Archive for the ‘Rates’ Category

This morning I had lots of fun interviewing translation industry veteran Steve Lank (Monterey graduate, former ASTM translation QA standard subcommittee chair, longtime senior-level manager in agencies in the US, Ireland and Spain). Steve is currently Vice President for Translation Services at Cesco Linguistic Services, working from the Washington, DC office.

I put Steve in the hot seat and asked him:

  • Chicken/egg: how can beginning translators find their first clients?
  • What’s up with downward price negotiations? Why do agencies apply them, and how can translators best handle them?
  • What are the top dos and don’ts of translator resumes? What errors pop up again and again? How can a translator stand out among the many unsolicited applications that an agency receives?
  • How about following up on agency applications? How often should freelancers follow up, and using what method?
  • How does a translator turn a first-time client into a regular client, and become one of an agency’s preferred providers?
  • How about the increasing emphasis on specialization in our industry? Is the “learn by doing” mindset OK, or do translators need more formal training in their specializations?

To listen to the episode, cruise on over to the Speaking of Translation website.

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Let’s look some more at the “How much should I charge?” question, since it’s such a source of stress and speculation for most freelancers. You might also be interested in these previous posts–What is the right rate for your translation services, and How and why to raise your translation rates.

If you want, you can have an absolutely 100% set price for your translation services. My accountant (who I love), charges $220 an hour, end of story. Phone calls more than 5 minutes and lengthy e-mails are billable, end of story. That tactic could work for translators too. But whereas accounting work is relatively predictable, we’re always balancing factors like the subject matter, the turnaround time, the format of the source document, the high or low maintenance-ness of the client, the appeal of the project in general, and so on. So instead of having a set rate per hour or per word, here’s another option: think zones.

The green zone is a rate at which you would almost never turn down work, as long as the project is within your capabilities. It’s your ideal rate, and ideally, you’re always trying to push it a little higher. Note: the green zone is a good place for your clients to be, because it means you’ll bend over backward for them (worth subtly pointing out to them, too!).

The yellow zone is a rate that’s not ideal, but that’s worth taking a look at. This might be a rate that you consider when work has been a little slow, or if a project is particularly interesting, or when there’s some non-economic reason to consider the project. For example, when I translate books, it’s yellow zone work. It’s interesting, it’s nice to be off the daily deadline treadmill, but it’s at the low end of what is viable for me financially.

The red zone is work that you turn down because it’s too low-paying. Point being: to have a viable business, you have to have a red zone. If you are continually making exceptions to your absolute, I-don’t-go-below-this-number rate, just for this one project and then you’ll really never work for that little again…you will never have a viable business. So whether your red zone is 9, 20 or 40 cents per word, just make sure that you have one.

I find that this zone approach really helps me; having an “I don’t turn on the computer for less than…” rate helps me feel that this is a policy, rather than a case by case decision. Over time, I also find that I’m more attracted to billing direct clients by the hour; they understand where the number is coming from (which, with per-project pricing, they might not), but I also get paid for everything I end up doing (which, with per-word pricing, I might not). But that’s material for another post…any thoughts out there on pricing zones?

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No matter how long you’ve been a freelancer, rates are always a source of intense stress: charge too much, and you’re afraid of having too little work. Charge too little, and you’re afraid of not earning enough. There are lots of ways to think about rates (see my previous post about deciding how much to charge) and about raising rates, but let’s take a shot at the basics. Here’s a question I often get from other freelancers: how do I raise my rates, and what’s the best time to raise my rates? My take:

If you’re talking about raising your rates with existing clients, my two word answer is: you can’t. That’s a little harsh, but think of it this way. If you have a salaried job and you want to make 30% more than you’re making right now, you’re unlikely to get that raise in your current position. To make that jump, you have to change jobs. And so it is with freelance rates: a longstanding client is probably not going to agree to a significant rate increase, so you just have to look elsewhere. But let’s say you’re talking about a modest increase. A few options here; some may be nothing you’d ever say, and some might work for you:

