Let’s Talk About Money

One of the hardest things in our profession to get a handle on is how much to charge for our work. I’m certainly no expert on this, but perhaps my recent experience will be useful to you as you deal with this never-ending question.

Although I’ve been a translator for 30+ years, a few weeks ago I took on a project that taught me a few lessons. The international client sounded interesting, and I was recommended for the project by a friend whom I didn’t want to disappoint. The project was an academic article in political theory and philosophy, which I knew would be full of obscure and arcane language, but despite this challenge—or perhaps even because of it—I was eager to take it on.

But first I needed to figure out how much to charge. I don’t care if you’re a newbie or a longtimer (like me!), setting fees is often perplexing, frustrating, and anxiety producing.

No such a thing as a going rate

I haven’t done a lot of translation work recently, so I wasn’t sure my information about fees was still current. Even though asking how much people charge often feels like breaking a taboo, I reached out to a very experienced colleague for whom I have great respect and asked flat-out how much she charged. It wasn’t a single rate but a very wide range, with the upper rate two and a half times the lower.

That led to my first gut check—where in that range should I fix my rate?  I knew I had the expertise to do the job and that should factor into my proposal. But I also knew that there were several big challenges I would need to overcome and that the translation would likely take longer than usual as a result. As much as I wanted to do the project, I was not willing to lowball the rate to get the job.

Next, I considered the client. Based on what I knew, I figured they wouldn’t be too concerned about cost (nice!). As near as I could tell, they were not frequent users of translation services, but I was confident they saw value in getting a high-quality translation. I also thought that if I requested a rate that was too high for them, they would negotiate and not just reject it out of hand.

Finally, I considered the translation itself. I read the text (perhaps not as carefully as I should have) and identified possible challenges, which included a lot of jargon and dense language. But on this score, I was sure the author would be able to help and explain what she meant in the more obscure passages.

With this information, I prepared and submitted my proposal. It included a proposed deadline (a rather ample one) and details on what was included, like how edits and revisions would be handled. I also included the potential need for me to have access to the author. They accepted it without question and sent me a contract. Of course, my first reaction was that I should have asked for more, but I signed the contract and got to work.

As it turned out, the translation was even more challenging than I thought it would be. In retrospect, I should have given the document a closer read before I estimated the cost—it took a lot longer than I expected. Most importantly, I was shocked to find out how uncooperative the author was. Her attitude was that I should already have all the information I needed to do a quality translation and that it wasn’t her job to help. Of course, when there is no access to the author (which happens quite often) the translator must make do. But most authors are delighted to work with translators to improve the quality of a translation. I have never encountered this attitude before, but I guess there’s a first for everything.

The biggest challenge, though, was something I had never encountered. As a piece intended for publication in an academic book, the article included many citations and direct quotes. But most of the sources for these quotations were written in English—the language I was translating the article into. If I translated these quotes back into their original language the result could have ended up too distant from the original, plus it was likely that many of the citations would be well-known to the readers of the article. The only option was to track down as many of the original sources as possible and do so without the help of the author. As it turned out, this project was almost as much about research as it was translation. Google books and PDF files on obscure websites saved the day.

How much are you willing to accept?

But all’s well that ends well. The client was happy with the result, was a delight to work with, and will keep me in mind for future projects. I finished ahead of schedule. I also challenged myself and learned a few new tricks along the way. And the bottom line is, I got paid. Maybe it wasn’t as much as I would have liked, but it was all that I asked for.

There are no tablets of stone that say what the right fee for a translation is. The blunt answer is whatever someone is willing to pay and how much you are willing to accept, but that’s not much help. A lot of variables enter into it, but the most important is the value you place on your time. That’s why all of us should be constantly seeking ways to be more productive, including using technology if it can help. But this translation reminded me of the importance of estimating to the best of your ability how long it will take you to do a quality job.

Gladys Matthews holds a degree in French from the Universidad de Costa Rica and a master’s degree in terminology and translation and Ph.D. in linguistics with an emphasis in legal translation from Université Laval in Canada. A certified court interpreter and experienced instructor, Gladys taught two court interpreting courses she developed for the Master of Conference Interpreting program of Glendon College of York University, Toronto (one language-neutral course for the entire cohort and the other for the English-French track). She also served as director and faculty member in interpreting programs in several colleges and universities in Canada and the United States, and most recently has been a guest lecturer in her native Costa Rica. Gladys currently splits her time between writing and lecturing. Email Gladys at TNO_Editor@najit.org.

Read other posts by Gladys Matthews.

