Translation Rates and Fees
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by Richard Boulter and Guadalupe Sanchez
It is natural that the issue of rates of pay for services rendered should be a continuing topic of discussion among translators and interpreters, as it is among the practitioners of all disciplines and services that people pursue in order to earn a living. We often find, in such discussions among language professionals, that it becomes an effort to convince the individual to do what he wishes to do anyway: to charge higher rates than he does at the present time. For some reason we seem to be continuously attempting to reduce our rates, though we want and need more money for our services if we are to continue to provide the specialized work. Isn't that strange? Not really. Let's take a look at who and what we are, together with at least a couple of things that we are not.
In the first place, many capable professional translators have a university degree. Should we base our income expectations upon that? Well ..., no, because a degree in something does not make a translator. Besides, the income range to be sought for a person with the basic four-year university degree ranges between $100,000 and $1 million Mexican pesos per year, depending upon the discipline studied and the job that it is applied in. This is much too wide a range of income serve as a scale to base our piece rates on.
More to the point is the fact that the degree is not even an indicator of ability to translate, unless the degree were in "Translation" and unless the degree-holder spoke two or more languages. Any language service provider must be linguistically capable at a level far beyond the simple 'me defiendo" stage of social communication in both his/her source- and targeted-working languages. That means being more knowledgeable of one's second language than most native-speaking persons, and enjoy a superior knowledge of his/her native language. In practical terms, this implies a requirement of continuous study, training and individual preparation. I think that we can agree that it would be difficult to quantify this factor into a coherent wage scale, but it counts.
Another approach would be to simply view ourselves as small-business owners. In this view, we would charge for all the time and money that goes into general promotion contacting and maintaining clients; for the costs of bookkeeping and taxes; into training and professional associations; for expenses from consultation with industry experts and other overhead business expenses, ad infinitum. All this is investment of cash and time that is in addition to the investment of time that we are dedicating to the work. In this model the translated document product would be equivalent to the sofa that the furniture store buys in order to resell. A margin of profit is required beyond even that.
We think that we are striking close to the heart of our quandary with this last approach. Not that it will necessarily serve as the main model for our price structure as translators, but because very few translators have considered business management with its cost - benefit analyses, tenets of responsibility to employees (including oneself) and principles of fair trade.
The issue of competition is a direct corollary of the paragraph above; many of us do not use the principles of productive competition, so that the industry is repeatedly falling into a mad cut-throat scramble. As indicated above, we tend to set our prices according to criteria other than those used in most business environments. We allow our personal insecurities, our lack of understanding of the market we work in, to override our need and right to charge reasonable rates for excellent work. The writers submit that nothing less than excellence is really acceptable as translation work. This should indicate that some very-few of us should seek other employment; and that the rest of us should be continuing to hone our skills through continuing education and professional association, while charging for high quality.
There is a certain value in the concept that some experienced translators who are specialized in translation for a particular field or industry can and should charge higher rates than what is reasonable for most language service work. This does not mean that, conversely, the base rate for - let us say a new, inexperienced graduate from a translation course - should be reduced below the basic fee range. That could only result in 1- inferior workmanship, reflecting badly on the profession, and 2- continued undervaluation of the service in general. Again, anything but excellence is less-than-acceptable if our profession is to bear up under its responsibility in the business community.
The Client's Point of View
When we fail to charge reasonable rates, then we are - in fact - cheating the client on a long-term basis. That sounds like a far fetched concept at first glance, so we will explain our reasoning. If we allow a norm to prevail of lower prices than what we need to remain in the language industry as professionals and to make the required investments of time and money in continuing education, then we will eventually be forced to take other (part-time or full-time) employment. This will leave less time, less incentive and fewer resources available for our continued self-preparation and language services. We will also be less available to work as translators when the client needs it done, since we will be committed to employers in other fields. Given that we would not be maintaining and improving our skills or our resources efficiently, when we accepted translation work our product would be less efficient. The maxim that "you get what you pay for" is blatantly obvious when we look at the issue from the point of view that we have just described.
The Professional's Responsibility
We must consider how we make our service valuable to our clients. As the language specialists we must be prepared to explain the cost of the service appropriately. For his part, the client must expect to pay adequately for the language service that his business interests require, so that the language professional is able to be available and prepared to translate the client's next project for profit.
This amount will vary for translators from one region to another, and among different kinds of clients. It is also true that such prices can vary from one region to another. Conferences or congresses that come to one city may operate on a different budget scale, from top to bottom, from those that are contracted in other venues, and the interpretation rates must be budgeted accordingly.
