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How Translators Determine their Fees

The first thing I would like to say is that, as a professional translator and owner of a translation company, I am against any kind of regulation of professional fees. I strongly believe in each translator’s capacity to determine their own fees based on the factors they consider relevant and appropriate. I know many translators or associations agree, others don’t. I don’t really care much. (I know, I’ll burn in hell.) Many young translators, generally after they have just graduated or when they’re about to, ask me how much they should charge. I often tell them I couldn’t know. How much you charge depends on many different factors; some of them are external, market factors which are particular to the translation industry, and some are internal and have to do with your experience and the value you assign to your time and effort. Nevertheless, nothing remains the same, circumstances change all the time, and so will your translation fees.

How Translators Determine their Fees

Freelance translators charge for their services in a variety of ways, such as a fixed amount for an entire project, an hourly fee, or, as most translators and translation companies do, by the word (of either the source document or the translation).

If you want to charge a fixed amount for a project (which is usually what a client finds more comfortable so that they can determine beforehand how much they will have to pay), you need to be able to know approximately how many hours the job will take you and how much you need to earn per hour to make it worthwhile. This also comes with experience. At first, no translator knows his average turnaround time; it only takes time – experience, months or years of work – and attention to the time you devote to your translation work trying to leave aside distractions (which are so many).

The same happens if you don’t know how many words you can translate in an hour. You will need to know this to be able to determine whether a translation fee per word is reasonable or not. A 2,000-word text may take you a day or three and the worth of the fee per word won’t be the same in both cases. If you run a translation company, you need to know how many people you can manage to work together on the same project effectively and efficiently, and add to your costs and, if you want, to your fees, any project management, editing and proofreading costs.

If you’re an experienced translator, you probably already know what to charge because you are familiar with market conditions in the translation industry. And yet you may be unsatisfied with the system you apply to calculate your fees. Most translators apply the per-word fee system but, at the same time, most will stand for the premise that our work is not to translate a text word for word; we translate content, meaning. Then why do we charge per word? Isn’t that inconsistent? But we’re too afraid to change something that has been long accepted as a market practice – even if we think it is not fair.

Translators who are just starting off usually have no idea what they can or should charge.

It is important that if you are either an experienced translator or a newly graduate, you make sure
1) you calculate your fees based on your costs and expenses, and
2) you research the translation industry (your marketplace) to adjust your rate up or down.

Many translators associations publish suggested fees. You may use those but consider that, if you just graduated, have little or no experience at all, and want to compete with an experienced translator, you will need to offer some (much?) added value if your fees are going to be the same as those an experienced translator will charge.

To calculate your fees based on your costs expenses, you need to know what they are. Overhead includes all of the costs you incur to do business, such as: telephone and Internet access, office equipment, software and hardware, furniture and maintenance, rent, utilities, certifications, mail service, meals, professional association memberships and affiliations, accounting fees, sometimes legal fees, advertising and marketing costs, among many others. You may also want to include the cost of other fringe benefits, such as medical insurance, and taxes. Most translators I know and, to my surprise, many owners of translation companies as well, completely disregard their cost structure.

There is a standard formula to determine an hourly rate: You should add up your labor and overhead costs, add the profit you wish to make, and finally divide the total by the hours you worked. This is the minimum you should charge. Depending on the market and the economy, you may be able to charge more or you might have to get by on less.

Besides the overhead expenses you need to cover, you should determine a salary for yourself and a profit margin. Your salary does not count as profit. Your salary is one of the many costs of doing business. You may decide to keep your profits as a surplus of your earnings or use it to expand and develop your business.

It’s not enough to calculate how much you’d like to earn per word or hour: You also need to make sure the figure is realistic. This means that you’ll have to go out into the business world and find out what other translators and translation companies are charging for their services, and what your potential clients are willing to pay. There are different ways to do this.

  • You may contact a translators’ organization or licensing board, which may be able to give you good information on what other translators are charging or how much they should be charging according to that association. They often set standardized rates for the translation industry. However, as this is an unregulated business, these rates are only to be taken as guidelines.
  • You may ask other translators what they charge. You can contact translators you know or get into forums or groups of translators where this is usually a hot topic. However, let me warn you: Not everyone will be willing to give you an honest answer.

You may discover that, after all the research you’ve done and the cost calculations and other stuff, your ideal translation fee is higher than what other translators are charging. However, if you’re highly skilled and performing work of unusually high quality, you should not be afraid to ask for more than other translators with lesser skills or experience. Lowballing your fees doesn’t necessarily get you more business. Many clients understand that they get what they pay for and will be willing to pay more for higher quality.

You will also need to determine the payment method and whether you will provide any financial facilities to your clients.

Find a payment method and a fee structure that enable you to get enough work while adequately compensating you for your services.

As you see, many things have to be factored into your translation fees. All in all, I suggest you make your fees fair to yourself, as well as your clients.

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