One of the cardinal mistakes that a novice translator makes is to set his or her rates to the bare minimum, thinking that it will lure more clients and bring in more work. This might be true in the beginning but if a translator wants to build longevity in this industry, it is essential to set up sustainable rates as early on as possible. The truth is that anyone who sets rates to the bare minimum might be inundated with work... but for a pittance! Dropping a few clients who will not pay higher rates is a small price to pay for a more relaxed schedule and less of a scramble to make ends meet.
Beyond hurting the market for everyone, the practice of accepting bare bones rates could not be any more counter intuitive. Now, don't get me wrong: I am not saying that every translator should charge astronomical rates. Nor am I saying that every translator is even worth premium rates. But what I am saying is this: all service providers need to be honest about what they bring to the table and value their services accordingly. If you provide a stellar service and do a solid job, why should you not be entitled to a fee befitting of your expertise? Why should you be trapped on an endless hamster wheel of desperation, juggling project after project just to put food on the table? The key to obtaining steady, serious clients is to charge rates reflecting your professionalism. Why?
1. Setting lower rates means the whole market is forced to accept them. This is bad news. Really, really bad news. As a brand new translator, you are probably wondering how to compete with a slew of seemingly endless translators advertising their work for a pittance. Yet, if enough novice translators set severely low rates, it has an effect on everyone else who shares that language combination, and, in some sense, across the board for the entire industry. In an ever plummeting race to the bottom, translation agencies will continue to seek the lowest common denominator--translators who undervalue their work so much that they will accept almost nothing in return. The No Peanuts! movement for translators advocates for better pay and fair payment practices. Think about it this way: if your colleagues work for a fair rate, translation agencies and clients will be more likely to pay you a fair rate as well.
2. Setting low rates makes you seem unreliable and unprofessional. It seems to go against reason, but it's really true. Go ahead and ask yourself: would you trust someone who undervalues their work so much they ask hardly nothing for it? Though not a direct comparison, think about the last time you were at a restaurant and given the choice between kobe beef and chuck steak. You probably noticed the kobe was more expensive and thus it made you curious about how it tastes. Kobe beef is expensive because of the care, time and money spent on raising calves in such a way as to make their meat more tender than the average steak. You might not want to target the upper echelon of clientele--hell, you might not even be able to--but you certainly don't want to be on the bottom rung either. Don't be chop meat (that's mince meat for you Brits)! Setting a comfortable yet professional happy medium is the key to getting clients and agencies alike to notice you.
3. Setting low rates means you have to work harder for less money. This one is just simple math. Let's say you can charge .05 usd/word or .10 usd/word. You might have more clients at your lower rate, but you can bet your bippy that you'll work twice as hard for the same amount of money. And just try and go ahead juggling all those invoices!
4. Agencies which urge you to accept lower rates than you are comfortable with probably don't care about paying you at all. Any agency that bullies you into accepting comically low rates (we've all been there) is an agency that does not care about your well being and will probably conveniently "forget" to pay your invoices. You don't want to deal with them, nor do you want to spend your precious time chasing payments when you could be working with honest, well-paying agencies. These are also agencies that impose seriously tight deadlines, always seem to have rush work and breathe down your neck when they should be leaving you alone to work your magic.
5. Setting low rates means you actually might do a worse job. Nobody wants this. For you to do a good job, you need to be well rested, happy and well read. Charging a fair rate means you are free to give your clients the excellent work they deserve every single time. Why? Because you are not scrambling all over the place to make enough to keep your lights on, you have free time to devote to honing your craft, reading up on industry developments and keeping abreast of your specializations. Your clients will thank you and see your fair rates as an investment in their own image.
In conclusion, setting a rate that you are comfortable with is one of the first steps towards becoming a financially independent, savvy and professional translator. When it comes to business, do not be afraid to negotiate. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself (really, it's par for the course) and, above all, know your worth, the importance of which cannot be overstated. Know your worth! A good rule of thumb is to calculate how much you want to earn per hour and multiply that by how many hours you work per day. Then divide that by how many words you can translate in a day and there you have it: your rate (note, this might not work for languages which use different rate counting schemes such as German which, to my understanding, is counted by line).
For more information on setting your rates, see:
What is the "right rate for your translation services?" by Corinne McKay
"Translation isn't getting cheaper" by Rose Newell
"The Menace to Translation: Rates from translation agencies in Chindia" at Patent Translator
Free blacklist of translation agencies at Translation Ethics
About the Author
Audra de Falco is a freelance Italian, Spanish, French and Sicilian to English translator based in New York, NY. She has been working in the industry since 2003 and is an advocate of fair industry practices and translators' rights.