Sep 18, 2009

Rates and guidelines for writing and translation

Translators are often obsessed with size, in this case the size of the fee that can be charged for work. It's understandable: we all have to eat and most of us have to pay for at least part of the food and perhaps the roof over our heads. And insurance, software, equipment, electricity, water and more things than I care to remember. For reasons I fail to grasp completely, many translators have a hard time figuring out what to charge for their work and look for comparative data, then argue about whether it is even relevant. When I talk about rates in Germany as reflected in the BDÜ Honorarspiegel, some scoff that these are obvious lies, because nobody can get that much in today's global economy, while others (perhaps financial translators) snicker at the thought of qualified colleagues prostituting themselves for pennies (albeit a lot more pennies than you'll see offered in a typical ProZ job post).

This afternoon I followed a link from a discussion thread to an interesting page from the Society of Authors in the UK, which offers some guidance on pricing for translations of various kinds. From there I ended up somehow on another page with suggestions for minimum freelance translation rates for various language categories. So the next time, dear Reader, when you are tempted to take that fantastic opportunity from a UK agency for twenty quid per thousand words, have a look at these pages (which do not show particularly high rates) and think again. Oh yes... hourly charges are discussed as well, albeit rather low ones. For those who don't think in GBP, have a look at and convert the numbers to your preferred currency.


  1. Dear Kevin,

    I guess many translators do not understand that we have to charge different rates for different kinds of translation. It is obvious that we cannot have a fixed rate for all kinds of translation. For instance, I would charge only something like €0,06 per word or €0,80 per line for “slot translation.” However, I would charge for some special jobs €0,24 per word or €2,80 per line. The key lies in the time consumption. For validation jobs, time consumption is very high and I have to charge €500 per 100 words.

    Whatever rate a translator names can be regarded as dumping price by some translators or be regarded as a lie by some other translators. This comes from the different perceptions which come from experiences people make with our profession. If I tell some people that I do charge a special client €500 per 100 words for validation jobs, they would just take me for a liar. If I tell them that I charge only €0,06 per words for some jobs, they would accuse me of destroying the image of our profession. So, I come to the conclusion that rates are matters between me and my clients and I don’t need to tell anyone about what I charge for what. It is nonsense to talk about income/rates without shedding light into the energy put in the jobs. But it is business secrecy and why should translators disclose his rates and works?

    Have a nice weekend!

    - Sylvia

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Rates is such a taboo subject that translators tend to dance around it without laying anything down in concrete terms. I wonder what "low pay" signifies? Is it 0.04€, 0.08€ or 0.12€ per word? I have been told that the higher range can go up to 0.50€ / word (financial translators) but I am a long way off commanding those sort of rates (specialisation doesn't happen overnight!)

    I think the problem of low rates is inextricably linked to the secrecy surrounding rates. When you don't know what someone else is charging, you assume the worst and price yourself so as to get some work, rather than being totally penniless because you've over-priced yourself by 1 cent and no-one is biting.

    I know I charge low rates, because I have just started translating, and I believe that I should start at the bottom of the career ladder and work up. I have a plan which involves specialising, and marketing my services, rising my rates by 1 cent each time I reach a comfortable level of work. It will take several years to get where I want, but I will gain invaluable experience along the way.

    I do think that higher rates are to be had, but higher rates are to be deserved as well. Translation is a career that requires life-long learning, and a great investment of personal time (not just work time) in order to progress. For translators that are not willing to invest more than the minimum required to get gigs, then there will always be the bottom of the pile work available at shockingly low rates. As the saying goes, you get what you deserve....

  3. @Sylvia: What are your language pairs? The equivalencies for DE>EN are quite different.

    I am frequently amazed by the ignorance and superstition that one encounters in discussions of rate calculation. Those who can read German might find it entertaining to look at the comments of a German colleague in the Czech Republic who seems to feel that calculating lines in source text is risky and part of a conspiracy by evil agencies to screw him over. Really over the top. Another colleague objected to the rates which were stated at the start of the thread, and while I agree with him that they appear quite low, since I know nothing about the topic starter's efficiency and operating costs, I'll hold back from calling him a price dumper. If he works as efficiently as one fellow I know does with a tool like Dragon Naturally Speaking he probably makes more per hour at that crappy word rate than I do at much better unit prices.

