The great rates debate

How much to charge: the perennial thorn in the side of freelance translators. What’s everyone else doing? What’s normal? What’s too much? What’s not enough? You might be forgiven for closing your eyes and picking a number out of a bag. But although calculating rates can be one of the most challenging parts of freelancing, it’s also at the core of any viable business. However uncomfortable the topic, particularly if you’re from a culture where talk of money or pricing your skills is a sensitive issue, it’s one that deserves your time.

When you’re thinking about rates, there are two main goals — keeping busy and paying the rent or mortgage. Charge too much and no one will work with you, so you can’t pay your bills. Charge too little and you’ll end up having to work all hours just to scrape together a living, ending up burnt out and frustrated. It’s best to aim for sustainability, where you neither alienate clients nor exhaust yourself.

One shortcut to charging is to have a look at the average rates for your language pair or specialism and then charge that. It’s simple and straightforward, but it has the disadvantage of not being tailored to your needs and your clients’, and it doesn’t take into account many of the other complex factors that go into creating sustainability. Add to this the difficulty of obtaining accurate data about rates and it’s easy to see that just charging the average is an unprofitable cop out.

According to, the largest online translators’ community, the average price for translation of English is $10 to $12 per 100 source words, while the minimum rate is about $7 to $8 per 100 source words. Translation providers of rare languages command higher rates of up to $17.

The 2012 Common Sense Advisory survey of more than 3,700 language services providers and freelancers across 114 countries showed that the average price for translation, for the 30 most popular languages, is $13.40 per 100 words.

Cooperating with many professional freelance translators I find that their rates for translation from English to most European languages range from $6 to $15 per 100 source words depending on the translator’s experience, the language pair, the topic of the text to be translated, the file format and other factors.

However, these are the prices freelancers usually offer to direct customers. They offer lower rates to translation agencies that they cooperate with on long-term contracts.

From my own experience of collaborating with a number of translation companies, it seems large Western European companies are ready to pay freelancers $4 to $6 per 100 words for English to Russian translation, for example, while some Eastern European agencies offer “dumping” rates that can fall below $1 per 100 words.

By contrast, according to my own research, translation agencies charge their clients rates ranging from $7 to $30 per 100 source words for translation from English to most European languages.

Finally, you should also consider different price units. Charging by source words is a common practice in English speaking countries, while Germans usually calculate translation rates using lines with a standard 55-60 characters per line. Ukrainian, Russian and other Eastern European translators normally charge by characters in the source text or by pages with a standard of 1,000 or 1,800 characters with or without spaces per page. However, many freelancers prefer to charge by the word as an international unit for translation.


Sell your skills

So what should you consider when settling on prices? One basic factor to take into account is your skillset. Are your skills rare, like knowledge of an unusual language pair, and therefore more valuable? Are they particularly hard to develop, requiring significant investment, such as a law degree? Are they in demand, as with IT and web knowledge? This should all be reflected in your rates. Equally, it is possible to play to your strengths in the other direction as well. If you’re an extremely fast and accurate translator of straightforward marketing materials you can afford to charge less per word, because your speed means you can still make a good hourly rate. If you can extract PDF text to Word or handle desktop publishing, these added extras should be reflected in your rates.

Leading on from the importance of your unique skills is the importance of selling them to the client. A handy hint from the field of psychology: establish value before quoting. Going in cold with a quote at the beginning of an email or call gives clients no incentive to choose to work with you. If you can first let them see what their money is buying them they will be much more likely to want to invest. So lead with your strengths: your specialist training, experience, speed and so on, before stating how much you charge. Don’t give in too easily when clients try to haggle you down. A good rule of thumb is to think about how often clients haggle with you. If you regularly lose clients whenever the conversation turns to prices, it’s possible you’re overcharging. Equally, if clients always accept your first offer it’s likely that you’re undercharging, so be brave and try leading with a higher figure. All this is much easier to accomplish if you’re busy, because if you lose a job through over-quoting you won’t be sitting around without work, worrying about where your next meal is coming from. Remember that no one gets it right every time, and earning more money is a lifelong project rather than one to be accomplished overnight.


