19 October 2014

Pricing mysteries in translation: Anecdotes on rates and value

When I started out as a freelance translator, I had little idea about how to price my own work. My research eventually gave me an indication of how much some translators in some markets charged per word, but it still left me wondering how much I could quote myself, as a beginner with no clients, little knowledge of the market and no name in the industry. And yet ignorance is only valid as an excuse for a short time, and any freelancer who is serious about their career should do their homework and increase their rates to whatever their work is worth. I did that, or tried to.

I have learned a lot over the past two years, about rates and about a lot of other things. However, I have had a few interesting experiences on pricing in recent months that show the learning process is ongoing. Other people may perhaps benefit from those experiences too, so allow me to share them.

1 - I got an email from a potential client. The job seemed to be perfect for me, and the client appeared to agree: they found me, after all. It was a direct client, but they found me through ProZ.com, so I felt shy about quoting too high. They obviously knew about the bulk market and all that, and it was a nice project after all, so I quoted them my high agency rate rather than give them a direct-client quote. Their reply was plain embarrassing for me: they paid all their freelancers a figure that was about 40 per cent higher than my quote!!! They were nice enough to say it, and to pay me that higher rate too. However, it was not all good: I got to feel like a rookie. Still, I learned a valuable lesson about the value of my own work.

2 - I got an email from a potential client. It was a large corporate client, and someone at the company had referred them to me for my translation services. I knew I would need to do a good job, and I knew I would need to invest in proofreading. Beyond that, however, I realised that I was no longer just a freelance translator and was acting as a translation business instead. I quoted high, far above the rate I would quote any agency. However, that presented no problem: the client accepted my price, and I delivered work to compete with that of any translation agency. There was no reason to get paid less than them!

3 - I do some work for one of those translation marketplace websites. The website has a standard, cheap rate and an "expert" rate, and I like the fact that I can pick and choose jobs. Through them, I had a client I liked, with interesting texts paid at the "expert" rate, and they apparently liked me too: I was their designated translator for those jobs. Then, one day, a few months into this peculiar partnership, I started being offered those jobs at the standard rate. I must have taken one or two until I realised! However, when I realised, I wrote polite messages to both my anonymous client and the translation marketplace website: I did not feel comfortable suddenly doing the same work for almost half the money; I understood that the client would want to see if they could spend less, so I wished them good luck in the search; if they actually found that the end result for almost half the money was not up to standard, I would be more than happy to resume collaboration at the expert rate. Three weeks went by in which I continued to be offered the jobs, and refrained from taking them on. After three weeks, lo and behold, the client had cash to spare! Either that or they had realised that what they got for the standard rate was not actually up to standard at all. Their jobs were back at the "expert" rate, so they got back their expert, preferred translator - me.

I think these experiences show that rates are much less of a given than beginning translators usually realise. It is not true that no one out there is prepared to pay double-digit rates. It is also not true that clients do not notice the difference between poor work and reasonable work, and even between reasonable work and outstanding work. Finding the right clients and standing one's ground is important, but what is really crucial is to become aware of the value of one's own work.

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