Figuring Out Translation Rates


Figuring out rates can be tough. There is discussion forum after discussion forum where newbies are asking how much they should charge and veteran translators keep giving them the same apparently meaningless formula: too much and you won’t land the client, too little and they will assume you’re bad at what you do. But what does that really mean and how can that help those who are trying to figure out how much to charge?

What that seemingly useless formula is really saying is not useless at all. It expresses one of the most basic ideas in market economies: rates are determined by the “invisible hand of the market.” When demand is high and supply is low, prices rise. When supply is high and demand is low, prices drop. As a community, translators cannot come together and fix prices (that is neither ethical nor legal), all we can do is adapt to the market and understand that the elasticity of demand will ultimately control how much we can expect to charge for our work.

The good news is, on the one hand, that each transaction we make guides that “invisible hand” and, on the other, the translation market is segmented. So much so, that some would argue there is no single market at all. I’m not so sure about that. What I am sure of is that certain niches pay better than others simply because demand is high and supply is low and translators in those niches are aware of the value of each transaction they make. In other words, clients in those niches need to get a lot of things translated, but not-so-many translators are qualified to meet their specific demands and all parties involved know it. So these translators refuse to sell themselves short and clients know that in these niches cheap equals low quality.

Those veteran translators who brag about their “negotiating skills” probably really are great negotiators, but if you look closely enough, what you are really looking at is someone with the necessary proven qualifications to cater to clients in certain niches who already allot more money to translation. So when trying to figure out rates, there is no magical answer, just magical questions:

  1. What are my qualifications?
  2. Am I highly specialized?
  3. Am I an expert in a particular field?
  4. Do I have any added value?
  5. What market can I cater to?
  6. What are the characteristics of that market in terms of clients and competitors?
  7. What sets me aside from my competitors? Can that translate into money?
  8. How much does this market niche invest in translation each year?
  9. How much actually gets translated?

These are some of the questions we need to start asking ourselves. Rates are not, as some would say, solely a matter of professional ethics. Although I’m not advocating for throwing ethics out the window (quite the contrary), what I am saying, in a way, is that low priced translators cater an inferior quality product to a specific market segment where translation is seen as a commodity instead of a specialty service. If our goal is to be able to negotiate high rates, then we need to find the right niche and make sure we are qualified enough to play in that league. Of course, that is not as easy as it sounds. It requires research, specialization, and acquiring the right qualifications, among other things. But if we don’t want to get stuck as two-cent translation machines, then we have to make the effort to meet the demands of high paying niches.

10 thoughts on “Figuring Out Translation Rates

  1. HI Paula,
    I got to this post backwards, starting from your latest blog on The Matrix Revolutions…
    I think this series is the best and most concise explanation and analysis of the current fees situation in our field (linguistic note, I use “fees” instead of rates, as we are not selling a commodity, and I am not refering to translation or interpreting as an “industry”)
    And the phrase that really sets it all out is the following one: “If you think translation rates are dropping, there is a chance you are stuck in the Matrix. You are being fed an alternate reality from the outside by those who benefit from keeping you plugged in.” We are all accepting blindly an artificial situation that is being fed to us as a given, and believe that it is the “new” reality and must learn to adapt to it.
    Congratulations on your excellent posts, and looking forward to reading more!


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