Be practical

Of course, in an ideal world you would be able to set the value of your choice on your no doubt unique and irreplaceable skills, but back on planet Earth there are other practicalities to consider! You need some realistic data to back you up when working out how much to charge, regarding both the market and your own expenditures. So do the math! You are a commercial enterprise, not a charity, and you need to be commercially viable just like any other business. Work out your living and working costs, from rent and utilities to taxes and health care. You need to earn at least this much. How many hours do you want to work? How much should you therefore be earning per hour, and how many words can you translate per hour? From this you can work out your target per-word rate and work toward it. This can be personalized endlessly. Perhaps you only want to work four days a week, but you’re happy to live on less money. Perhaps you want to retire at 50, or buy a yacht, or send all eight of your children to expensive private schools. The best thing about self-employment is that it’s all up to you. This is also the worst thing about self-employment! Keeping track of your earnings, whether at an hourly, weekly or monthly rate, will motivate you to keep trying when it comes to establishing yourself. It’s worth remembering that everyone has to start somewhere, and the only route to sustainable success is hard work over many years. There are no shortcuts!

Practicalities aren’t limited to your own outgoings, of course. Another key consideration when pricing your work is the market itself. Is there enough demand for the work you do for you to make a living charging your current rates? If not, can you offer other services to make up the shortfall? Can clients afford you, or are you forcing them to go elsewhere? Do you have enough work to keep yourself busy or are you always scrabbling to find another job?


Be flexible

You might consider not charging one fixed rate for a number of reasons. One common tactic for new translators is to charge slightly lower than you would like until you have plenty of work to keep yourself busy, and then gradually acquire new clients at a higher rate, dropping your lower paying clients as you go. Of course, high rates are not the only benefit a client can offer. For example, although agencies tend to pay slightly less than direct clients, they compensate for lower rates by providing a good bulk of work that can become your bread and butter.

Even with one client your rate might change from job to job. For very small jobs you might consider charging a minimum fee to cover the relatively high ratio of admin to translation. You might offer discounts for repetitions if you use a computer- aided translation tool. You might also decide to charge less for easier or less important jobs, or charge a premium for anything that needs to be published. Some clients will ask you to offer discounts for large volumes of work. You need to think carefully about whether this makes sense on a case-by-case basis. If they are providing a large project with a lot of repetition of subject matter it might well be worth discounting the final price. With the same topic you’ll become an “expert” as you go, so after the first few thousand words you won’t need to research in such great detail and you’ll find that you speed up. If, however, your client’s idea of bulk work is a selection of different smaller texts on a variety of topics it might not make sense to offer a discount. If you need to research each text from scratch you may find your working week consumed with a discounted job when you could be earning your full rate from other clients.

Finally, there are some other reasons why you might add a premium to your rate, perhaps to account for the inconvenience of a rush job or weekend working, or perhaps to cover bank transfer or PayPal fees for clients paying in a foreign currency. Through experience and trial and error you will learn what works for you.


Becoming the king or queen

of the translation jungle

To sum up, ensure that your quotes come from the head, not the heart. Do not base your quotes on a fear of overcharging, vague notions about what other translators are turning or your unexamined beliefs about how much you deserve to earn, particularly if you are not blessed with natural self-confidence! Instead, look for real and concrete examples of how much other translators of your ability are earning, as well as the realities of your own finances and those of the market. Ultimately sustainable working practices mean that you should settle on a rate that is fair to both you and the client, where they get value for money and you get a fair rate for a job well done. Your fee should be high enough to motivate you to do a good job, and you will do yourself and other translators no favors to settle for less and rush resentfully through an underpaid job.

Finally, do not expect well paying, high-quality work to just land in your inbox. While there might be some low-hanging fruit out there, like any good hunter-gatherer you will need to stalk your prey if you want to reap the full rewards! Time spent emailing new clients, networking and developing your professional skills will pay dividends in the long run, so neglect these tasks at your peril. Do not be put off by the effort of marketing yourself. If cold-calling 100 potential new clients lands you one long-term, well paying collaboration, then you have not wasted your time, and just because a company has not advertised their need for a translator it does not mean that you are not exactly what they are looking for. Fortune favors the brave in the translation jungle, so do your research and then have courage enough in your convictions to go and seek out the rates you want. With patience, hard work and diligence both in your translating and your marketing you will be richly rewarded.