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Translation Rates: How to Set Them Initially, When and How to Raise Them Later

Part I: Who Decides the Translation Rates?

People are usually very sensitive to price. Well, who isn’t? If you find out that a product is cheaper (even if it’s only by 5%) somewhere else, wouldn’t you rush over?

 

But translation rates are quite messy in the translation market. The translation rate per word, for example, can range anywhere from 2 cents to 2 dollars. It’s really difficult to know and prove which rate is reasonable. There isn’t much data out there that can help us see these translation rates objectively. (Rate standards are not provided at associations for reasons related to the anti-trust act… It’s almost impossible to find data on what the range really is or what the average is.) The more I think about it, the more I realize that there really are no other markets in the world that are quite like this.

 

There are a few reasons that explain why clients buy translation at vastly different rates. First, the quality of the translation may differ significantly depending on the translator. Also, the translation project may be very easy or very difficult and time-consuming depending on the content. It would be unreasonable if translating email correspondence between friends and translating a contract cost the same. The file format and deadline of the project also affect the price. For these reasons, prices vary greatly in this odd market.

 

In this environment, it is up to the translator to secure justified translation rates for his or her work.

 

It is up to the translator to secure justified translation rates for his or her work. Click To Tweet

 

 

If you are a company employee, you can often refer to the industry average wage to see if your wage is high or low. But as a translator in the translation industry, there is no such thing. There’s no average figure set by anyone, and the actual range is quite broad. In the end, it’s the translator who decides his or her translation rates and enforces them.

 

However, when you first enter the market, agencies will point out, nay, emphasize your inexperience and try to set low rates. You will have to decide whether to accept these rates or stick to the rates you have set for yourself even though it means you will receive less work. This is probably the first business decision you will have to make when you start your translation career. There is no right or wrong answer. You make your decision.

 

As you gain more experience over time, your workload will increase. However, there is no agency in the world that will approach you and say, “Because the quality of your translations have improved and meet deadlines, we will increase your translation rates!” Don’t ever think that someone will offer you higher translation rates than what you proposed because they’ve noticed the value of your work. This is not an appropriate mindset for a freelance translator. As a service provider, a freelance translator asserts and promotes the value of his or her own services, sets reasonable translation rates for his/her services, and works only with clients who accept these rates. You may be able to negotiate from time to time, but you must set your own base rate. If you have experience working for a large company, forget that experience. You’ve probably gotten used to others deciding your value. But now, decide for yourself what the value of your work is. Then, work on increasing that value and being acknowledged for it. Don’t be pushed around by agencies.

 

 

Decide for yourself what the value of your work is. Then, work on being acknowledged for it. Click To Tweet

 

Don’t be swayed by comments like, “the market is too competitive.” Fire these agencies. They only care about price competition in lower-end markets, and a business relationship formed because of low price is probably one that both parties want to end . Judge for yourself whether your translation rates are too high after evaluating actual data that you can find by yourself. (If you don’t know how, read How Much Do Translators Make?) Have confidence and firmly assert yourself and your work.

 

 

A business relationship formed because of low price is probably one that both parties want to end. Click To Tweet

 

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There will be many clients willing to accommodate good rates for your translations if you work hard and if final consumers (readers of your translation) like your work. However, it is your job to find these clients, set your rates, and assert them.

 

 

Part II: How to Set Your Translation Rates Initially

Factors to Consider to Set Your Base Rate

A translation rate like a price tag for translation. It is really a difficult thing to put an objective price on the intellectual work that is called translation. However, the market continues to demand it.

 

 

Before the advent of the computer, I think translators used to charge a certain amount for 1 sheet of A4 paper or 1 page of a book. That is really funny because you can tell what a flimsy, expandable standard that is just by adjusting the font size, the margins, and even font type. (As an experiment, try changing your font from Arial to Times New Roman.)

 

The rate that is used most often in the market nowadays is the rate per word count. The word count rates are usually referring to the word count of the source file (the original untranslated document). For example, 10 cents per English word. So if an English source document contains 1,000 words, you will be paid $100. If it’s 5,000 words, you will receive $500.

 

This kind of rate per word count of the source file is the translation rate that agencies prefer and is actually the most used rate. This is really hard to do with some languages like Korean, however. It is OK when translating from English to Korean, but in Korean to English translations, the word count of the source file becomes very ambiguous.