  1. You could use Chris Durban‘s suggestion and invoke a third-party authority, like “My accountant has brought it to my attention that you’re my last client paying X cents per word/hour.” This can be a good tactic because the mythical third party is the bad cop, and you get to be the good cop and tell the client how much you love working with them, and that you really hope you can continue the relationship.
  2. You could try a human-to-human conversation with the client, like “I love working with you because you offer so many advantages : your staff are so helpful and easy to deal with, your projects are interesting and you always pay on time. At the same time, looking at my bottom line, you’re now my lowest-paying client, which means that I only accept work from you when I have nothing else in the pipeline. I’d really love for you to be one of my preferred clients, and the rate that it would take to get here is X.”
  3. You could just impose the rate increase and see what the client does; send an e-mail saying “As of March 1, 2014, my base rate will increase to X. Please let me know if you have any questions.”
  4. If you sense that the client could pay more but for some reason is resisting, you could try asking them for the truth (always a dicey proposition, but worth a try!). Such as “I’d like to ask for your feedback on what it would take for me to move into your top tier of translators. I love working with you and am committed to always doing excellent work, so this type of feedback would really help me move my business to the next level.”

But my succinct advice on how to really raise your rates remains: look for new clients.

Now, on to the question of when to raise your rates. Short answer: with new clients, and when you’re already really busy. Why? Because then, if the new potential client says no to the higher rate, you’ve lost absolutely nothing. You’re still really busy and you have enough work. And if the new potential client says yes to the higher rate, you know that at least some portion of your target clientele will bear that rate. Try 15% or 25% higher than you’re charging right now; heck, even try 50% higher and just see what happens. If you believe that you deserve that rate and that your work is worth it, there’s a good chance that the potential client will believe it too. And do not forget that if 100% of potential clients accept your rates without negotiating, you could be charging more. That’s not business advice, it’s just a fact. If literally no one thinks that you are too expensive, you’re leaving money on the table.

Here’s another rate truth: I work with both agencies and direct clients, and I like them both for different reasons. With my agencies, I just translate, and sometimes that’s just what I want to do. With my direct clients, I’m in the thick of the action, usually dealing with either the person who wrote the French document or the person who’s going to use the English document, and sometimes that’s just what I want to do. But here’s a truth of the agency market: you can only compete on quality and service to a certain point. Once you hit the agency’s rate ceiling, you’re stuck. For example I recently wanted to raise my rates with one of my agency clients, but they told me (and I believe, honestly) that they’re already paying me 2 cents per word more than any of their other French to English translators, so I can either continue at the current rate or not work for them anymore. This is not to say that direct clients will blindly agree to every rate increase, but they generally have more flexibility to move money from other budgets and allocate them to translation if they really want to retain you.

Readers, any thoughts on this? Any rate increase techniques that have worked for you?

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I spend a lot of time explaining the merits of agencies to translators who work with direct clients, and explaining the merits of direct clients to translators who work with agencies. So, I thought I’d offer my explanation to the whole translation blogosphere and solicit your thoughts! Here we go:

Translation agencies are great, because:

  • If the agency does its job right, you just translate. You are freed from such tasks as explaining to the client why the words aren’t in the same order in the translation as they are in the original document, or explaining to the client that words like “software” and “information” are not pluralized as “softwares” and “informations” in English.
  • If the agency likes you, they will keep you busy. They will fill your inbox with requests, rather than the other way around.
  • They have a sense of what you do, and what the constraints of your job are. They know not to ask whether you could translate 25,000 words for 3 days from now, or whether you charge “for the little words.” By the way, that was an actual question I received from a potential client. I apologize if my answer, “Only if you want them translated,” sounded rude or glib.

But translation agencies have their drawbacks, such as:

  • In the agency market, a translator can only compete on quality to a certain extent. It’s in an agency’s best interest to use the cheapest translator whose quality and reliability fit the agency’s purposes. An agency that really likes you might pay you 10% more than what they pay their other translators, but they’re not going to pay you 100% more, whereas a direct client might.
  • They can’t afford to be loyal to you. A direct client might shuffle deadlines, pay rush printing charges or have their own staff work on a weekend in order to snag a translator who they really love. But agencies rarely will: if you’re not available within a reasonable amount of time, they’ll call the next person on their list.
  • Many agencies are not transparent about their teams and processes. When you work on a large project for an agency, the agency may refuse to let you communicate with the other translators. They may decline to tell you whether your work is being proofed a) by another translator in your language pair, b) by a speaker of the target language only or c) not at all.

