23 April 2013

Rates and productivity

I promise I will stop talking about freelance translation in business terms some time soon... but I really feel compelled to write about just one more thing: productivity.

Productivity is of course crucial for any business, but it is somewhat obscure and underrated in an activity where pricing takes the form of cents per word. Particularly as I started out, I took these things at face value: a job that paid me 10 cents per word was better than one that paid 5 cents per word, say. Now I know better.

Well, obviously a job that pays 10 cents per word is better than one that pays 5 cents per word ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL. But real life hardly ever works like that. In fact, other things are usually very far from equal, and it is precisely those different details that tell you exactly which is the better job.

We all have to quote our rates in dollars or euros per word, since that is how the system works. However, in order to determine our particular rates or decide whether a particular job is well paid or not we need to do a lot of thinking of our own, with the specific job in mind.

How many words of that text can we translate per hour? How demanding, tiring or otherwise the particular translation will be? How long a break will we need by the end of it??? And, of course, what is the going rate for that project? These are just some of the questions we need to ask ourselves.

With a very easy text in my top language pairs I can translate about 1,000 words per hour. At 0.05 dollars per word that is 50 dollars per hour. In my weaker language pairs and with more difficult material I will not translate much more than 500 words per hour, so I will need 0.10 dollars per word to make 50 dollars per hour. I'll need a long break at the end, and if anything goes even mildly wrong I may have to burn some midnight oil.

When you make pricing decisions, be it by setting your own rate or accepting that imposed by potential clients, you need to take this whole process into account. It is not about how much you are charging your client but about how much you are earning yourself, and that is all about your own productivity for the job in question.

I have one client that I highly value. I would actually go as far as to say say they are one of my best clients, even though they only pay 0.05 dollars per word for regular assignments. Now that rate is obviously not one reason why I value them as a client, and in fact most of my other clients pay me at least double that. However, this particular client guarantees around 70,000 words per year of translation work, which is at least 3,500 dollars (they occasionally pay higher rates for more difficult texts).

With this client, I don't have to worry about tight deadlines, late nights or anything like that: they have mostly small projects to take or leave on the spur of the moment which do not compete at all with anything else I may have to do. Assignments are usually incredibly easy, and therefore quick. My productivity with them is extremely high. And I wouldn't dream of bidding on a project I don't feel like doing. To my mind, this particular client is basically paying me 3,500 dollars per year for effortless translation. So yes, I like them.

I have also done plenty of jobs for much higher rates that I have had to slog over. There is no question in my opinion as to which is the better job. I usually take both kinds, since they are not in direct competition with each other and since, well, more money is generally better than less. But this situation is a good case in point.

Productivity also provides a crucial way to increase your earnings as a freelance translator. You should certainly increase your nominal rates as far as you possibly can: you are providing a service and your clients should expect to pay what it is worth.

However, you should also aim to increase your productivity, to increase that crucial output per hour and with it your real rate for any nominal rate. You can do that among other things by finetuning your portfolio and specializing in the language pairs and the fields of expertise that your are really best at. You can do other types of work too, but since the client just wants to get back a good translation and does not really care how long it took you to do it, you will need to bear the cost of that.

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