What is "the right rate" for your translation services?

After “How do I find some clients?,” I think that the most common question I get from beginning (and for that matter, experienced) translators is “How much should I charge?” My sense is that most people want an answer like “If you work for agencies, charge 16 cents. If you work for direct clients, charge 30 cents. Anything else I can help you with?” But of course, it’s not that simple. As I always tell the students in my classes, I can’t tell you how much to charge, but I can help you figure out how much to charge. Here’s a short course in how to do it:

If you want a step-by-step guide, check out Jonathan Hine’s pamphlet I am worth it! How to set your price, and other tips for freelancers. Jonathan’s advice is right on: first, figure out how much you want to earn, and what your business expenses are. Then, figure out how many hours you want to work (or, conversely, how much time you want to take off). Then convert that into an hourly rate, figure out how fast you usually translate, and that will yield your target per-word rate. Again, this is a major oversimplification, but you get the idea!

Most translators base their rates on factors like this:

  • Fear (of charging too much, of earning too little, of pricing themselves out of the market, of living under a bridge when they’re old)
  • Speculation (about what other people are charging, because most people won’t talk openly about their rates)
  • Vague notions of “what the market will bear,” or “what clients are willing to pay,” with little to no actual data to back that up

Whereas most translators should base their rates on factors like this:

  • The types of clients they want to work for (agencies, direct clients, or both)
  • The balance of supply and demand in their language pair or specialization.
  • Whether most of their clients translate things because they have to, or because they want to.
  • How much they want to work
  • What their financial and lifestyle needs are: kids, student loans, aging parents, a desire to be location-independent, a desire to retire early, a passion for high-level clients, a passion for running ultramarathons while still earning a good living, etc.
  • Actual conversations with other translators about how much they charge.

Here a few other Zen koan-like tips on how to decide how much to charge:

  • “The right rate” means that you and the client both feel that you’re getting a fair deal.
  • “The right rate” means that you are motivated to do an excellent job.
  • “The right rate” means that you can live the life that you want to live.
  • If 100%, or even 95% of potential clients accept your rates with no negotiation, it means that you could definitely be charging more.
  • The best time to raise your rates is when you’re too busy. Try a higher rate with the next new client who sends you an inquiry: if the client turns it down, you still have enough work.
  • How do you significantly raise your rates with existing clients? You don’t. You raise those rates a little bit, then you make the big jump with new clients.
  • Broken record alert, but here we go again: There is *lots* of good, high-paying translation work out there. Income of six figures is becoming more and more realistic, even if you work with some agencies and some direct clients. There are even clients who are *looking* for someone like you and don’t know where to find you. So you have to go and find them. But most people won’t do that. They’ll continue to take what lands in the inbox, while complaining that some (other) people have all the luck in this industry.
32 Responses to “What is "the right rate" for your translation services?”
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