I can’t get rid of this catchy Meghan Trainor earworm, except in my head it goes “It’s all about the rates, ‘bout the rates, no trouble”. This is not true, of course, because where rates are discussed trouble is not far behind, or so we are told, but what the heck. I’ll start.
I started my translation career working for $0.05/word on, where else, Proz.com. I just bumped into the site one day while job hunting, and I was beyond thrilled that here, apparently, was a way back into the profession I had thought I’d had to give up for good when I abandoned my Translation studies at the University of Amsterdam to move to the agricultural Central Valley of California. So when I found Proz and realized that physical location no longer mattered, I set up a profile faster than you can say “bulk-versus-premium market” and happily jumped into the bidding fray.
In my defense, I had no idea what a decent rate would be, since money is a famously taboo subject in translation circles. Proz does publish a list of average rates for different language pairs, but since none of my bids over $0.06/word ever got accepted, I concluded that the $0.12 average listed for Dutch-English on the site was just wishful thinking.
And I can’t tell you how disappointing it was, time after time, to discover an article or blog post promising the skinny on rates, only to be served yet another variety of: decide how much you want/need to make based on your expenses/desired lifestyle, divide that by the number of hours you want to work, and voila, there’s your rate.
First of all, this is not useful advice because the rate clients are willing to pay is based on the market or the perceived value of the service, which has nothing to do with how much I want to earn.
But let’s say for the sake of argument that it does work that way. Okay, I want to make a million dollars a year and work 20 hours a week, so that’s $19,230 a week or $961/hour. Of course this is a completely unrealistic and unfair example. But then what is fair? Is $100,000 a realistic figure for a full-time translator? $50,000? To know that, you either have to base the number on your own experience, which is what you’re trying to get away from, or you have to know how much other translators are charging. But no one’s telling. Back to square one.
To be fair, as desperate as I was to get my hot little hands on some actual numbers, nobody is obliged to tell me anything about their finances. I don’t think you’ll find many lawyers or doctors asking “So hey, what are y’all charging for consultations?” I don’t list my rates, either, although I have told colleagues in person. So yeah, the specifics of our personal finances are none of anyone’s business, but fortunately it’s not that hard to get a general idea if you pay attention. Here are some of my early experiences that gave me a clue:
- After about a year of slogging away on Proz, I got on board with a large Walmart-type translation company. I was feeling braver after building my resume, so I quoted what I thought of as the princely rate of $0.08 and to my delight they accepted. I worked for them for several years, cutting my teeth on medical translation, discovering I loved it and gaining a huge amount of experience in what would become my specialty. I was pretty pleased with my smokin’ negotiating skills as well, until…
- I was recruited by another agency specifically for medical translation. Remembering my successful negotiations with agency A and feeling considerably more qualified now, I decided to really push the envelope and ask for… $0.09 a word. What happened next I can only describe as either the grace of God or his mercy on the stupid, because this kind project manager, instead of doing the logical thing and gleefully accepting my rate, told me she was going to pay me what they paid all their translators, i.e. $0.12/word.
So the legend was true … it was a perfectly attainable rate — you’re just not going to get it on Proz. And not only that, but the first agency’s reputation for low rates, which I had dismissed before, was apparently well-deserved. Around the same time I invested in a one-on-one consultation with well-known colleague Judy Jenner, who confirmed my budding suspicions and shared insights about the translation business that would have taken me another year to figure out on my own. Armed with this knowledge, I started using this new rate as a jumping board, working on my qualifications and continuing to increase my rates accordingly.
To provide some context: many large translation agencies charge their clients around $0.20 – $0.22/word for common language pairs (if you surf around long enough you can find agencies that list their rates, and in one particularly lucky instance I actually found a detailed price list for all the agency’s language pairs), so that gives you an idea of the upper range large agencies are probably willing to pay. Smaller, more specialized agencies pay more.
On the other end of the spectrum, I know colleagues who charge $0.29/word and up, but keep in mind that these are highly experienced, highly specialized translators who mainly work for direct clients; you are not going to find an agency that will pay these rates. In fact, even for direct clients this is high since they could get it cheaper from a mass agency, but they are happy to pay because the guaranteed excellence of the translation is well worth it to them. It’s not easy to reach this level of the market, but the point is, it is possible, and if it is possible it is worth striving for.
Most of us are probably somewhere in between. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I sure am a long way from where I started. In the meantime, I love my work and I’m glad for the challenges still out there; it keeps things interesting, even if not always trouble-free.