Charlie Bavington

Professional French to English Translator - Business and I.T.

Bringing a pragmatic eye to meeting your needs

Article: Beginners’ Rates

June 28th, 2011 | Categories: business, My articles

(This was originally an article I posted in my Articles section in Feb 2009. That has now been linked to from elsewhere, so I’m replicating it here in case anyone wants to comment.)

And so the question du jour is…

Should beginners work at low(er) rates?

Charging extremely low rates is a fairly common beginners’ mistake. It may seem to be fair enough on the face of it, but a bit later I will explain why it is logically flawed.

Before then, two other points about low rates-per-word in general that are worth bearing in mind in this context.

1) Some clients, especially those who pay towards the low end anyway, are resistant to subsequent increases. If you find this to be the case, then to increase your rates generally, you have to find new clients and charge them your new higher rate while dropping the old clients.

2) I appreciate that some markets are saturated, but I don’t see how anyone in Western Europe could regularly charge less than 50 quid per thousand words (roughly 0.06 EUR per word in Feb. 2009) on an ongoing basis unless they work at the speed of light. A thousand words is typically about 4 hours work, once you include all the admin and re-reading and frigging about with glossaries and suchlike. So £50 per thousand could be thought of as a hundred quid a day, or thereabouts.

But earning twenty quid for 4 hours (1,000 words), as implied by the low-end offers one sees from time to time? You’d be better off with a McJob, wouldn’t you? The news in early 2009 said KFC were going to recruit 3,000 new staff this year (relevant at the time this was first written, but the staff turnover in fast food means jobs are always available).
Your hair will smell of chicken, but at least you’ll get free chips 🙂

Having once made a forum posting along those lines, I once received a reply to the effect that:

“Many people make comments like that, but what if you actually prefer translating to working in fast-food and are struggling to get work?”

To which I reply – So, what if you do?

We all have to ultimately earn an optimum living by taking into account factors such as aptitude, supply, demand, comparative advantage, opportunity cost and probably some other stuff besides; that is just what I can think of at the moment.

Preference, if it appears on the list at all, plays a very small part, in truth. Otherwise surely the world would be full of actors, artists, sportsmen and women, and entertainers of all kinds and no bugger would ever actually ‘do’ anything.

If you decide to earn a sub-optimum living by doing what you prefer – fine. But if you are struggling to get work then like anyone else you either need to change your search strategy or change your line of work.

Having expressed that view publicly too, I received a (public) reply along these lines:

“Working at low rates is a necessary evil whilst starting out. Any respectable company would hastily cut a reasonable initial offer of £25000 per year to £18000 on seeing the candidate had not so much experience, why should the translation industry be any different?”

I’m afraid this is where the logic flaw I referred to earlier arises.

Yes, companies employ the inexperienced on lower rates (i.e. wages/salaries). However, the product or service the company itself markets is typically of uniform quality, no matter which employee was responsible for producing it. And the price of a given product from that company is standard no matter who produced it. In order to maintain margins, if the price is standard, then the cost needs to be standard too, including that portion of the cost that is the labour cost.

Depending on the industry, an inexperienced employee will either take longer to produce something of proper quality, which means their hourly rate will need to be lower, or their work will need to be checked by an experienced employee, which is an additional labour cost. Maybe even both. The same applies to piece work.

A self-employed translator is a slightly different kettle of fish. Ultimately, you do your own QA (for the most part, where agency work is concerned), and either your stuff is good enough to sell, or it ain’t.

If you are a beginner, it might take you a day to produce a decent 1,000 word translation – fine. Your earnings (per hour or day) might be less than an experienced person (short-term, that is, bearing in mind my earlier remarks), but it doesn’t mean that the client is entitled to get 1,000 words dirt cheap.

Alternatively, you could do the work in the usual time (i.e. the time it would take a more experienced person to complete) and then get someone to review it – and pay them, of course. Out of your rate. Again, your earnings might be less, but the client pays the same as if he had got an experienced translator to do the work.

Those are the situations which equate novice self-employed translators to starting salaries in other professions.
Not just charging a lower rate per word. Charge the same; potentially earn less while you find your feet.

(FWIW, I think the same applies to those who are ‘beginners’ in the sense of attempting to break into a new segment, no matter how much translating experience one may have in other areas.)