 

I will give you some examples.

 

1) ” 한국 말은 단어 사이 띄어 쓰기가 애매한 경우가 많아 단어 수를 세는 것이 참 힘들다(It is very difficult to do word count for Korean because there are many cases in written Korean where the placement of a space between words can be ambiguous).” (33 characters, 17 words; 1.94 ratio)

 

2). ” 인천공항국제화경영방안에대한 인구통계분석적 제언(A demographic analytical proposal regarding the management methods of Incheon International Airport).” (23 source characters, 3 words; 7.67 ratio)

 

The sentences I made are a little awkward, but you get my point. (Those of you translating from German probably understand this really well…). Since the practice of spacing has not been settled, you will experience a great loss if you decide on your rate based on word count for certain documents (legal or academic documents). In addition, PMs who don’t know Korean don’t really understand these kinds of special circumstances. (Although PMs are in the translation business, there are some who don’t know any other language, and their understanding of Asian languages is often pitiful. But translators have to deal with these people, so we must think of ways to handle them well.)

 

In this situation, there are two different approaches you can take. One is to set the rates based on the number of words in the target document (the translated document, the English document in this case). In other words, you’re saying you will be paid 12 cents per word of the translated document after you finish translation. Another approach is to set your rate based on the character count rather than the word count. So you’re setting your rate as 5 cents or 10 cents per Korean character, for example. You can select one of the above two options after discussing it and coming to an agreement with the agency.

 

It is indeed a frustrating thing to set one base rate and to fixedly apply it in any and all situations. The good news is, you don’t have to. Of course, the default or base rate is necessary for a translator to quickly negotiate other matters with the agencies and gauge his/her estimated annual earnings. It is also important to your business to have a standard for what projects you will take on instead of carelessly deciding based on your mood that day.

 

 

Additional Factors to Consider

This section clarifies some of the points I’ve made in the previous section, because there are additional elements that should affect your translation rates as well. When I was talking about translation rates in my previous section, I was referring to the base rate. For example, 10 cents per English word or 8 cents per Korean character. However, after you’ve selected a base rate, the rate of each project is selected separately.

 

Some translators will set a base rate and work on projects they don’t like, difficult projects, projects with illegible source documents, or urgent projects all at this same rate. This is a recipe for disaster! You’ll end up overworked, underpaid, and very unhappy. Rates and conditions must be adjusted for different projects. Consider the following factors in adjusting your base rate.

 

The form of the source document

 

       

 

If the source file is a Word document, it’s fine because you can put it through a CAT tool right away, but if it’s a certain type of PDF document (there are two kinds of PDFs), you can’t run it through a CAT tool before going through the necessary source work on the file. This significantly increases a translator’s work load, so you must not leave this out of consideration when deciding on a rate. If you’re required to turn a PDF-like file format into a DOC file, your rate must reflect this difficulty. So you must ask for a 20% to 40% increase from your base rate (i.e. the rate you would have charged if the source file was a DOC file).

 

If the source file format is JPG or PNG, a rate based on word or character count is almost meaningless. When this happens, you have no choice but to negotiate a separate rate altogether to determine the price on a turnkey basis.

 

The deadline and weekend/holiday work

 

      

 

If the deadline is urgent, a translator must set aside other things and even change his/her everyday routine to finish the translation. No one can force a translator to do this; the translator must allow and accept it himself/herself. But if you accept that kind of project that makes you sacrifice your own leisure time, time with family, exercise time, etc. with no compensation, what kind of a life is that?

 

You should never do that. In fact, agencies already know that, although they pretend to assume you work 7 days a week like machine. They know that sending translators urgent projects is basically asking the translators to put aside all their other projects to work on this first, and that they’re asking translators to sacrifice their own daily routines and even their weekend’s rest to finish this project for them.

 

Nevertheless, if a translator does not point this out himself/herself and ask for an increase in rate, do you think an agency is going to kindly tell you on their own, “I’m sorry to ask for this so urgently. I’ll give you a 30% increase from your regular rate”? I can absolutely guarantee they will do no such thing. That is why translators must boldly say, “The deadline you’re giving me is impossible to meet by normal methods. I will undertake the project under the condition of receiving a 30% (or 50%) increase from my regular rate as a rush fee.”