    Our colleague Ralf Lemster and numerous others point out time and again that there is no single translation market and no universal template for a successful translation business. But comparisons and published survey data have a lot of value in the proper context. When I first got my copy of the BDÜ rate survey for 2007, I was surprised to see that we were often far above the averages on word rates but that in some customer categories there was still a way to go on the line rates before hitting the averages. The breakdown of customer categories in that publication, though crude, has been very helpful, and I have made good use of it in positioning my project proposals. I find the UK data in this post quite interesting, because it gives me a lot more information about a national market I do not know well despite having worked with a number of British clients over the years.

    If anyone else knows of useful rate surveys, feel free to point them out. I don't look at them as an indication of what I should charge necessarily. I might charge more or less than the published figures, depending on my own perception of the relative value I can offer and how a project might compare to an "average" project.

  4. Anonymous scripsit:
    I believe that I should start at the bottom of the career ladder and work up.

    Maybe. Probably not if you're talking about prices. I won't lecture you about "once on the bottom, always there", because that's not necessarily the case. But I personally would find a new translator more attractive if that person were teamed up with an experienced editor. The team could emphasize the use of dual review when marketing services and probably do quite well. Also, I have seen inexperienced translators delivering work that is better than some with 30 years' experience. And getting paid accordingly. Assess your own situation regularly and make adjustments accordingly. As long as you aren't foolish enough to give too much of your capacity to any one customer, it should be easy enough to move up the rate ladder with little risk when you are ready.

    In my case I have my bad temper to thank for my most dramatic rate increases. If I am tired and booked out to the gills and someone I don't know tries to persuade me to take on yet another project, I'll name an unacceptably long deadline and slap a good percentage onto the top of my price range for that type of job. If the answer is no, there's nothing lost, if yes I take note and repeat that performance to see if it's a fluke or the new level to offer as a minimum.

    It's not like I actually make a lot more money this way, really. Sometimes I do, but what is more important is the feeling that I can make extra efforts I might not consider otherwise, such as putting together a nice little terminology to deliver with the job or just reading more background material. I've done a lot of different things in my life, but I have enjoyed none of them as much as translation, and it's great to be able to savor the words like a nice glass of wine and know that the electricity bill will still get paid.

  5. Charlie Bavington on Proz, another Englishman with whom I tend to agree on most points, often says he favours a pricing strategy that leaves him 'generally satisfied with his living'. He charges what he 'thinks is fair'.

    Instead of having sliding scales and complex formulae for pricing, I generally have one price for everything and I takes the rough with the smooth. It makes giving an estimate very easy - just a matter of saying, "Yeah, OK", or "Um, no". This appears to me to be rather typical of the Japanese approach to business (swings and roundabouts), but since Charlie Bavvers in the UK practices something similar, perhaps it isn't so culturally determined after all.

    I wonder if you're familiar with "I Am a Camera" by Christopher Isherwood (or it might be "Mr Norris Changes Trains", I forget which). He approvingly describes how the Jewish tailors in Berlin frequently overlooked the debts of their clients and simply persuaded them to have another suit made, to the benefit of one and all. I tend to see pricing in these terms. (Although my pricing is actually more Savile Row than tenement tailor...)

  6. @Rod: My old suit doesn't fit any more. Please give me the addresses of those tailors!

  7. Hi Kevin,

    My language pairs are English/German/French/Spanish-Chinese. Usually, we don´t have such rates as I mentioned above. But a minimum of €0,06 per word is guaranteed. The agencies, with whom I work, usually pay me up to €0,24 per word, depending on the jobs.

