Putting 40 cents a word in context

Well, it seems that something about money and income always hits people’s urge to discuss! At 65 comments and counting, “How much do freelance translators earn? Is it enough?” is far and away the most-discussed post in three years of Thoughts on Translation and everyone’s comments have provided me with lots of food for more posts. Here’s one: that elusive 40+ cents per word, which I would consider the top of the freelance translation market. I know at least two thriving freelance who’ve told me they charge that much, plus several more translators who I suspect/assume charge that much, and Chris Durban noted in her comment that her base rates are between 40 and 50 euro cents per word. I should say for the purposes of this post that I don’t earn 40 cents a word (for reasons I’ll go into…). I do publish my rates, and on official document translations I do sometimes make up to a dollar a word when the project is priced per page.

First, let’s give this number some context. If you produce, let’s say 500 finished words an hour, 40 cents a word translates (so to speak) into $200 an hour. No question, that’s good money. However, even here in Colorado (where professional services generally cost a lot less than in New York, LA, Chicago, etc.), my accountant makes $200 an hour and my business attorney makes $250. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the growing contingent of attorneys who charge over $1,000 an hour (yes, that’s three zeros after the one). The article concludes with a prediction that within five to seven years, the gold standard for attorneys’ fees will be $2,000 an hour. So I think that part of the high rates issue is that if you want to charge 40 cents a word, you have to position yourself as a professional service provider on the level of an attorney, accountant, business strategy consultant etc. Realistically, most translators either cannot or are not willing to do that. Note that the WSJ article includes some excellent advice from an attorney who charges $1,100 an hour: “Some clients do focus on the hourly rate, but in the end what really matters is their total cost and whether they got a fair price.” Good tip for any professional service provider!

Second, I would hazard a guess that many translators who charge very high rates work very slowly, or at least more slowly than translators who charge 10 cents a word. At 10 cents a word, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration: you churn it out and send it in. At 40 cents per word, you have more of that luxury, and your clients also expect much more from your work. So maybe you produce 300, even 200 finished words an hour.

Third, as luscious as 40 cents a word might look, there are some reasons you might not want to charge that much:

  • As Chris and others commented in relation to my previous post, clients who pay 40-50 cents per word expect you to have their backs, all the time and with no exceptions. You cannot get huffy when there’s a problem with your translation. You cannot shut off your phone and go hiking when that client is having a business meltdown. You must be cheerful, helpful and positive all the time. You must follow the news in that client’s industry and spend your own money to go to their industry conferences whether or not they have a job in the pipeline for you. You must get out of your sweats and put on a suit and take that client to lunch a few times a year, shut up about yourself and invite them to talk about themselves. You must either take very short vacations or have someone you really, really trust who will fill in when you go away for more than a couple of days. In short, that $200 per hour is not going to come in exchange for only a modicum of effort on your part. And not to rant, but if some translators will not even spend $25 on business cards that don’t have the “Get your free business cards!” text on the back, they are not going to do what’s required to find and retain $200 an hour clients.
  • Some specializations just don’t pay that much (or at least this is what I tell myself!). For example, my preferred specialization is international development. I translate a lot of legal documents and I enjoy that work, but development is my real passion. And realistically, even high-level direct clients in those specializations probably do not have the budget to pay 40-50 cents a word on a regular basis. Realistically, even at the rates I charge now, I am probably paid more than a lot of the in-house employees at the companies I work for. However I love the work, and I love translating documents that are, for lack of a less hackneyed way to put it, meaningful. So there’s that aspect too.

None of this is to say that a) high income is a bad thing or b) 40-50 cents a word isn’t worth striving for. Mostly, I wanted to raise the possibility that 40-50 cents a word is doable; it’s out there if you want it! Readers, any thoughts?

31 Responses to “Putting 40 cents a word in context”
  1. Patricia Lane March 15, 2011
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