Direct clients are great, because:

  • At a certain point, you will reach “terminal velocity” in the agency market. You will be charging as much as even the highest-paying agencies will pay, and you can’t increase your speed beyond a certain point if you want to maintain quality. So, the next logical place to look is the direct client market, where the price ceiling is much higher.
  • The business relationship is between you and them. Normally, you can communicate either with the person who wrote the source document or the person who is going to use the target document. In 11+ years of working with agencies, I’ve been in contact with the document’s writer or end user exactly zero times. To put it diplomatically, this model has its problems.
  • Quality is a major competitive advantage. I know for sure (and Chris Durban has said this as well), that some of my direct clients use me for their mission-critical translations; when they’re applying for a large grant or producing a report that will go to potential donors, they’re willing to pay my rate. But for other, less mission-critical things, they use either agencies or less expensive freelancers.
  • Questions and feedback are not only possible, but welcome. In the agency model, there’s pretty much an impenetrable membrane between the translator and the end client; in the direct client market, the back-and-forth flow is what makes the work more satisfying and the translation more accurate and more readable.

But direct clients have their drawbacks, such as:

  • Sometimes, they have no idea how you work, other than that you change documents from one language to another. 12,000 words for tomorrow? Some direct clients don’t know that that’s laughable. And while you’re at it, why don’t you translate into your non-native language? Or interpret for their upcoming conference? It’s not their fault, it’s just not their industry.
  • They may need you only sporadically, or for huge amounts of work at one time. Some direct clients only need a translator for a small job a couple of times a year, for example when they issue earnings reports or press releases. Others may have an onslaught of documents (grant applications, RFPs) a couple of times a year, and then they need 100,000 words in a month. So you absolutely must have a partner or backup person (more on that in another post).
  • Corollary: you really don’t want to turn down their work if you can help it. In the agency market, you can pretty much accept and decline projects at will. As long as you accept at least some of the time, the agency will likely call you again. But if you bail out on a direct client at a key time, your relationship with them may be over, because they have to find someone else immediately (see reference to partner/backup above).

Now, over to you! Thoughts?

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Disclaimer: I’m not an accountant or an attorney; these are just some tips from my own experience and what works for me in my freelance business. Managing your freelance finances is a) time-consuming and b) absolutely critical to your survival as a freelancer. So, it’s worth taking some time to consider whether you’re optimally managing your money. And those of you who are more financially oriented than I am, please chime in in the comments.

