Double Down on Yourself. Know What You Are Worth!

When I started freelancing again after six years of work in a staff position, eighteen months ago I asked old and new colleague friends about their current fee ranges to adjust my expectations and be able to plan a budget for my new freelance contractor life. I was moving from the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut Tri-State area to Illinois where I last freelanced in 2012.

I had a full-time job in New Jersey until November 2021, where the cost of living is higher than in the Chicagoland suburbs, so I expected the average hourly fee to be lower than in Jersey. I also knew that my fees were probably obsolete, in the sense that they were not that well informed because I only took freelance work sporadically.

Less money for the same work ten years later?

I was quite shocked to hear that some of my colleagues were not only not charging more than when I left, but also that some were even billing less for the same work and for the same contracts (agency-governmental ones) we all worked on together in 2012. Their livelihood had decreased! How was that possible with inflation the way it stands and with the deteriorating global economy?

So, for my calculations accounting for a lower cost of living in Illinois (I used -35% to be conservative although my research showed -42.3%), I needed to earn enough to cover all my expenses, at the very least the basic ones if I wanted to survive for now and thrive hopefully in the near future. I determined that I needed to bill $3,000 per month to break even.

I have worked with a few Illinois agencies since I started interpreting in the mid-2000s and although not often, I continued to cover assignments for some, so naturally I turned to them for work. I accepted the slight increase I was offered to have a base, but after making my financial calculations, I increased my fee for all my clients to what I considered a pricing model and fee structure that resonated with my experience, my training, my credentials, the competitive landscape, the market’s demand, value, the level of difficulty, the cognitive skills needed, and the quality of my work.

Share the love; there is plenty to go around!

At first, when I talked privately to colleagues about the range of my fees, some seemed incredulous. However, all it took was a few referrals their way for them to realize that the market can really pay a good price for professional work.

The first couple of months, I considered lowering my fees to get more work because I was not booked solid, but I resisted. It has now been eighteen months, and after a few tries at something steady, whether contract work or full-time employment, I landed a four-day-per-week contract that is worth it. I am earning a little less than before, but more than my average counting my additional work on that extra day and the occasional weekend work.  But I love the people I work with, and the commute is great: after driving all over Wisconsin and Illinois, sometimes with eight-hour round-trip commutes, I now drive forty-five minutes door to door with minimum traffic and great views along the way through farming country.

By the time I accepted this assignment, I was averaging $10,000 per month, and that is counting the nine weeks I took off during those eighteen months for a six-week class and a trip to Greece, hitting over fourteen thousand the last few months. I am about to increase my fees, by the way, since I have been charging the same amounts for a year and a half.

Employment or freelance: Do not settle for less than your worth

Being a business owner and independent contractor is not easy, as it does not offer the comfort of a steady paycheck and work security. You need to proactively search for assignments and strategize as you build your business, learn to live within your means, and make projections on future income and expenses. But given the few full-time opportunities and the pay offered in the area where I live, freelancing is for now the best option for me. I would jump at the opportunity of a full-time job if that job offered a good salary and benefits, but the ones I have been offered so far go from $19.13 to $27.40 per hour, not even half of my regular hourly rate, $19 being pretty close to the pay around the corner at a fast-food restaurant I frequent.

Succeeding in business in the translation and interpretation professions requires way more than excellent language and delivery skills.  You need to have good business sense and the ability to manage several different clients’ expectations, billing systems, and work styles, and you need to keep your networking working for you and others. Recommending colleagues for assignments has great payback: not only do you do a generous deed, but it also creates a network of loyal colleagues and friends that are always willing to lend a hand recommending your work and sharing contacts and assignments. I have seldom met colleagues that do not reciprocate, so it is a win-win situation.

If you are on the brink of going solo, do not be afraid to freelance and set fees that are commensurate with your experience and skill. There is a market for everyone to succeed. Surround yourself with good friends that are willing to share their knowledge, join an association – NAJIT first and foremost if you are in the judiciary field – and any local translator/interpreter association. Better yet, volunteer with at least one of your associations and spread the word about the benefits of belonging to them. Being part of a larger group of professionals looks good on your resume and brings way more benefits than the ones printed in flyers. You can make out of these connections whatever you want them to be, great colleagues and lifelong friends; the choice is yours.

I must admit that I am always on the hunt for a full-time job opportunity, so if you happen to know of a well-remunerated one in my neck of the woods, please do not hesitate to call me! I prefer it that way, given my age and my future plans. But that’s just me.

The title of this blog post is borrowed from the NAJIT 44th Annual Conference taking place June 2-4, in Las Vegas. If you join us, you will learn more about this important subject.