 

Difficulty of translation

 

 

It’s all too obvious that there will be a difference in difficulty between translating some e-mails exchanged between friends and translating a multi-million-dollar contract between major companies. A lot of difficult terms will be used, you must know expressions that you’re not familiar with, and it also requires quite a bit of prior knowledge of that field. Therefore, in this case also, you need to raise your rate a couple dozen percentages for translation for certain fields. This is a part of specialization. It’s only natural that you should receive a better rate for translation in a field where you’ve grown your expertise over a long period of time.

 

As you’ve seen above, an actual translation rate is determined from the base rate by taking several other factors into consideration. These factors may be applied in combination. For example, being asked to translate a contract in dead PDF form in one day is a situation with several overlapping factors. Therefore, after setting your base rate, it is advisable for you to decide on your actual translation rate after considering each of these factors.

 

For example, Susan (a typical translator) would:

  • Reject projects she doesn’t like regardless of rates
  • Increase her rates by 20% if the source document is a dead PDF that she can’t open in her CAT tool
  • Increase her rates by 50% if the source document is handwritten so she can’t use even OCR
  • ask to extend the deadline or ask to increase the rate if the agency requests she does work on the weekends. (The rate of increase will depend on how important weekends are to Susan. It could be 20%, 50% or 100%).

 

Furthermore, difficult projects, such as contracts or projects that require professional knowledge, should be charged more. Same goes for advertisement slogans or phrases. If you consider all these things and secure enough compensation, you won’t feel upset about the extra time it will take; instead, you might feel quite good about receiving extra income and you’ll be on your way to becoming a happy translator…

 

 

All these extra agreements are based on the base rate. It will be difficult to manage if your base rate changes with every project, but if you let the agency know that you have fixed extra costs based on the factors above, eventually (finally!), the agency will include these extra costs when they contact you with project offers (for example, a 30% increase on rush projects).

 

 

Part III: When and How to Raise Your Translation Rates

Now we turn to when and how to raise your translation rates. Once you set your base rates and start working hard, the quality of your translations will improve, along with your ability to manage projects. However, as I’ve mentioned before, no one will raise your rates for you. This will become clear once you think about how agencies profit. An agency’s profit is calculated as follows:

 

Agency’s profit (A) = Payment from end customers (B) – Translator fees (C) –Agency’s operating costs (D)

 

According to the formula above, (B) must be increased and (C) and (D) must be decreased to increase profit. But to increase (B), the agency must be connected with good translators. Thus, the most important asset for an agency is having connections with good translators. I want all translators to know and all agencies to acknowledge this: good translators are like gold, and really good translators are like diamond.

 

 

Good translators are like gold, and really good translators are like diamond. Click To Tweet

 

Given their circumstances, agencies will have no choice but to request good translation from good translators while attempting pay them low wages. It’s pretty simple and obvious. Thus, even if you work with an agency for 10 years, they may always say, “Thank you!” or “You’re the best!”, but they will never take the lead in raising your rates.

 

They may say, “Thank you! You’re the best!”, but they will never take the initiative in raising your rates. Click To Tweet

 

If the translator asks for higher rates first, the agency will always say, “The market is too competitive these days.” Such comments are meaningless to translators. It’s difficult for the translator to know what that comment really means or find out whether it’s actually true or not. It would be different if the translator were an employee of the agency. However, as I have emphasized over and over again, a translator is not an employee of the agency. The translator and agency merely agree to work together on a project to project basis. That’s why the translator is a freelancer. After a long time, the agency may seem like a patron or the translator’s reliable source of income. That, however, is an illusion. A translator’s underlying source of income is the end client. The translator’s ability and efforts that satisfy this end client are what generate income. An agency must be seen as the translator’s marketing department, and even this relationship only applies from project to project—beyond that, they have no obligation or claim towards each other. Thus, the translator must realize that only he or she is responsible for the rate he or she charges. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you. Don’t rely on anyone or be fooled by anyone. If you do, you’ll never manage to raise your rates.

 

 

Now, we will discuss when and how we can raise our base rates. Before I continue, I will assume that you are already hard-working and produce good translations. If not, it will be impossible to increase your rates.

 

 

1. When to raise your translation rates

If you are too busy, it’s time to raise your translation rates.