  • Before you do anything else, separate your business and personal finances. Even if you do business as a sole proprietor (meaning that you are not incorporated), open a separate checking account that you use only for business purposes.
  • People use various accounting tools and processes, but at the very least, track your total freelance income for the year. Every time a client pays you, enter that amount into something (a spreadsheet, QuickBooks, Translation Office 3000, etc) so that you have a running total of how much you have earned.
  • Always, always have a savings cushion, especially if you are your (or your family’s) only income. Freelancing has its highs and lows; some months go like gangbusters and other months drip along. Big clients may unexpectedly change their plans or hire an in-house translator. And if you (or a family member) are too sick to work for an extended period, you’re left without income unless you have disability insurance. So don’t let yourself live paycheck to paycheck. Keep at least 3-6 months’ living expenses on hand in cash at all times.
  • Track your total outstanding invoices. For me, this is a big one. Of course you’re going to record your outstanding invoices so that you know whether clients have paid you or not, but you also want to know how much money you should be receiving in the next 30-60 days. This statistic will tell you how aggressive you need to be about looking for or accepting new projects. For example, let’s say that your income goal is $7,000 per month. Every time you issue an invoice, you enter it into an Excel file with a column that totals your outstanding invoices, so that you know how much money clients owe you. So for example if your outstanding invoices only total $5,000, you know that the next month is going to be lean unless you take on a lot more work. But if your outstanding invoices total $9,000, you know that you can afford (at least from the financial point of view) to be choosier about the work that you take on, to work on some non-paying tasks such as updating your website or marketing to higher-paying clients.
  • Track your business expenses. The easiest way to do this is by using a debit or credit card associated with your business bank account. That way, you don’t have to comb through your records at the end of the year, wondering whether that trip to the office supply store was for home or for work.
  • Establish a business savings account. Another big one: at the very least, you need to set money aside for taxes. Depending on your situation and your tax bracket, this could be anywhere from 25-50% of what you earn. Every time a client pays me, I deposit the check in my business checking account and then immediately transfer 40% to my business savings account so that I am never in a bind when tax time rolls around. And also…
  • Use your business savings account as a paid vacation fund. Freelancing doesn’t have many downsides, but one of them is no paid vacation. So, provide yourself with a good quality of life by having a paid vacation fund. For example, if you want to take off 4 weeks per year and work 48 weeks, start by putting $100 a week into your paid vacation fund. Then you’ll have $4,800 to “pay” yourself during your month off.
  • Have some sort of retirement plan. My accountant likes to say that “Everyone has a retirement plan. Either you’re saving for retirement or you’re planning to work until you drop.” Retirement strategies are really diverse, and they depend a lot on your expenses, how long you plan to work, if you have kids and how old you’ll be when they leave home, and so on. Plus the not insignificant question of how long you’re going to live. But whatever you do, have some kind of plan in place.
  • Set money aside for professional development and (why not) bonuses. It amazes me how many translators spend absolutely nothing on professional development and then wonder why their businesses are stagnating. In order to stay current in our industry, you have to keep your skills, knowledge and contact base current. Meaning that you have to learn new things. Take webinars, read books, do teleconferences, attend in-person conferences, join the Chamber of Commerce. But set aside at least 5% of what you make for professional development. And, if you have a good year, you really deserve a bonus. I once had a boss who left $50 in everyone’s mailbox on the last day before winter break; a manageable amount for the company, and an amount that everyone was excited to go and blow on something fun over the holidays. Consider earmarking some “fun money” for yourself, getting a new technology toy or treating your most valuable colleagues to a good meal at the end of the year!

Other ideas??

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Last year, Walt Kania of The Freelancery wrote a fantastic post called Follow your passion? Maybe not. Try this instead, and the whole “follow your passion” idea is one that I think about a lot. Some thoughts:

I love translating, writing and teaching, and I can’t imagine having a job where I was just warming the chair all day and waiting for quitting time. So in that sense, I agree that following your passion is a good thing: I’ve always loved languages, words and writing. However, I also think that if you want a satisfying quality of life, money has to enter into the equation somewhere. And somewhere, there’s an intersection between what you like to do and what people will pay money, or maybe even a lot of money for. So when I hear other translators comment that they fantasize about finding a job where they don’t have to sit in front of a computer all day, one of my standard suggestions is “If you like everything else about being a translator, raise your rates and work less, so that you can have more time to do whatever you want.”

Here’s another truth, at least as I see it. Lots of things are fun if, or because, you don’t have to depend on them to pay the bills. For example when I think about my non-work passions: crafting, gardening, cooking, mountain sports, to name a few, they are things from which I could potentially earn income. Case in point: I love to knit, and last year I made a series of ponchos, like the one Martha Stewart wore when she got out of jail. A few days ago I was wearing the one I made for myself, and a stranger asked me where I got it; then commented that I “could charge a lot of money” making them for other people. But here’s the thing: it’s not that I don’t want to earn money from crafting, it’s that part of why I find crafting relaxing is that I do it purely because I want to, not because I’m on a deadline or filling an order. Ditto for many of my other non-work passions; I love long-distance bicycle touring, and I’m sure that there are people making money running or leading those kids of tours. But for me, part of the mental release of being on my bike is that I literally don’t think about anything besides turning the cranks. I’m not stressing out about who’s having fun, who has a flat tire, and who can’t make it over the next pass. If I were leading bike tours just for fun, it might work, but I wouldn’t want to depend on it to buy groceries.

