How To Price Translation Work

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Being a translator can be very lucrative.
Being a translator can be very lucrative. (Image: Huntstock/DisabilityImages/Getty Images)

Many beginning translators are uncertain how to price their services in a way that is reasonable for the translation markets. First and foremost, it is important to understand that there are many "translation markets," and many factors affect the prices in each market. There are some basics, however, that transcend all markets.

Most translation work is priced by "piece rates," which means, it is priced per word, per 100 words, per 1,000 words, per line, per page or some other unit preferred in particular markets. However, what is ultimately important is not the charge per piece, but how much you get to keep for each hour you work after taxes and expenses are paid.

So the first step is to know the minimum gross hourly earnings you need. Also write down the hourly earnings you WANT. Set your sights higher than the minimum. And bear in mind that you may not be able to fill your entirely daily capacity -- you might only average enough work to keep you busy translating for four or five hours per day, so reflect that in your rates if you plan to live from this effort. Also bear in mind that working for pennies might give you the bit of pocket money you want while living off your parents or spouse, but you may be poisoning the market for real professionals who need to make a living.

Next figure out your average throughput in whatever units you intend to charge per hour for translating various types of text. It is useful to keep track of your working time for various jobs so this can be calculated easily. It may be useful to calculate your productivity for different subject areas or different file formats or working environments (word processors, CAT tools, etc.)

Take the hourly earning figures (minimum and desired) from Step 1 and divide them by the averages from Step 2. This will give you your minimum and desired charge for each category you calculated the averages for.

For example, if you must earn $20 per hour before taxes and expenses to cover your expenses and you want to earn $50 per hour, and you have average productivity for tourism texts of 600 words per hour while you average 300 words per hour doing contracts, you come up with the following:

  • Tourism: min. 3.3 cents per word, target 8.3 cents per word - Contracts: min. 6.6 cents per word, target 16.6 cents per word

The calculation examples in Step 3 are purely to show how to do the math and do not in any way reflect rates that may be typical in a market of interest to you. Rates in some markets are much, much higher than the figures cited. Research current rates in the markets you plan to work in. Translators associations such as the ATA may have some of this information available. The German association BDÜ recently published a comprehensive survey of rates for translators and interpreters which can be ordered from its web site. Some translator portals publish average rates listed by members. When you find this data, be honest with yourself and ask whether your work is average or below average or whether you are the cream of the crop and can take top rates a few standard deviations above those averages.

Once you have figured out your minimum and desired rates in your favorite unit to charge, it is useful to calculate equivalent rates. The customer is king and if he wants to pay by target word and you prefer to charge by source line, you need to be willing to accommodate him to close the deal. But use special calculations to make sure that your rates are at the desired level.

Tips & Warnings

  • If you are a beginner, don't think you're smart by working cheap to "attract" business. Flies are attracted to a rotting carcass, and slave labor will kill you in the end.
  • Partner with a good editor to keep your quality high. Advertise that collaboration -- it often scores points with customers!

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