    As to the opinion of our German colleague in Czech Republic, I don´t agree with him at all. An agency in Wolfsburg who usually takes care of VW projects would pay for manual translation (which I call "slot translation") €2,10 per line in my language pair German-Chinese. Another agency in Berlin, who takes care of VW marketing materials, pays €0,14 per word. An agency in Basel, who takes care of Audi stuffs, pays €0,18 per word. A direct client in Wien, who does a lot of business with China, pays me for the translation of all sorts of documents €0,14 per word. An American direct client, for whom I take care of the subtitling of their documentaries, pays US$0.18 per word (US$0.12 for reviews). A French agency pays for validation jobs €500 per 100 words. I don´t mind wether the agencies pay per word or per line. Either I take on the job or I leave it. The agencies know me well and I can tell them frankly when a job outgrows my capacity.

    Why not per lines? For either agencies or direct clients, I do "slot translation" with a rate varies from €0,80 to €2,10 per line and the business runs well in my language pairs. For instance, an agency in Munich assigned me in August a slot translation project of 10590 lines with 9541 lines pretranslated and 313 lines above 70% match. There were only 734 lines to be translated from scratch and the pay was €1612, i.e., a rate of €1,5396. Isn´t it a fair rate? The same agency notified me 3 days ago that there comes in 10 days another slot translation project from the same end client with about 9000 lines pretranslated and 1200 lines to be translated from scratch. I don´t worry about the per line rate and the pay at all.

    By the way, I would like to know the addresses of those tailors, too. My husband would need some suits soon. What for is the wife if she doesn´t take care of her husband? I don´t have a husband who supports me. Instead, I earn more than he does. And I am proud of that, exactly the other way round as Bin Tiede. :D


  8. Hi Kevin,

    You have brought up an interesting possibility, and one which I have yet to explore: that of teaming up with an experienced editor. I am working towards specialising, yet I lack the necessary experience in my chosen field and so am ignorant of some of the technical mistakes I make. I had never thought about teaming up with an experienced editor, because I couldn't imagine that someone with experience would want to work with a neophyte translator when this editor could work with another experienced translator and offer an even better service to clients. But if experienced translators are willing to give back to their industry, then this could be a very interesting possibility indeed; and as you point out, experience doesn't necessarily mean better in the world of translation (although from a technical point of view, experienced translators are likely to produce more accurate translations than their colleagues who are just starting out in the business).

    I have to say, I don't mind that low rates exist in the translation market, because high rates are also available for translators who cut the mustard. This gives me the motivation to go that extra mile, push myself to my limits and drive my career forward. It is all too easy (and too common) to sit back and do nothing, and then complain that the rates are low. I'm glad to have realised that with a little (well, a lot) of time and energy, I'll be able to command higher rates because I'll have worked my socks off to deserve them.

    @Sylvia - My hat off to you! I told my husband that my goal was to earn more than he does. Now he smiles when he sees my head buried in a reference book every evening :-)

  9. @Anonymous: I wouldn't characterize the cooperation of an experienced translator/editor as "giving back" per se. These people should be paid a usual rate. Many of them take on such work from direct clients or agency customers anyway, so working with you would not represent a big departure from what is already done. The difference, really, is that you develop a good relationship with someone you trust and learn from the corrections. I seldom do such things, but years ago I proofread for a friend whom I brought to translation (his wife griped at him about getting a job, and he had great language skills and an engineering qualification from abroad, so it was a no-brainer). I was quite gratified to see that he almost never made the same mistake twice. If everyone were like that I might proofread more often :-)

    The point here is to bill the same as an experienced colleague and pay the difference (at piece rates or by the hour) to your chosen editor(s). It could be an excellent experience for all.

  10. Thanks Kevin, your post and comments have given me a concrete way to improve my service. I shall aim to find a specialist translator who is willing to proofread my translations and start charging higher rates earlier than planned.

    Sorry for remaining anonymous - I'm just embarrassed about being a "bottom of the pile" translator. I'm determined to work myself up the career ladder (and your tip has added another useful course of action to my business plan); but until I get there, I'll work feverishly, but anonymously, towards my goal.