 

If you are too busy, it’s time to raise your rates. Click To Tweet

 

If a translator is too busy, it means that he or she is not receiving their full worth in the translation market. Let’s refer again to the formula mentioned above:

 

Agency’s profit (A) = Payment from end customers (B) – Translator fees (C) –Agency’s operating costs (D)

 

From an agency’s perspective, the best translator is one who demonstrates high skills but receives rates lower than his or her value—they are as valuable as geese who lay golden eggs. With translators like these, (B) will increase and (C) will decrease. If (D) is fixed, (A) will increase for sure. Therefore, agencies will continuously supply these translators with work. Then, work will flow in endlessly because all agencies behave in the same way. How should the translator react to this situation? Should he or she feel satisfied and think, “The world is finally recognizing me for my work!” No. Well, you may enjoy it a bit for a while. Celebrate by having a cup of coffee or glass of wine, reading a book or watching a film that you like, spending time with someone you’ve been wanting to see, etc. Whatever you do, pat yourself on the back and celebrate a bit.

 

 

However, at some point you need to reevaluate your situation. Rejecting projects you don’t want to work on is always a good thing, but continuously having to reject projects you do want to work on is a problem. Also, overworking will disadvantage you in many ways. At first, you may think it is a good thing because your work is being recognized and your income is increasing, but this will not hold true in the long run. Let me explain why.

 

First, you’ll exhaust yourself if you overwork and run on fumes. Building a translation career is like running a marathon. If you overwork yourself, you’ll lose sight of important things such as self-development that is important for your career. Furthermore, you may feel depressed and fall into a slump if all you do is work. What’s the fun in that? Lastly, you’ll only be increasing agencies’ profits by accepting rates that are lower than what you could be getting. So, if you’ve become too busy, it’s time to raise your rates. There will be one of two short-term outcomes when you increase your rates: 1) you’ll receive less work so there will be more time for rest or self-development, OR 2) your income will increase if agencies agree to your higher rates. If you continually raise your rates over a long period of time, you will eventually see both results—you’ll have more time AND increase your income.

 

 

2. How to raise your translation rates

First, select your least favorite agency and let them know you’ve increased your rates. You shouldn’t apologize or overly explain yourself because your rates are what you can decide on. So you can simply announce the news. You can say, “I will be increasing my per word rate by 10% or 15% starting from July 1st,” or something like that. You’ll have to use polite and professional language, of course. Let them know that you really hope that they can accept this raise. You don’t need to explain your reasons, but if they ask, you can just tell them that it’s because you are too busy these days. Easy, right?

 

If it’s so easy, why aren’t translators raising their rates? The biggest reason is lack of confidence. Translators worry that if they raise their rates, they will lose clients.

 

To announce that you’ve increased your rates, you have to have enough confidence to think, “It’s okay if I don’t receive any more work from this agency!” If you don’t, you will just have to wait until you gain enough confidence or become too busy. So you can assert your rate increase when

  • you have built enough confidence
  • have no trouble maintaining your income even if it wasn’t for this specific agency
  • have other agencies that keep sending you work.

 

The agency may respond in two ways. First, they accept your increased rates. If your value (not your rates but your value as a translator) is high enough, the agency will still want to work with you with a 10% or 30% increase. Then your income will increase by that much.

 

Or, the agency may reject you, saying:

  • “That rate is too high.”
  • “How can you raise your rates when the market is so competitive?”
  • “We are already accommodating you to the best of our abilities.”

 

These are some of the things they may say. However, if you’ve already garnered enough confidence and made your decision, you don’t need to back down. Just state, “I hope you will be able to find another good translator,” and say goodbye.

 

If you’ve already raised your rates this way with some agencies but are still busy and tired, you can do the same with all the other agencies (but always start with your least favorite agency). If you are still busy then, you can raise your rates again. Or, you can use your increased rates with new agencies you start working with.

 

As you can see, raising your rates is not that difficult. You don’t even need to do it at a specific time during the year. You can raise your rates as much as you want at any time you’ve selected. I usually raise my rates at the beginning or end of the year, but with agencies I don’t really like, I do it any time. (With agencies you really don’t like, I advise that you stop working with them altogether instead of raising your rates. Some agencies just do not deserve to do business with us.)

 

 

Do you have the confidence?

 

Are you busy enough?

 

If yes, raise your rates today!

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