Around the same time as the poncho interaction, I went to see our financial planner, and he and I got to talking about this (following your passion, not knitting ponchos) as well. Interestingly enough, he had just read an article on a financial planning website that corroborated the “don’t follow your passion as a job; earn enough money that you can work less and have more time for the passion” philosophy. Apparently this referred to an unscientific study of people who quit their white-collar jobs to become rafting guides or rug weavers, or whatever their previous avocational interest was. And many of these people found that once the passion became their job, it was, well…a job. I would hazard a guess that in any type of job, there are many of the same stresses: meeting deadlines, meeting customers’ expectations, finding the energy and drive to pull rabbits out of hats when valued clients really need it.  To me, my non-work passions provide the recharge that I need to work very hard at a job that I enjoy. But if given the choice between knitting all day and translating all day, I’d rather translate, make a bunch of money doing it, and then have the rest of my time free to knit, ski or grow flowers just because I want to.

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Here’s a nuts and bolts post about a nuts and bolts topic: how to count words. Billing by the word isn’t always the best way to go, but let’s say you’re quoting on a project for which you will definitely bill by the word. What are some factors you need to consider?


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This topic started out as a Twitter discussion earlier this week, and I’m hoping that the translators who contributed there will join in here too! At the recent ATA conference, there was a lot of buzz about how translators should charge; not just the actual amounts, but whether it’s better to charge by the word, by the hour or by the project. So here’s a starter post to get the discussion going! It’s also worth noting that a post on the same topic that I wrote way back in 2008 is still one of the most popular posts on this blog, so clearly it’s a timeless topic! Here we go:

  • Charging by the word still seems to be the norm in our industry, at least in the agency market. On the plus side, if you charge by the source word count, everyone knows in advance exactly how much the translation is going to cost (down to the penny) before the project starts. Also, per-word billing favors more experienced and more specialized translators who are thus faster at their work, and encourages translators to incorporate productivity-enhancing technology into their work flow. On the minus side, per-word billing makes translation seem like commoditized piecework: we’re not selling a solution, we’re selling a bucket of words. Clients may argue (down to the penny) about unnecessary words, discounted words, and so on. Per-word billing also discourages translators from doing thorough and time-consuming research, because if we’re not typing, we’re not earning.
  • Charging by the hour seems to be gaining steam in the industry. Translators have historically charged by the hour for tasks like editing and proofreading, but now there’s a lot of talk about charging by the hour for translation too. During her preconference seminar at ATA, respected freelance translator Chris Durban noted that most direct clients are accustomed to paying for professional services (lawyers, accountants, marketing consultants, web designers) by the hour. Billing by the hour favors translators who work slowly because they are very thorough, and allows time for reading background material or doing in-depth research. But billing by the hour has its downsides: for whatever reason, most translation agencies seem to be resistant to paying an outright hourly rate that corresponds to what translators make when they bill by the word. For example, a translator earning 15 cents per word and producing 500 finished words per hour is effectively earning $75 per hour, well beyond the hourly rate that most translators report earning for tasks such as editing or proofreading. Billing by the hour also introduces the question of what is billable…phone time? e-mail time? FedEx time? revisions? And unless you have a very good handle on your translation speed for every document, or your clients will agree to start the project without a binding quote, it can be hard to know exactly how to estimate a given job.
  • Then we’ve got the third way: billing by the project. Billing by the project with no breakdown of words or hours isn’t out of the question (it’s what I do with the majority of my direct clients). This method has the advantage of allowing the translator to tweak the per-word or per-hour rate without a lot of fanfare. It also gives the client one number to focus on: no worry about words, hours, is this translator fast or slow compared to other people, etc. The obvious disadvantage is that the translator is locked in to the fixed bid; there’s no wiggle room if the project takes twice as long as expected.

Now, over to you!

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I really enjoyed reading The Freelancery’s recent post on whether or not to publish your freelance rates on your website. Since my website redesign a few years ago, I’ve struggled with this same dilemma: I grow weary of preparing quotes for clients whose budget turns out to be 1/3 of what I charge, so I post my rates on my website. Then I feel like having posted rates is too restrictive and doesn’t steer the conversation toward value for money, so I take my rates down. Here’s my current line of reasoning, which is, of course, subject to change!