9 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Money”

  1. AJ Elterman says:

    Dear Gladys, thank you for sharing your experience and insights gained from this challenging academic translation project and its compensation. I agree with you about fees not being set in stone and everything else you say. Translation being more art than science, especially in non-scientific contexts such as politics, where CAT tools cannot cover one’s needs, the price for one’s work can be adjusted more liberally on the skills, unique creativity, experience, work time, etc. of the “artist.”
    I am sorry if I misunderstand your paragraph regarding the citations and direct quotes (biggest challenge) having been written in English in the source text that you have translated into English. Why would you not take those quotes unchanged? For quality assurance as to the accuracy of the translated English used in your source text (I assume)?

    1. Observer Editor says:

      Thanks for your comment, AJ. The quotations in the article I translated were from the published Spanish translations of books originally written in English. Rather than translating them back into English, I had to find the English. publications. Another wrinkle that I did not include in the post was that the article also included quotations in Spanish from texts that were originaly written in French and Italian. In those cases, I also had to find the published English versions. So, I ended up doing LOTS of research. I actullay enjoyed it, but it was definetely time-consuming.
      Thanks again. Cheers! Gladys

  2. Doris Ganser says:

    In a situation like that, I usually translate something like 200 or so random words for myself, generally not from the beginning of the source, however. Then I apply my standard hourly rate. I also estimate the number of words and apply a standard per word rate; next, I compare the two figures, juggle a little [like $592 instead of $600 🙂 or add a little as a precaution if while flipping through the pages, I see many complicated terms or pages with particularly bad handwriting or cut off right margins or page bottoms in the case of old German documents in Sütterlin]. I also add some time for editing and layout, of course. Getting access to the author is important, and for legal or technical documents, we always ask for a contact person. In the case of ancient documents, that’s, of course, not possible, and sometimes, it’s necessary to footnote guesses — which is OK, since such documents are seldom for publication.

    1. Observer Editor says:

      Hi Doris,
      I like your approach to estimating the cost of a translation project. The way I handled edits in my proposal was that errors were on me but changes based soley on preference may incur an additional charge. In this case, the edits that came back were mostly about precise academic language that the author wanted to use. She sent me the edits and I introduced them into text. They were few and easy to make, so I didn’t charge for that. The research part was what was most time-consuming. Thanks again. Gladys

  3. Carlos Benemann says:

    I fully agree there is no thing as A GOING RATE for translations.
    Of course one can set a standard rate for routine matters like Birth or Marriage certificates. But scholarly articles or technical manuals present individual challenges. I usually quote an estimated amount of actual time at my established hourly rate. That hourly rate has not changed in 10 years.

    My father was a Translator. He established the “Benemann Translation Center” in San Francisco in 1961. I sill have his billing records and of course back in 1961 his work seemed absurdly cheap in retrospect.
    It just so happened today I was looking at his translation into German of “MODELS AND MICHELANGELO.” It was a slick catalogue for an successful art show that was exhibited at the Vancouver Gallery of Art, and then toured across the world to select museums. His bill dated August 17 1974 was $2480.
    I checked the word count and text. No biggie, Not complex. I could do that.
    As I looked at the original and Dad’s translation I came to a startling conclusion. I would have charged pretty much the same for that translation in 2001,
    47 years later!!
    How come?, For one thing Dad did not have computers in 1974. Computers do save A LOT of time. Corrections with an electric Typewriter (does anyone remember selectrics) were a time consuming pain. Now we also have much better specialized dictionaries published in the last 30 years. Not to mention those online. And of course for those translators able to use them there are plenty of time saving programs
    Bottomline, It is not so much that we are not making more money than 50 years ago. We are doing the same work expending less effort and time.
    My two cents worth

    1. Observer Editor says:

      Dear Carlos,
      What an amazing story. Thanks for sharing it.
      Thank goodness for technolgy! Google books and sites with specialized publications saved my life 🙂
      Thanks again. Cheers! Gladys

  4. AJ Elterman says:

    Thank you for your clarification, Gladys. That research process must have been quite time consuming. Congratulations for overcoming such a challenge with success!

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic! We should talk a lot more about money, an essential element of the negotiation part of a translation project. We must keep in mind that if we don’t do it right (meaning professionally and competitively), we hurt the business of our fellow translators, as well. I am sure that we all agree (and the comments above prove this statement right) that a translation is never just a translation! But the clients don’t know it. We have to educate them about the complexity of translations and set the price of the words accordingly.

    1. Gladys Matthews says:

      Hello Agnes,
      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. While setting fees and conditions for a translation project is essential, an element that I only hinted at is making sure the client is legitimate (in this case, I was referred to the client by a trusted friend). With all the scams out there, we need to be extra careful.
      Tnanks again. Cheers! Gladys

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