run that will be the difference between success and failure, not what is charged per word today.