Know What You’re Worth (and Work It)

confidenceIf you want to make more money you only have to do three things: deliver the goods, charge accordingly, and convince your clients that it’s a good investment.

It may seem like the first two should go without saying, but it’s amazing how many aspiring translators never get to step two. I almost got stuck at step one myself. I stumbled into the profession years ago when I discovered this intriguing site called I know now that the rates most agencies pay there are a tad on the stingy side, shall we say, but I am still thankful because this platform taught me a lot and enabled me to gain the experience I needed to build what is now a thriving business. (Note to agencies on who offer subpar rates: if you’re lucky you’ll get a fledgling top translator at the start of his/her career or an experienced translator with poor business skills, but more often than not you’ll get what you pay for.)

But at some point you have to do more than just deliver the goods, or your clients will be happy to keep you working weekends at ridiculous rates. So here  is a simply two-step plan to get higher rates:

1. Find out what constitutes a decent rate.
Unfortunately there is a lot of legal handwringing in the profession about price-fixing, so the ATA and other organizations no longer publish recommended rates. does list the averages of the rates posted by Proz members, but after months of only winning bids on jobs at rates that were much lower than my posted rates, I concluded that those rates were just collective wishful thinking and that $0.06/word was the real-life going rate. It wasn’t until I started listening to more experienced colleagues via personal contact, forums, blogs, etc., that I realized there was, in fact, a world of higher rates and better business practices out there.

1. Charge at least that rate.
One particular eye-opener was finding the rates posted on the Twin Translation website, and discovering that what Judy and Dagmar charged (direct clients) was about 5 times as much as my measly, misinformed rates. They were not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. Now they are the first to admit that their rates are very high, but they don’t apologize because they have proven that they’re worth it, and their clients are happy to pay. Their boldness inspired me and I’m happy to report that I do not work for $0.06/word anymore, and the base rate I quote agencies now is more than twice that. It’s nerve-wracking typing that large number in your quote for the first time, but it’s surprising how fast it becomes the new normal.

But in order to do this effectively and confidently, you have to understand your own value. This is how I look at my own situation to help me get in the right mindset. Let’s take a look at the directory:

  • The total number of translators registered with, according to their site,  is 375,000. This is linguists from all over the world in all language pairs.
  • Of those, 4192 translate from Dutch into English.
  • Of those, 394 live in the US.
  • Of those, 241 specialize in medical documents.

Now this is not saying anything yet about education an accreditation. The Proz list doesn’t allow sorting for those criteria and I didn’t feel like checking all 241 pages, so let’s hop on over to the ATA site and take a look at their directory (I’m not saying that ATA certification is the only worthwhile credential out there, far from it, but it’s an easy one to track for my purposes here).

  • There are 121 Dutch-English ATA members.
  • Of those, 93 live in the US.
  • Of those, 38 specialize in medicine
  • Of those, 11 are ATA-certified.

E-le-ven! How many lawyers or doctors are there in any one city, let alone all of the US?

And it’s not a low-demand issue, either, where the market will only bear up to 241 Dutch-English medical translators. According to its own website, “ currently lists 169,809 studies with locations in all 50 states and in 187 countries”. About 5,900 of these studies have sites in the Netherlands, which means they are continually generating documentation that most likely will have to be translated into English.

overloadI get so many job offers in my mailbox for clinical trials that I have to turn down the majority of them. I also know that a lot of these documents will end up being translated by inexperienced and, unfortunately, sometimes unqualified people, because it is critical that this work gets done within a certain time frame.

So why on earth would I not get paid well, and why on earth would the sponsors of these studies not be happy to compensate me well for providing them with crucial information on what may be their next moneymaker?

This is why it’s important to specialize and to know your market. I was actually planning on writing a post today about how to position yourself as a partner rather than a vendor, but as I started writing I realized that some of us need to discover the value of what we do before we can communicate that effectively to our clients. So how can we position ourselves to become that partner? More on that next time.


6 thoughts on “Know What You’re Worth (and Work It)

  1. Good points, Marie.
    I want to add sometimes, I mean to do it in the most respectful way possible.
    The “charge with you worth” approach is dangerous. It is dangerous because it directly ties one’s fees with one’s “worth” (whatever that is), and it becomes personal real fast. Every rejected quote could be perceived as a judgement call on one’s worth, and even worse, it could undermine one’s own confidence in his or her worth.

    The harsh truth is that we don’t decide what our service worth to someone else. They are the one deciding if to buy the service or not based on their considerations and reasoning. Tying one’s worth to other people’s reasoning could be more harmful than good.

    What we control is our fee, and we should be confident about our fee.

    Clients have varied and sometimes convoluted reasoning when they decide how much something is “worth” to them. Many would prefer to get everything for free, or next to, and therefore one of their big motivators is risk. They will be willing to pay to reduce their risk even if they think that this is just silly. We can help them a little to choose us by conducting ourselves in a way that will promote trust and make them want to work with us, but we cannot control their perception of worth, nor should we tie it to our “worth”.

    And one question, if I may. You wrote:
    “I get so many job offers in my mailbox for clinical trials that I have to turn down the majority of them”. Did you mean that you reject them because you are too busy, or because they are looking for cheap translator or otherwise incompatible with your professional and business values?

