Freelance Finance: Setting Rates

Here at The Savvy Newcomer we understand that it can be intimidating to talk about money. It’s often a sticky subject, but we feel it couldn’t be more important to address as small business owners. One major component of succeeding as a freelance translator or interpreter is managing your finances well. If you don’t master your money, your translation career won’t be profitable or sustainable. This series on money matters is intended to get right to the heart of some of our biggest questions about freelance finances; we won’t shy away from the tough questions and we invite you to dive into these topics along with us.

Rates. There, we said it! Any conversation about freelance finances would be remiss not to mention the R-word; one of the biggest questions burning in the mind of every aspiring translator or interpreter is “What should I charge for my services?” Let us start with a little secret: there’s no right or wrong answer to this question.

A variety of factors, from your living situation, to your geographic location, to your level of experience, to your specialization, should all play a role in determining your rates. A one-size-fits-all response to this question wouldn‘t be fair; that’s part of why it’s tough to get a straight answer from practicing translators and interpreters to this type of inquiry! Another reason practitioners are hesitant to share their rates is because when a group of competing service providers agrees to charge a certain rate for their services it’s considered price fixing, which results in an unfair profit to sellers and increased cost to buyers.

So how does a newcomer to this profession go about deciding what to charge?

  1. Look at your own data.

A one-size-fits-all approach to translation and interpreting pricing just doesn’t work. Here’s why: everyone is different! Some key personal metrics to consider as you seek to set prices for your work include:

– How fast you translate

– How fast you type

– What business expenses you need to cover (don’t forget taxes!)

– What languages you work in

– Where you live

– What type of services you offer

– What specializations/settings you work in

– How much experience you have as a translator or interpreter

– How many hours a week you’d like to work

– How much vacation time you want to take each year

– How much money you need to live on

This may seem like a lot of factors to take into account; consider taking some time to determine actual figures for the items above that apply to your situation. Anytime you can have a concrete number in mind instead of a range or a guess, you’ll not only be more likely to stay firm on those numbers, but you’ll also feel better about your prospects since you know exactly where your goals are set.

Besides, I have some great news: once you’ve established the numbers above, there’s an incredible tool that a team of volunteers from the Spanish Translators, Copyeditors, and Interpreters Association (ASETRAD) developed to help calculate what you actually need to charge in order to make your business profitable! Calpro is a spreadsheet designed to be adapted to the individual situation of each translator or interpreter. The U.S. version of the spreadsheet includes suggested numbers that may be adjusted for your needs and can be downloaded by clicking here.

  1. Look online.

Another place to look in your pursuit for answers is the resource of all resources: the internet. By visiting the websites of both freelancers and language services agencies you can see how translators and interpreters discuss rates publicly, and this will give you a better idea of what your conversations about rates should look like. Many industry stakeholders choose not to publish their rates, but some do list pricing online—especially if they feel this will offer a competitive advantage. Some agencies’ rates are public due to their involvement with government agencies or GSA schedule listing. When a translation agency makes their pricing public, remember that the rate they are charging their customer will not necessarily represent what the subcontractor or translator will be paid; the agency needs to pay an editor and possibly other subcontractors, may include a project management fee, and will of course keep a margin of the funds to pay their employees and cover overhead.

As you peruse information about translation and interpretation pricing online, you’ll notice that not everyone uses the same units of measurement to charge their clients. Some translators charge per hour, while others charge per word, character, page, or line, and yet others prefer a flat fee per project. Interpreters may charge by the day, half-day, hour, or even minute depending on the type of work. There’s no right way to charge your clients, but you’ll start to see patterns and will want to consider the pros and cons based on the types of clients you work for and your language pair.