  11. @Anonymous: The world will continue to turn with or without a name - often there are good reasons for anonymity. Half of what I write should probably be anonymous ;-)

    The main thing is that you achieve your professional and personal goals in a timely, satisfying manner. Cooperation and communication with good colleagues will often get you there faster. And if your editor likes your work at some point you might begin to see interesting referrals. Good words spread faster and better coming from someone that the party referred knows and trusts.

  12. I'm a bit like Rod, in that I have one rate for everything, with the proviso that it's one rate *per agency* - my rate between agencies varies considerably. Like Rod, I find it much easier to work like this, and so far it's been cost-effective. The agencies I charge lower rates for give me large volumes of repetitive work, bumping my hourly rate up no end (this morning I've earned several hundred euros with just a couple of hours work, for example). This covers the rarer occasions when they give me something more time-consuming to do: I'm happy to earn a low hourly rate on one or two jobs if I'm earning a more than decent one on others with the same agency.
    The agencies I charge more are the ones that only give me highly technical and demanding texts. The rate per word is almost double, but the average hourly rate is about the same.

    The bottom line is my income, not my rate. And that's doing very nicely, thanks!

    To anonymous: I also earn more than my husband - it can be done ;-)

  13. 'Tis true, I am often to be heard repeating "a fair day's pay for a fair day's work". 'Tis also true that I do not add a bit for powerpoint or add a bit for technical and so on and so forth, and I do tend to believe (and find) that these things even themselves out.

    Hence I would disagree with Sylvia that "we HAVE to charge different rates for different kinds...". I can fully understand the rationale behind doing so, and we are all completely free to choose the pricing structure that suits us and our customers. But we don't HAVE to do anything :)

    And 'tis also true that like MH, I don't have the same rate for each client, it varies. It therefore follows that I tend to turn down the trickier-looking work from the lower end of the scale, safe in the knowledge that something offering "a fair day's pay...etc." will turn up within hours, like as not from the same source.

    It is also perhaps worth pointing out that much of my work is fairly similar, and certainly by any objective yardstick I cannot say that any of the work is 4 times harder and takes 4 times as long as some of the other work, so even if I did charge variable rates, I doubt the highest would be 4 times the lowest.

    I truly have no idea whether this is cultural, or driven by my personal distaste for administrative complexity... and fear of ballsing up an invoice!

  14. @charlie:

    I believed as you do that things even themselves out till I came back to Asia 9 years ago and worked at a translation agency as chief reviewer.

    Working with those translator colleagues in house I found out how tricky this business is. The easiest projects were picked out by them and the harder ones go out to freelancers. Those PMs had their favorite freelancers and provided them easier projects while they assigned the hardest ones to the unfavored freelance translators.

    This is why I decide to charge different rates for different projects and pay those translators who work with me different rates for their participation (in proofreading or editing) of different projects when I become a freelancer. Believe me, it works essentially better this way for both clients and co-workers, because the clients know exactly what they submit for translation and the co-workers know exactly how difficult the subjects they are dealing with. If you let the clients take advantage of your low rate, you lose. If you let the co-workers swot up for hard subjects, you will lose their help sooner or later.

    For example, I have had 9 projects from 3 direct clients and 4 agency clients this month. The total turnover comes to €12.214,36 and I pay 5 freelance colleagues for their help in 6 of those projects a total of €3.322,29. An income of €8.892,07 is not bad at all. The rates charged were from €0,06 to €0,18 for different projects.

    If I had a flat rate of, say, €0,12 per word, the income would be €7.717,30. A difference of €1.174,77. Not a big deal?

    Everyone has the right to stick to his own pricing structure. But just think this example over. Translation is not just translation. We call it industry and it is a business. I do it business-like and my clients can buy my art (or that of my co-workers, all freelancers with different many clients, freelancers who take care of each other).

    - Sylvia

  15. I have no desire to come across as argumentative, but there are a couple of flaws in your logic as you would wish to apply it to me (no surprise, each of our businesses is slightly different).

