Fees or Rates? A Discussion on Translation Prices

This post is a summary of a discussion on fees and rates during a hosted Group Translation Chats (GTC) session It was moderated by Robin Humphrey who kindly gave me his notes to use a basis for this post.

Many newcomers to the profession can find it hard to know what to charge, especially as MA courses often don’t pay much attention to business aspects. Hopefully this post will bring some clarity to the fees and rates discussion and help translators feel confident when speaking about the cost of their work.

Broadly speaking, fee is used to describe an individual service, and rate the price or cost of something per piece (per character, word, 1000 words, page, hour, for example).

The difference between fees and rates matters because we’re running businesses. Some think translation is not a “real business”, that it’s not “real work” and anyone can do it, especially if they have access to the internet. But this is a wrong assumption and although our job requires skill, training and time, we’re not generally overpriced. We offer a professional service and should charge accordingly.

“Best rates” are never appropriate

That’s why we need to define what we charge and which prices to apply in all circumstances (translation, revision, editing, localisation, subtitling, transcreation, etc.) so we receive the fees or rates we deserve and are properly compensated for our time. This is especially important as some texts take longer to translate than others due to their complexity (for example, difficult terminology, academic style, used for marketing purposes).

We also need to work out how much we need to live comfortably and, therefore, the amount we want to receive per billable hour (as Corinne McKay explained in 2015). It needs to be enough to compensate us for non-billable time spent on admin, marketing and CPD, and also to pay for our pensions and holidays. Having weekly, monthly and quarterly targets can help us assess whether we’re currently earning enough so we can up our rates and/or adjust how we approach our working day to carve out more billable time.

Instead of time equalling money, money actually buys you time for other things in your life besides work

In his book Translation as a Profession, Daniel Gouadec offers straightforward advice on calculating prices, as follows:

  • Levy a minimum flat rate
  • Work out a cost on the basis of specific rates
  • Count any task over and above those related to the translation process as additional work at market rates

Some GTC chat attendees confirmed they add extras to their invoices because it’s up to us what we charge. These extras include admin tasks, hours spent on research, producing glossaries, surcharge for working at weekends and, of course, a rush fee for urgent jobs.

Although a rush fee is often quoted, when faced with a surcharge of, say, 25%, many clients balk at the extra cost and decide their job isn’t that urgent after all. A good way to cut down on the negotiating is to provide two or three prices for the same job depending on the turnaround speed. Besides quoting a rush and normal price, you can offer a third much slower and least expensive option, which will give you time to slot in other clients’ texts while working on a large project, for example, and also allow for contingencies.

As an aside on time, don’t forget to make it clear to the client that the deadline can only be respected if they confirm quickly (I’ve stated within 24 hours in my purchase orders). And if you’re offered another job before that time is up, you can always contact the client to ask about the state of play.

Other GTC members talked about adding items to the invoice but marking them as free (for example a last re-read of a PDF before it goes to press or a website before it goes live). Obviously, as long as you calculate correctly, you’re compensated for this work in the price you charge and any miscalculations on one job with a client usually even out over time. Giving freebies also helps create goodwill and educate clients about the intricacies of the translation process.

With project prices, it’s swings and roundabouts: overestimate and you win, but underestimate and you lose

There’s no need to charge clients the same fees or rates across the board. Instead your pricing model should vary depending on the client and the job. Rather than charging what you think you’re worth, you should charge what your clients are willing to pay. In the experience of one of the chat attendees, this can sometimes double the price you were initially thinking of asking for. In other cases, it could mean settling for less than you initially quoted.

It’s a good idea to note down your rates/fees for each client in an Excel sheet so you don’t lose track of what you’re charging and to give you an overall picture of your prices and when you last put them up for each client. Similarly, in a separate spreadsheet, it can be helpful to see your running totals per client for the financial year so you know which ones to prioritise (for me that’s usually the top three or four).

To ensure you’re running a thriving business, your prices should also be on a constant upward trajectory, which you can achieve by quoting new potential clients higher fees or rates and by raising them with old clients periodically. This will also help you build up the number of clients you prefer to work for (see Client Circles for more details).

If you prefer to charge clients for your time for some or all jobs, you’ll need to be good at estimating how long the work will take you as clients generally prefer to stick to their budgets. If you later find the job will take you far longer than anticipated (for example you’re revising a translation and the quality is subpar), then you need to inform the client as soon as possible so they can make a decision about how and if to proceed.

You might also need to spend some time educating the client about hourly rates or flat fees so they realise the added benefits they’re paying for. This might be difficult with a direct client that has already had contact with translators charging per-word rates and virtually impossible with agencies set in their ways. However, it also depends on how much they value your services and whether you can add something no other translator can. Good PMs (project managers) should listen to what you have to say, think about it, find it reasonable and react accordingly. And experienced PMs know nothing is more costly and gives more headaches than a client complaining about the translation.

That’s also why it’s as much about educating fellow translators as clients. We must shift the general mindset from per-word (etc.) rates to charging in the same way many other professions do (solicitors, builders, plumbers), i.e. per hour, flat fee or a mix of both. We also need to realise we can negotiate with agencies as well as direct clients since PMs generally have more leeway than we think. As long as you deliver on time, receive no client complaints and build a good relationship with the agency, you can bargain with them as much as you like. But bear in mind that some PMs are given bonuses for driving down prices.

With hourly rates, clients need to trust you because the final amount could be higher than the estimate. On the other hand, it could also be lower if the job doesn’t take as long as initially expected. Clients demanding a per-project price so there are no surprises might be able to save themselves some money if they opt for a per-hour rate. Regular clients could find that the cost balances out over time and it’s fairer to the translator and themselves.

However, some GTC members believe it doesn’t matter what method you use as long as you receive a fair amount (which, of course, is up to you to decide, not the client!). This means you can accommodate the client’s wishes for a scale of rates for different match percentages in TMs (CAT tool translation memories) and even volume discounts.

To sum up, as experts we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about money with our clients. We all need to build an argument to explain and defend our work and underline our value. Because we don’t translate words, we convey meaning. And clients don’t just pay for our time but for our knowledge and experience as well. Although we translators aren’t hard-nosed business people, we shouldn’t let clients pull our rates downwards, say “yes” to everything and get squished like ants. Let’s shift the pattern by being each other’s cheerleaders and pushing prices up, regardless of how we charge for them.

Further reading

“Time for Translation” by Emma Gledhill in the ITI Bulletin May-June 2021

London Freelance for a guide to rates some translators and interpreters in the UK have reported, broken down into languages and translation type

“Freelance Translator’s Fair Pay Calculator” by Dennis Brown of Pacific International Translations

The “Pricing” section in “Interesting Articles for Translators & Interpreters” on this blog linking to several posts on other sites

“Let’s Talk Money” on this blog advocating charging lump-sum project prices

The “Working with Agencies” page on this blog linking to several posts

This group feels like seeing the light at the end of a tunnel

The above was said by one of our GTC members during this discussion. If you’d like to find out more about GTC with a view to joining us at our next hosted chat session, please read The Group Translation Chats Story.

1st photo by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay; 2nd photo by Clayton Scelzi from Unsplash

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