No question about it, handling inquiries from prospective clients who have little to no budget can be draining. Sometimes the slim to nonexistent funding isn’t mentioned until 25 minutes into the phone conversation (this happened to me recently), and sometimes it’s brought up with a tone of righteous indignation on the prospective client’s part (“If you can’t do it for $25 an hour, our marketing manager’s son who studied abroad in Belgium will be happy to do it for $15″). It’s just a bummer to spend so much time talking to prospective clients who expect so much for so little. However, I agree with The Freelancery’s suggestion that these interactions are also opportunities: maybe an opportunity to refer work to a beginning translator who charges less, maybe an opportunity to mention that professional translators don’t generally work for what the client’s budget is, etc. In the end, I do think that we perform a service on behalf of the profession when we have these types of conversations.

In terms of posted rates, I feel that I’ve found somewhat of a happy medium that works for me.

  • I removed my general “Rates” page from my website and I ask prospective clients to call or e-mail for a quote. However, I don’t prepare a detailed quote until they confirm that my rates are at least somewhat within their budget. This avoids the time-suck of preparing a full quote only to find out that the client’s budget is less than half of what I charge.
  • I left my rates for “fixed-price” items on my website. For example for certified translations of official documents, I always charge $50 per page for the translation and $15 for a notarized certification, and most of these clients are first-time, one-time clients. The Freelancery’s post hits this one on the head (and they mention translation in their examples!); clients who want their birth certificate translated into English don’t want to call for a quote, they just want it done fast and for a not exorbitant amount of money. My rate to translate official documents might be more expensive than some other freelancers, but I know it’s much cheaper than most agencies’ minimum charges, so I feel fine about posting it.

In closing, although I think of myself as a kind and understanding person and as someone who tries to be helpful whenever it’s possible, two aspects of rates and quoting really raise my blood pressure. I’ll admit them publicly in order to get them off my chest:

  1. Why do so many prospective clients seem to lose the ability to do math when it comes to translation quotes? If I give the example that at 25 cents per word, a full page of single-spaced text would cost approximately $125 to translate, why is it then a surprise that a 10-page document costs $1,250 to translate?
  2. Why do so many prospective clients feel that it should take a couple of hours to translate something that took months or even years to write? I get this a lot from authors: “But the book is so short! It will really take you 10 hours to translate it?” I can’t decide whether it would be helpful or nasty to ask if it really took them more than 10 hours to write the book, but I try to just answer the question objectively since I enjoy doing literary translation and working with authors.

Feel free to add your own observations on rates and quotes too (or associated issues that you need to get off your chest!). Thanks for listening, I feel so much better.

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Two cents, or $10,000?

If you’re a freelancer, you probably conduct price negotiations with clients or potential clients almost every day of your professional life. For translators, especially translators who work with agencies, these negotiations often come down to a difference of one or two cents. Your minimum rate is 15 cents per word and the client will only pay 14, or 13.5, and so on.

Price negotiation is a difficult part of freelancing. The fact that translation is normally priced in such small increments (words or lines) makes it even more difficult; kind of the opposite of negotiating the price of a house. For example when we moved from Boston to Colorado a number of years ago, my husband and I sold our house for about $300,000. When we were negotiating the sale price, we had to remind ourselves that these seemingly huge amounts of money ($6,000 to have the siding replaced! $500 to have a hauling company come take away old furniture!) represented only a tiny fraction of the house’s sale price. Translation works the other way around: we’re talking cents here, not thousands of dollars, so declining a project because the client won’t pay one more cent per word can leave a translator feeling like kind of a petty miser.

But here’s the thing: say that most full-time freelancers translate 400,000 or 500,000 words per year.  Let’s say 500,000 because I’m not that great at math and it’s easy to multiply by five. That seemingly petty one cent per word? If you extrapolate that over 500,000 words per year, it’s actually $5,000. Two cents? How about $10,000?

Forcing yourself to think about prices by the project rather than by the word can help you avoid caving in to the “it’s just one cent” mentality. Instead of negotiating the per-word price, how about calculating how much money you’re giving up per project, or per year? Rather than seeing your negotiations as “just a cent,” you’ll have a more realistic idea of the effect on your total income.

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