When you start to find information on what some of your colleagues are charging, it’s important to remember that pricing can differ across language pairs and specializations. Data from the ATA Translation and Interpreting Services Survey[1] (based on information from 2014) and the ProZ.com average rate survey, for instance, suggests that certain language pairs command a higher rate than others, and specializing in certain areas may bring in better pricing. However, keep in mind that even if two translators use the same unit of measure, such as a per-word rate, their translation speed may differ greatly based on their specialization and level of experience, so they may wind up making the same amount of money per hour or per day. Also note the dates of any pricing you may see online, since rates can increase or decrease over time based on inflation, demand, and implementation of technology in the market.

  1. Look to clients.

If you’ve pursued the two sources of rate information above and are at a standstill on what to charge a translation or interpreting client, there’s always the option of asking the client what their budget is for your services. Some negotiators suggest that this may even result in higher rates than you would set for yourself, since many people tend to underestimate their value or aim low in setting prices. If you can get to the client’s bottom line right away, it could help to ensure that both you and the client are comfortable with the rate that’s agreed on. Be aware that clients may offer a rate lower than what you were expecting, however, and be prepared to negotiate or stay firm on your minimum rate. Since rates with language services agencies can be difficult to adjust, make sure you aren’t locking yourself into a rate you’re not happy with. It can be hard for agencies to increase your rates over time since they aim to make a certain margin off their own pricing and can’t always raise rates with their clients when you need to raise them with yours. Make sure that whatever price you agree on will comfortably allow you to work with the client at a rate that’s agreeable to both parties.

A word to the wise: be cautious about raising or lowering rates in unique circumstances (for example, during a pandemic). Lowering rates without giving a specific and justifiable reason why may set a precedent for offering the lower rate in the future. Raising your rates can cause your client to think you’re unhappy working with them at your current rate. As in many things, communication is key; talk to your clients, talk to your colleagues, and be honest with yourself about what rate will ensure your work is sustainable, profitable, and rewarding.

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Readers, have you found this information helpful as you set about establishing rates for your translation or interpreting services? Have we answered some of your questions and made the conversation about rates just a little bit less awkward?

We hope you’ll find these resources helpful and continue to engage with us about Freelance Finance. Leave a comment below on any topics you’d like to hear more about!

[1] The most recent report on the results of ATA’s compensation survey is available to ATA members by logging into the Members Only area of ATA’s webpage.

Pursuing the Translation Dream: Promoter of the Profession

 

Since we last visited ATA’s Self-Evaluation Questionnaire for Translators we hope you’ve had a chance to practice the items we discussed in section 4, “Professional Demeanor.” It can be a challenge to develop a professional mindset and apply it to all your business interactions, but we’re confident that you’ve done so skillfully.

Now that you’ve mastered what to know before the phone rings, what to know after the phone rings, how to keep the phone ringing, and developing a professional demeanor, we’re ready to move on to the fifth and final installment of this series on how to achieve a successful professional career in translation. Today we’ll explore the steps to becoming a “Promoter of the Profession,” not only to gain respect from your peers and colleagues, but also more appreciation for your career from your friends, family, and acquaintances. We hope this prompts you to become a more active proponent and spokesperson for the translation and interpreting professions in your everyday life.

In conversation, whenever appropriate, do I bring up the words “translation,” “translator,” and “interpreter” in order to further the public’s awareness of the profession and its significance?

Mentioning what you do is a signal that you like it and you’re proud of it. Anytime I meet people who don’t like to talk about their jobs outside their workplace, it’s a sure sign to me that they don’t enjoy what they do! Talking about translation and/or interpreting with your personal and professional networks sends a message that you’re invested in your career and enjoy it for reasons other than simply the financial gains it may bring.

When you do discuss translation and interpreting with friends and family, try to be aware of any misunderstandings they may have about your profession. You may be the only translator they know! Make sure to listen carefully to how they ask or talk about your job in order to gently correct any myths they may have adopted about this profession. (For example, friends may assume you translate in both directions, that you speak lots of different languages, or that you only work in hospital settings when they hear “I’m a translator.”) Try not to diminish what you do in an effort to be modest; if you’re genuinely proud of your job, don’t downplay it! Don’t be afraid of admitting you’re fluent in another language and that you earn a good living doing what you do. It can be tempting to modulate your conversations with false humility, saying you’re “just” a translator or even choosing to refer to yourself as a “freelancer” instead of a “small business owner.” These small changes in the way we talk about our work can make a big difference in how people perceive us.