Hilda Zavala-Shymanik is a state certified/approved Spanish court interpreter and translator with more than fifteen years of experience in legal, medical, corporate, and non-profit settings in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Wisconsin. She is a board member, treasurer, Conference Committee chair, member of the Training and Education Committee and blog team of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators as well as former president of the New York Circle of Translators. She is an active and voting member of NAJIT, ATA, and other professional groups. Hilda has two certificates in Legal Interpreting in Spanish and English, the latest one from NYU. Hilda is a former a Staff Interpreter at Essex County Superior Court in New Jersey, where she worked for six years. She now lives and works as a freelance interpreter in the Chicagoland area. Born in Chicago, Hilda lived for twenty years in Mexico and loves traveling. She continuously looks for opportunities to promote and advance the interpreting profession. Contact:

Main photo (cropped) “Chicago sunrise 1” by author Daniel Schwen from Wikimedia Commons, under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license. First body photo “argent gratuit” by Pierre Lecourt at flickr, under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Second body photo taken from “Leverage your partnerships to increase your experience” by Bertrand Duperrin at Bertrand Duperrin’s Notepad, under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR license.

16 thoughts on “Double Down on Yourself. Know What You Are Worth!”

  1. Great article! Publishing our fees allows others to make informed decisions on setting their own. Working for less than six figures as an interpreter is absolutely not necessary in this market. Interpreters indeed all set their fees according to their needs and desires, but some do seem to believe that $50,000 a year is “normal”. That sort of salary might be just fine for a lot of us, but I know it’s not for a lot of us as well.

  2. Olga says:

    Hilda – Can you please share what is the Certificate in Legal Interpreting from NYU? In your BIO, you describe holding a certificate from NYU–“Hilda has two certificates in Legal Interpreting in Spanish and English, the latest one from NYU.”
    Can you share the link for that certificate? Do you have a NYU contact?
    Thank you.

    Best –

    Cell: 813- 860- 8343

    1. Hello Olga. You emailed me too. I just want to make sure you received the information.

  3. Reme says:

    Excellent piece, Hilda! Networking, and knowing your worth will take you to the place you deserve as a professional. Thanks for sharing your experience and I look forward to hearing more on this topic in Las Vegas soon.

    1. Dear Reme,

      Friend, mentor and teacher. You gave me many of the weapons I have described here. Thanks for reading my post and for inspiring me.

  4. Georganne Weller says:

    It was very enlightening to learn of this experience from a colleague I don’t know and with the outlook of years of battling with this ongoing problem. Thanks for putting it in words!

    1. Dear Georganne,
      We have been in meetings together and interacted in groups but you may not remember me. I am glad the post resonated with you. I appreciate you reading my piece.

  5. Laura Neri says:

    thank you for pointing out that being self employed not only requires our skillset to speak for itself with our clients. But then be strategic and constantly be projecting for the future. It is no simple task. Always being proactively looking for clients that value your work. Great post much needed for me. I am a Certified Health Care interpreter and I wish I knew this before going freelance.
    Keep up the great posts!

  6. Lillian says:

    Great article! Thank you.

    1. Dear Lillian,

      I am so sorry I missed your call. I know I heard a message from you a while back and I totally forgot to call you back. I am not sure if what you needed has been resolved, but please call me again. 917-345-0199. Please forgive the lapse. It was right before a long trip, then I came back to NAJIT’s conference and that usually takes up all my time. Afterwards I just forgot!!

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. Vicki Bermudez says:

    Very informative article, Hilda. Thank you for your frankness!

    1. Dear Vicki!

      I know we can’t speak of specific numbers or rates, (prize fixing and all that) but I can certainly share my yearly income, and that gives you an idea of what my days are “worth”. I feel like we need to be able to speak frankly about it. And I have had many great mentors in this area. such as Reme Bashi Sullivan (predominantly), Judy Jenner and Corinne McKay. They may not know this but I have been reading for years and have learned.

  8. Sergia E Rosario says:

    HIlda Thank you for your post! I am a freelancer as well and it IS difficult to know how much to charge. I have been at my same fee for the past 2 years because I am not certified at the moment. However, once I get certified I will definitely increase my fees. I am blessed that I have been freelancing since 2016 and always get great feedback from everyone and everywhere I service. But I also need to know and establish my worth!!

    1. Dear Sergia,

      I think you are from NJ, aren’t you? I know that being certified will speed up that fee increase but I guarantee that your services are worth more than you are marketing them for. Nobody at any regular job waits two years to ask for a raise. Don’t wait! When you get certified you immediately ask for another one. No matter how soon. Your services will be worth more. Just like that. That, of course is my humble personal opinion.

  9. Sarah Pfefferle says:

    Hilda, I find it very affirming to know your experience, thank you tremendously for sharing! I have 18 years of experience as a freelance judicial interpreter and translator, two bachelors degrees, graduate course work, along with the hours of professional development. I am working toward certification. I have been stiffed by the circuit court for invoices, now more than one year old, because they figured out that my fees are like yours, and not $25/hour with no travel. This, even though for a full year before that, I had my terms listed on every invoice, and the judges were pleased with my performance. As I have not been requested to again work for this court, I believe I have been blacklisted by the head clerk. I am working for the Feds who do pay. Thanks for the affirmation.

    1. Dear Sarah,

      The same happened to me. Very recently. Being blacklisted. Although they worded it “are not a good fit”. I am never rude, I am never late, I never cancel, I dress professionally, I am not inapropiable in any way. In fact I am very respectful and in general get along with everyone. But when in a public meeting with interpreters we are informed that the pay will be less, instead of more, I do tend to speak up and ask questions. There are other places to work where they respect and value my worth. Such is life. 🙂

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