    Firstly, I am not "assigned" projects by anyone. I am offered them, and I choose whether or not to accept. That decision is, as I said before, based on whether I think I will earn a decent whack given my assessment of how long I think it will take. Your description of behind the scenes at an agency is no surprise; people are only human, after all :-)

    So, if an agency keeps offering me things that are too "difficult" for me to hit target earnings per hour (day, week), I decline.
    (I posted elsewhere on this in July - I got offered nothing but PowerPoint for a couple of weeks, muttered darkly about increasing my rates if this carried on, and have not so much as sniffed a PowerPoint from that agency since). I am in no way forced to work on “hard” projects that otherwise warrant a higher rate as a result of my policy.

    My second point is not unrelated; you can't just change some of the parameters in a situation, leave the rest unchanged, and declare victory! I’m not sure we are comparing like with like in the first place, since I don't outsource. If you charge a rate and then outsource, the rate you charge is irrelevant, it's the net rate earned that becomes germane to this discussion, whereas if I charge a rate, that is the rate I earn, it’s all for me!. If I outsourced, assuming I wished to maintain a constant margin (which I suspect I would), then unless I found outsourcers who all charged me the same rate, then I would be forced to charge different rates.

    However, I may have misunderstood your meaning when you say “charge”.

    That said, I deduce from the income figures you gave for a rate of 0.12 that you handled about 64,300 words. If you cleared 8,892 for that, then your mean was a little under 0.14 per word. Given that you charge a range of from 0.06 to 0.18, it becomes immediately obvious that there is not a normal distribution around the median value of 0.12, and that it is skewed towards the upper end. Quite clearly, therefore, to opt to charge a flat rate of 0.12 would be idiocy, since you are clearly doing a higher volume above that rate than below it. If I were to come hypothetically strolling into your business and insist on a single rate, it would be 0.14. Although I expect we would then lose the customers that you usually charge 0.06 !! I trust that satisfies your request to “think this example over”.

    Finally, as regards your comment that “If you let the clients take advantage of your low rate, you lose”, I would just like to point out that my lowest rate is in fact above yours :-)

  16. @charlie:

    Dear Charlie,

    Obviously, we are talking about the same thing with the word "charge." There is a time when a translator see himself "forced to charge different rates."

    Agency clients choose their freelance translators and viceversa. Each one of us has the right to say no. We are all in the same situation. There were two projects I rejected during this month: A conference interpretation job (2 hours for US$300) and a proofreading job (above 12000 words for a rate of US$0.025 per word). In the latter case, if the client asked me to take care of the project with a rate of US$0.12 for translation (by a translator I trust), I would gladly accept the proofreading job for a rate of US$0.025 per word. You see, I don't take "assignments," I choose to take on different jobs for different rates for different time and energy consumption. Neither you nor I am forced to accept any assignment.

    My clients know my co-workers. Those who work with me are in direct contact with the clients. They can even take on some jobs directly from the clients if necessary. What I do with my co-workers is not outsourcing. They are people I trust. I don't push over jobs to them with a margin. I would ask them to take care of the part of translation, proofreading or editing of some projects and pay them decent rates for the jobs they do. In fact, I do project management job for direct clients pretty often. I have learned a lot from my co-workers and they maintain to have learned a lot from me, too.

    Congratualtions to your higher lowest rate! My lowest rate is actually 0.00. For some reasons, I provide services for Nulltarif. If you have a good philanthropic project, just ask me.

    In a sense, you are right about "things even themselves out." By the end, there is peace. In the long run we all belong to Friedhof where things even themselves out definitely. To tell you the truth, I like those agency clients who come to me with €0,06 per word rate, because 9 of 10 times I would reject the jobs and the 1 time must be sweet for a pasttime.

    I agree with you on that "people are only human." Since we are people, we are no exceptions. That is why I charge different rates. I don't have fixed flat rate of 0.12 or 0.14 or whatsoever, even when there were months my income drops under 3000. Things even themselves out. I am glad that my clients are doing well, so that I can be satisfied with their "assignments."

    I sincerely wish you keep your higher lowest rate.

    - Sylvia


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