Would I consider doing outreach work for the profession by talking to high schools, participating in college career days, submitting articles about the translation field to general interest publications, writing letters to the editor, speaking at business community networking meetings, or informing new translators about professional associations and conferences, etc.?

One very meaningful way to promote the translation and interpreting professions is by talking to future generations about the importance of the work we do. ATA has an entire School Outreach team to encourage linguists to do this very activity! Teaching others about the work of translators and interpreters is a great way to both inform the public about the professions and also learn more about it yourself. By researching and preparing for these events and publications you may learn things you didn’t know and make connections you wouldn’t otherwise have made. Promoting the profession through outreach can be as simple as visiting your child’s classroom on Career Day or writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper to share an interesting update about your profession. Whatever platform you may have to share information with others, consider it an opportunity to broadcast the fact that translators and interpreters play a crucial role in many of the everyday products and processes we take for granted.

Here’s a challenge for you: next time you are given a platform to share information with a group of people, try to mention your work in the fields of translation and interpreting. Slip in the fact that you speak multiple languages. See how many people come up to you later and want to know more! Perhaps this will even present more opportunities to share with a broader network of people or allow you to make connections that could benefit your business.

Am I interested in serving as an active volunteer or officer of a professional translator or interpreter organization?

Volunteers power our organizations! To volunteer in a professional association means to contribute your time and effort without pay; it can be a thankless job but it has the potential to benefit all your fellow translators and interpreters, not to mention the generations of professionals who will come after you. Involvement in professional organizations can come in many forms; within ATA alone there are volunteers who coordinate the Mentoring Program, School Outreach Contest, divisions, committees, certification program, and much more. If you’re interested in getting involved but don’t know where to start, see this ATA Chronicle article for some ideas.

Contributing time and energy as a volunteer can send some very powerful messages about you as a promoter of the profession; it tells onlookers that you care about your profession. Dedicating time to furthering the mission of translators and interpreters shows that you are committed to this career. Joining forces with fellow professionals says you’re a team player and that you collaborate and cooperate well with others. What do your current volunteer activities say about you?

Do I continue to be alert to what it is I do not yet know?

Part of being an advocate for the translation and interpreting profession is realizing you’ll never know all there is to know about it. As a promoter of the profession, you’re constantly on the lookout for new developments and changes that impact your work, and you use these updates as an opportunity to broaden your horizons and spread the word about your profession to new outlets. This may take the form of attending conferences, following newsletters and blogs, or just staying in touch with fellow professionals.

Do I enjoy the translation business?

People who don’t like what they do prefer not to talk about work. But if you love your job as a translator or interpreter, you’ll be bursting to share what you do with everyone around you! Focus on the aspects of your job that you enjoy; make a list if you have to, and be sure to share these perks with the people around you as you promote the profession and, as a result, promote translation and interpreting professionals everywhere.

Thank you for joining us for this journey in pursuing the translation dream; we hope it’s landed you closer to achieving your goals and helped you find success!

Emails asking for translation or interpreting rates: Here’s how I respond

I often get requests for my rates from organizations that are trying to build a database of individual translation or interpreting service providers. An individual provider is a person who does their own work, also known as an interpreter or translator. Keep in mind that prime contractors (large language companies) can’t provide services without a sufficient number of subcontractors (individual translation and interpreting providers). We as the practitioners have a responsibility to steer this conversation.

The prime contractors often start with questions about rates, and their emails go something like this:

“I found your name on the website for Professional Association X. Are you interested in translating or interpreting for us?”

Note that there is no personalization. Nothing about your specific profile that stood out, nothing personal. They aren’t trying to build a business relationship with you; they just want data.