This is a common relationship between large, small and smaller markets that applies to everything in a given location, from the price of breakfast or monthly housing rentals to the cost of attorney or translator services. The business that is the translator's client knows this and must adjust its own price structure to what the local market will bear. For the client, translation fees are overhead, which he figures into his price structure and charges out to his own customer base. The trick for the language service provider is to not permit this principle to serve as an excuse for underselling himself, nor for undercutting other language professionals. Conversely, with the global market available to the service provider having internet contact, when he bids work on the open market where the base rate is higher he is both prudent and businesslike to charge a higher rate than what his local market can provide him.
There are many other considerations to take into account, as we establish guidelines for ourselves on the value of our work. In the final analysis, it must be a matter of negotiation with the client and - especially - of continuous friendly discussion among translators. The price structure for our services may change either upward or downward over time. We will not be able to simply set a fee scale and leave it there permanently. We will allow for increased or decreased availability, supply prices, income levels in the community and tax loads. We may raise prices in a boom year and drop them during an economic slump or mass layoff by the major local employer. Like any business, sometimes we will be able to offer a month of interest-free credit and at other times we'll require cash-on-the-barrelhead as the only option.
One of the key values in professional associations like ProZ or NOTIS is that they provide forums in which to get acquainted with each other, as language professionals. We can establish friendly, or at least amicable, professional relationships with each other and reach a level of confidence from which we can discuss the price structure in our industry as we need to do. Before this open interaction can happen we need to know each other, and to establish in our minds each other's professional dedication to the discipline, the industry and the clientele. Particularly, think what the newcomer without any input must do; without good input about the value of his work he may feel that he needs to start by pricing himself very low, in order to enter the market and to learn the ropes. He may begin by ignoring (or perhaps being unaware of) the customary 'cuartilla' (page) of 250 words. Continuing in that manner would eventually push the newcomer out of the business, just because of the poor workmanship that he would be able to deliver at the price. But honestly, his departure could be the loss of a talented colleague from the profession, if he is good at his job.
We do not believe that professional organizations should be setting minimum fees or rates for given translation or interpreting assignments. In fact, we understand that this practice is expressly illegal in the United States, though the legal technicalities in Mexico are less clear. In either country, it is certainly an opening for a price-fixing lawsuit that no professional organization needs. In practical terms the responsible, capable translator needs to evaluate each project that is offered and to give the client a price to work with; from there the negotiation may or may not begin. This is the freelancer's right and his/her responsibility as an independent contractor and as a skilled practitioner. But under those same criteria comes the truth that it behooves the freelancer to arrange his prices within a certain range. One must be willing and/or able to walk away from a given assignment if his fee is unacceptable, or the client-side of the negotiation has him at the disadvantage, permanently. Thus, some general agreements, guidelines or parameters would be valuable to us as we negotiate a price for a piece of work.
It remains to us to discuss how to achieve these guidelines. Two common units of measure among professionals that we know are the fees charged per word or per page-of-defined-size (cuartilla, in Spanish) of translation done. The definition of a cuartilla is often 250 words, which is the approximate number of words on one side of a double-spaced, letter-size page in font size 12 in MSWORD. If a rate of $150 Mexican pesos were charged per cuartilla, it would equal some 60 centavos per word, for example, or around $.05 USD. Having established a way to calculate one's fees, each language specialist may negotiate the figure upward until a rate is reached that will support a normal lifestyle (which - as a minimum - includes living indoors, eating regularly and paying for one’s professional expenses).
We think that every professional translator should define what his/her minimum 'base' or 'basic' fee is, whether it is published or not. This is for the practitioner's own benefit. For one thing, setting a base fee for ourselves requires us to go through the evaluation process according to the concepts above, together with others that were not brought into this article that may be unique to the translator's market or specialty. Setting a base rate may require that we sit down and write out a list of the issues and reasons that are involved in our valuation of our work. When negotiating the price of a project with a client, we would thus have a prepared outline in mind to guide our side of the conversation. ProZ.com has a free online rate-calculation tool to help one to discover what volume of work and what rate of pay will generate the annual income that the language professional needs, to support his/her lifestyle at the level needed or desired.
We are responsible to explain to the client why we charge what we charge and why we couldn't charge less than we do while providing the same high quality of service. In reality, we cannot provide the service unless we can command adequate fees for the work.
Richard Boulter is a legal and economic development translator based in Idaho, USA. A Platinum member of ProZ and member of NOTIS (local chapter of the ATA), he associates with language professionals as often as possible. He would be happy to reply to e-mails sent to his ProZ mailbox on this or other translation-related topics.
Guadalupe Sanchez is a commercial translator and interpreter based in Colima, Mexico. A founding member of the OMT (Organización Mexicana de Traductores, A.C.) and former member of its Board of Directors. She specializes in commercial and technical translation.