How Should Freelance Translators Price Their Services?

Not all translations are created equal.


In response to a recent post, What Does Translation Cost?, I received an interesting message from a reader who observed, “If experienced translators could charge by the hour for their vast expertise and writing skills, they would be paid on par with attorneys.”

Packaging Translation Services Creatively

Most translators price their services by the word, but when I was a freelance translator, I decided to find creative ways to get around the per-word pricing model that prevails in the industry. After all, my clients were not just paying me to convert one word to another. They were paying me to do a lot of other things — conduct research on their brand and their competitors, come up with translations that aligned perfectly with their marketing messages, and importantly, to be responsive to their feedback and requests as I interacted with their internal reviewers and in-country staff to provide them with the best translations.

Whether I was translating the copy that appears on a shampoo bottle or editing the text on the home page of a major restaurant chain’s website, I took great care to make sure that those brands would shine with authenticity in a foreign language, and that nothing would get lost along the way. Like many translators, I didn’t just want to transfer the message — I wanted the translated message to be at least as compelling and effective as the source message.

Indeed, my secret goal was always for the translation to sound even better, even though my clients, who didn’t speak the language, would be none the wiser. I felt that if I achieved that, they would see success, and would keep coming back to me. I know that many translators, like myself, pride themselves on doing an outstanding job, even though their work can rarely appreciated by the customer.

Some Translators Already Price Like Attorneys Do

Back in the 1990s (ouch!), I didn’t actually charge what an attorney charged in my area. My cost of living wasn’t high, and I wanted my customer to have a fair price. My rates were high enough for me to earn what I wanted, but low enough to not be cost-prohibitive to my clients. However, I also made it clear to my customers that what they were getting with me was more than just translation. I had to make sure they understood the difference. That part was up to me, as a micro-entrepreneur.

For the privilege of being able to access my services, I charged many of my customers a retainer fee — they paid a monthly amount that included a set number of words. In exchange, I offered them a better quality of service, guaranteed turn-around times, and on-call availability with exception by written notice, so I could take vacation as I pleased. In exchange for offering a different type of service, I had a guaranteed stream of steady, stable income. Often, they didn’t even use all the words included in their contract, so I allowed them to carry the unused words over to future months, so long as they used them up within the yearly contract. As a freelancer, I didn’t want financial peaks and valleys, so this enabled me to have the flexibility of freelancing without taking on as much risk.

Most translators don’t self-identify this way — as businesspeople, let alone as marketers. Packaging your product in a way that people understand its true value isn’t easy. As a freelance translator, you have to be the marketer and salesperson, as well as the execution and customer service staff. However, if you accept the challenge of offering your product to a customer in a way that makes these benefits crystal clear, they often will want to pay you fairly for it.

Put on Your Business Hat

While some translators are happy with the status quo and love their work, others feel disenfranchised and disempowered. Translators who don’t think like businesspeople are at the tail end of the supply chain. They are often pressured by agencies that ask them to lower their rates, day in and day out. Usually, those agencies are doing so because they too are not doing a good job of making a clear value proposition to their customers. They fall into the same trap as the translators do — assuming that they don’t have any ability to change things, and being reactive to pricing pressures instead of being proactive and offering fresh, innovative alternatives.

But entrepreneurial translators can take matters into their own hands. Today, I know several translators who give clients rates that use something other than a price-per-word when the client asks how much translation costs. This alone distinguishes them from other translators who are quoting only on price per word. The customer thinks, “OK, something must be different about you. Why do you charge this way?” This gives you the ability to start a conversation about how your services include much more than the source-target language equivalent of a “copy/paste.” You can tell them how and why you are different. And many of them will be willing to pay you for those additional, value-added services.

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of looking your nose down at the customer. They cannot magically know that what you are offering is different from what they can order from a run-of-the-mill translator marketplace, or what they can get from Google Translate. They simply don’t know what they don’t know. It’s up to you to provide the breadcrumbs, and lead them to that conclusion.

The translators I know who quote non-per-word rates will also offer per-word pricing when the customer requests it, but it’s based on how much they would like to earn per month, per hour, per day — not per word. They’ll explain that they don’t normally quote that way, but that their other rate works out to a certain number of cents per word, because they typically complete a certain number of words per hour. So, they don’t refuse to offer pricing that is easier to compare to other translators. But, they use this as an opportunity to further highlight their differentiation.

Changing the Attitude from Entitlement to Empowerment

Some translators refer to the “demands” from clients that they lower their rates, work faster for less, and so on. But that doesn’t make sense — after all, the beauty of being a freelancer is that you can take whichever jobs you want, charge what you want, and if you don’t like working for certain clients, find new ones — if you want to take the time and energy to go out and find them. Per-word pricing is the de facto standard in the industry, and probably won’t disappear anytime soon. Using different techniques to market your translation services — and pricing differently is just one of them — is ultimately up to each translator.

The bottom line is this — freelance translators can and do charge by the hour, but only when they choose to be active participants in their own success, and not when they allow themselves to be victims by enabling the status quo. To use the words of Judy and Dagmar Jenner, the translating twin super-powers who wrote The Entrepreneurial Linguist, “… stop thinking of yourself as ‘just’ a freelance linguist and start thinking of yourself as a business. Start behaving like one!”

The Jenners point out that being a freelance translator is, in and of itself, a tremendous accomplishment. However, many translators need to embrace a different mindset and not think of themselves as victims or cogs in a machine, but rather, as business professionals.

If you’re a translator, ask yourself if you truly value yourself as an entrepreneur, or whether you’re comfortable sitting back and hoping that the status quo in the industry will change someday without you taking action. The majority of the market will still behave in this way and request per-word pricing, but that doesn’t stop you from locating customers that are willing to experiment with more creative models. It might be right for them, and chances are it won’t be right for every type of client. That’s OK — you only need to be concerned with your own customers.

And if you’re a buyer of translation or localization services, realize that not all translations are created equal. Many translators do far more for you than just translate website content, whether they are properly valuing those services and making those additional benefits explicit to you or not. After all, you can only buy what they’re selling.