  1. July 9th, 2011 at 09:24
    Quote | #1

    From my experience a few years ago, if you are a beginner, even a qualified one, you have a reduced pool of customers at which to market yourself (because a significant proportion of agencies will not consider translators with less than a certain number of years’ experience). The agencies who are prepared to consider inexperienced translators often have less demanding quality standards and lower price expectations (if you only wanted a cheap and cheerful car, you wouldn’t go to a top luxury manufacturer).

    As regards quality of work, there is no single standard ‘professional’ quality level that any translator can achieve if only they put more hours in. There are things that less experienced translators cannot do, simply because they cannot be aware of all the tools, techniques and tricks that more experienced translators have had the time to discover and master.

    In terms of customer resistance to price rises, I have not found this to be a problem. A number of my longer-standing clients have recognised the value of my service and have been prepared to stay with me as I have increased my rates; others have not, and they have been replaced by new clients who are prepared to pay more. Indeed, it is these latter clients who probably would not have considered hiring me at the beginning of my career (through lack of experience), so it is not as if the market becomes smaller after you acquire a few years’ experience.

    • admin
      July 11th, 2011 at 21:08
      Quote | #2

      Thanks for replying – all very valid points.

      The first point is very true. To extend your car analogy to breaking point, my article was perhaps more talking about those aiming (perhaps idealistically) to produce “luxury models” from the word go, and whether or not they should charge “luxury prices”. The point was, if you can produce the goods, charge the price. In reality perhaps, many people (in hindsight , including me) probably start off at the cheap and cheerful end, then gradually increase the quality as the years roll by. But if you’re a beginner with specialist knowledge (from a previous life, as it were), I would say charge what the others charge (assuming you can find out). Maybe it depends on how you reach your specialisation – as an expert from elsewhere joining translation, or as a general translator who gradually acquires the specialist knowledge… I had the first in mind; your point certainly applies to the second (and arguably to a larger proportion of translators).

      No argument with point 2 – I glossed over it, hoping people would just accept that we know what we mean by quality and just agree that some work is better than other work! You are bang on, however.

      As for price rises, I was just hoping to strike a note of caution in the event any beginner read it, that one shouldn’t assume one can bump up the prices as one gets more experienced. To return to cars – if you were previously churning out Fiat 500s and you’re now more of a Mercedes producer (yeah, I know, I said I’d be stretching it!) – well, some customers will be happy to buy your Mercedes just as they were to buy your Fiat 500s and pay accordingly; other customers, as you said in your first point, really and truly are only looking for Fiat 500s – I’ve seen those.

  2. January 30th, 2012 at 14:06
    Quote | #3

    Great article and nicely put. I run an agency and always pay my translators fair rates (have also written articles on the matter). At the end of the day if you pay people peanuts you get monkeys working. As a recruiter of freelance translators I often ignore those CVs with published rates of £40/£50 per 1000 words because I doubt, at the outset, the quality of their work. I think newly qualified translators should be charging around the £60-65.

  3. Charlie
    August 13th, 2012 at 00:32
    Quote | #4

    Taken from here:
    where some, to my surprise, seem to think the status quo is good thing all round. Having endeavoured to repeat the above a couple of times in different ways, and failed to get the message across, I tried a different approach, which I shall reproduce here:
    “In essence, I saw a problem and thought about a possible solution. That problem being the assumption that noob = cheap as chips, which depresses the market average (which is bad for all of us) and causes all of us to have to seek out new clients (something I find tiresome!). It occured to me that if noobs charged the same as the rest of us (speaking very generally, in other words, charged something akin to an average or middling type of rate for non-specialist texts), it would ease the problem.

    Some noobs are undoubtedly able to churn out decent stuff from the get go, because of their background, e.g. experience working in the field in the source language, not necessarily in translation (which, for the record, is my background). They should, therefore, be encouraged to earn the “going rate” for what they produce, even if it’s their first week as a translator, i.e. my mantra about the same price for the same product.

    Other noobs possibly cannot cut the mustard from day one, and they should seek help to improve their mustard-cutting skills. This help woiuld then put them also in the category of charging the same price for the same product (while probably earning a bit less of that price for themselves).

    And hence my assertion that being a noob should not, in and of itself, be a reason to charge less.

    Obviously, if a noob decides to strike out alone with no experience and not seeking help, the overall product, be it a matter quality or time taken or anything else, is likely to be inferior, and so should cost less. Just as it should if anyone produces substandard output. Hence again, it’s not being a noob per se that warrants the low rate, it’s the utility of the end product.”

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