In the early days of Thoughts on Translation (March, 2008 to be exact), I wrote a post on charging by the word versus charging by the hour. For a long time, it was the most active post on my blog and it inspired some interesting and heated discussion. Get Rich Slowly’s post today is on hourly versus salaried jobs and it got me thinking about this issue again.
The translation industry complicates this issue in a couple of ways:
- We’re normally paid by the word, rather than by the hour
- For whatever reason, most translation agencies will pay much more per word than per hour (in relative terms, not just absolute terms)
- Most of us don’t rigorously track our output, so we don’t really know how much we make per hour
- We usually work from home, so the client has only a vague idea of how long a given job takes us
My first job in the translation industry was as an FBI contract linguist; a job that pays by the hour. Looking back, I see some advantages and disadvantages. On the up side, there’s much less incentive to rush through a translation when you know that whether you produce 1,000 words an hour or 100 words an hour, you get paid the same amount. I think that a lot of translators use the per-word payment model as a rationale for doing a less than thorough job: why take an hour to research one term if you’re getting paid 15, 20 or even 50 cents for it? When you’re paid by the hour, you don’t have that egg timer full of pennies hanging over your head and you can take as long as the translation requires.
However, being paid by the hour removes the translator’s incentive to work more efficiently. In the comments on my original post, a few people pointed out that while there may be a fairly narrow range of per-word rates in our industry, experienced translators undoubtedly earn more than beginners (even if they charge the same amount per word) because they work much faster. Translators might be motivated to learn new software or to focus in a very specialized area because they know that their speed, and thus their income, will go up.
The confusing part of this is the disparity between the per-word and hourly rates that our industry will bear. For example, if a translator works with agencies, charges 15 cents per word and produces 500 finished words per hour, he/she is earning $75 an hour; and I think that both of those figures are realistic for experienced translators. But I have yet to hear of an agency that will pay $75 an hour for projects that are billed hourly; if I had to hazard a guess at the average agency rate (not a pricing recommendation, just my unscientific guess), I would say $35-$50 per hour is more common.
At an ATA conference years ago, I attended an excellent presentation on business practices by Jonathan Hine. His argument for charging by the hour for editing is that it’s a zero loss risk situation. Rather than taking the risk of receiving a poor translation and re-translating it for 4 cents a word, the editor can charge by the hour and be guaranteed of being compensated for all of the time that the edit takes. Maybe the reverse phenomenon is at work here; agencies would rather pay a higher per-word rate for translation, because then they know exactly how much the job will cost? Feel free to add your own thoughts on this!