    • Hi Shai, thank you for that perspective. I understand what you’re saying, and I agree that what we charge or what people are willing to pay us has absolutely nothing to do with our worth as human beings. What I mean, and what I should have explained better perhaps, is that we can decide for ourselves what we think is a reasonable fee, based on our education, skill, credentials, specialty, etc. In that sense I think we make a judgement on what we think our own services are worth. It’s true that clients don’t have to pay that fee and that sometimes they will reject our offer as being too expensive, and you do well to remind us that we should not take that as a statement of our worth. I just think that sometimes we can charge more than we think we can, i.e. that our services our “worth” more money, but I separate that completely from my value as a person. I do get rejected, too, but I don’t take it personally. You can’t be a good match for everybody, and that’s not a reflection on my value as a person or a translator. So I’m sorry for any miscommunication on my part; the last thing I ever want to suggest is that our worth is tied to our work or our income. As to your question: it’s for all of the reasons you mention. Often I’m too busy, and that automatically means that I pick the highest paying offer. If I don’t get any great offers at all I consider the lower-paying ones, but I have a threshold. I will not take jobs at rates that I consider insultingly low. I hope that clarifies things a bit. Thanks for your feedback, because we don’t always know how we come across until someone points it out.

  2. Your intention was perfectly understood, Marie. I didn’t comment about it because I didn’t get what you were trying to emphasize, but because I think that it is not the right way to present it. I’m speaking out of experience. I once too held the “charge what you worth” approach, until I understood how misguided it is.

    The main takeaway and recommendation remain just as valid: set up a fee the represent your skill, knowledge, expertise: your “uniqueness” if you will; it is just the idea behind it that needs to be changed, I think. We can’t control how other define the worth of our service. The only thing that we control is the price.

    When we go to buy a product or a service, the provider cannot control how we define the worth of that product or service, they can only set the price and let us decide. They can influence us a little to choose to work with them instead of others (especially when buying services), but provided the disconnect between our definition of worth and the set price is too large to begin with, no amount of “convincing” should work. If we reject the offer this is not a statement about the provider’s worth as a professional (and certainly not as a human being), this is just business.

    This is another importance of specialization and experience. Instead of coming with the fee (and a good rule-of-thumb is that if one comes up with just an arbitrary number for their fee that seems “just about right” one is taking the wrong approach): Not only that one is position better to meet the needs of specific clients, one also know their risks better. So the one can stop charging what one is worth, and charge charging what the service “worth” (from a risk-assessment perspective to the client.

    I strongly advice against tying the fee to one’s worth. Many understand your meaning about charging a good fee that represent one’s skills and specialty and understand that this is just business that usually things are not personal. But others take the advice at face value and every quote is becoming a verdict on their worth as professionals. This is not healthy.

    And another lesson I’ve learned. When you rejecting perfectly acceptable work (I’m not considering here enquirers that you wouldn’t consider anyway) just because you are too busy it is time to raise your fee and/or start outsourcing (or at least refer the work to one trusted colleague). There are a lot of reasons for this, helping the client is one of them, positioning yourself as a “consultant” is another, but another reason to do that is to keep the work in the professional circles. Chances are that if the client is an agency, and if you have declined it, that it will end up at the ends of someone who is not necessarily capable enough.
    The low bulk market is much more visible, we should also do our part in steering naïve and/or irresponsible clients away from it.

    The lesson that I’ve learned is that rejecting work that otherwise you would have accepted just because you are busy is never the correct choice. Outsourcing it (in case of direct clients) or referring it to a trusted colleague (might be more suitable when working with agencies) are more appropriate courses of action.

    And just to be clear, I didn’t write any of this as a criticism of any kind. I just wanted to share my experience and point-of-view.

    • I think the thing to keep in mind here is that this post is not a marketing post. You know from my previous post that we agree on basing our sales pitch on the client’s needs and the solution we offer, not on a self-centered spiel. But as I try to say in this post, I think some beginning translators may be intimidated by the low rates that are pushed everywhere, and so before they can go out and market their services they have to be reminded that what they do is valuable. It’s like a pre-game pep talk in the locker room before the team goes out on the field, so to speak. In the locker room you tell them “you have what it takes, you can do it!” That’s what this post is: “Our skills are needed, there is more work than qualified professionals out there, and so don’t be afraid to go out and get it.” But when the team gets on the field they have to respect the other team and think about strategy. That’s when we go out as translators and negotiate based on the client’s risk and the solution we offer, as you say.
      As far as declining work when I’m too busy, yes I was referring to agencies, but it’s not my job to provide them with a qualified pool of translators. They have the paid staff and resources to take care of that themselves, as that is what they are in business to do. That is they nature of a freelancer/agency relationship: they do not guarantee any work, and I do not guarantee availability. Relationships with direct clients are different, I agree, and I would never just leave them without any options if I was not available.
      Your points are well taken though, and I’m thinking of changing the title of this post, since it does create the impression I’m talking about sales and marketing.

      • As I’ve said. I’m not challenging the point that you were trying to get across. The key takeaway of this article remains valid. I merely tried to point out how the “charge what your worth” advice when taken at face value could lead to some issues down the road.

        It might seem like neat-picking semantics, but I’ve seen this happen.

        Again, I am by no mean criticizing your message or this great article. I wholeheartedly agree with its underlying message: Get specialized and take control over your business, career, and how much you charge; don’t let others – who obviously have the interest to pay as little as they can – decide that for you. I merely tried to share my point-of-view and add my perspective on the matter.

  3. And I appreciate it! Vigorous exchange helps me clarify and re-assess my own opinions , and I have taken your comments to heart for next time. Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective!

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