“If so, what rate do you charge by the [insert very small unit here]? Are you certified in [insert specific certification here]? Do you have any experience with [insert specific service]?

Sincerely, Person X”

At the end of these emails you’ll often see phone numbers listed in more than one city. So you know for sure that if you call, you won’t get Person X on the line! So how do I respond?

“Yes, I would be thrilled to translate and interpret for you! I charge by the [usual large unit, minimum number of units]. I am certified in [list all my certifications, not just the one they asked for]. I have experience in [providing specific service]. As a matter of fact, I have been doing that since [year], and my clients preschedule my services at the rates mentioned above.

For more information, please check me out at [LinkedIn, my website, etc.]”

This way, when someone contacts me back, I get to continue the conversation on my own terms. I make the next move and set the terms of the discussion. I own the story about my profession and get to answer the questions I wish they had asked instead of the ones they did ask.

Next time you get an impersonal client email that seems to be fishing only for numbers and data to add to a database, try this technique! Professionals set their own terms and set rates that work for them.

Connecting with translation and interpreting clients during a pandemic

COVID-19 has changed the way we connect. For public health reasons, networking events are no longer taking place in person. Since February 2020, people around the world have been recasting their connections. What used to be in person is now done remotely if possible.

What are we noticing?

I have been attending meetings with my local Chamber of Commerce, which has done quite a few things:

  • They switched their weekly live event (usually over 50 attendees every Friday) to a Zoom session every week.
  • They set up three trainings a week, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, for Chamber members to learn how to switch their business models to survive the new circumstances.
  • They moved as many networking meetings as possible to Zoom sessions, with the same schedule they had before.
  • They invited the Mayor for a Town Hall in English and another one in Spanish.
  • They are keeping members abreast of all developments, and set up tip jars, resources for starting up, and an amazing support service.

What have I learned through these sessions over the last three months?

  1. Be there. Show up and be involved with your community, no matter how your group meets. Yes, we are anxious to have coffee together, but can have at least this connection with some precautions.
  2. Go through your old, discarded list of contacts. As you look at it, you will remember some of the conversations you didn’t have the time to follow up on. Now is the time. Those people remember you too. Just send a couple of emails a week and see how it goes. Personally, I took all the cards I had collected and dropped them into an Access database. I am contacting a few of the people in that database a week.
  3. Take a few online trainings. Personally, I need at least 30 minutes between one online session and the next because meeting online is more intense than meeting face to face. I take those 30 minutes to take a couple of notes, maybe send a quick email, even stretch or have a cup of coffee. I like to start each session somewhat fresh.

How to participate in online events:

  • Focus on the content.
  • Participate in the chat. Then, select all the text in the chat (control-a), and copy it into a Word document so you can follow up on whatever you want to keep track on.
  • Keep in mind that in the chat you can send private messages. It is like passing secret notes in class and it is a lot of fun!
  • You are on candid camera, so pay attention to how you look. You are now part of the gallery show. You can, of course, turn your camera off or choose speaker view. Keep in mind that if you choose speaker view, the rest of the world can still see you so picking your nose is still a no-no! By the way, artificial backgrounds make your head look strange when you move at all.
  • In the chat, at least in the case of the Chamber of Commerce, the first thing we all do is write our name and email address so folks can get in touch with us later. Every online session is a networking session. That is how we collect cards today. Go for it! Add your phone and a short blurb about yourself. For example: Peter Pan, peterpan@youthful.com, keeping the world happy. Now we know who Peter Pan is, how to reach him, and what he does! Just remember, nobody likes an essay in that section…

There is a dizzying amount of online conferences, online networking sessions… Take advantage of a few of them. However, don’t forget to pick up the phone and call a friend, send a card to a client, call someone to ask how they are doing, write an email to your contacts and tell them how you are coping. Today, being human is expected. All calls start with “How are you doing?” and people actually want to know.

What do I want to keep from this era?

  • The flexibility in extending deadlines when my internet crashed, and everything took longer because of COVID. Nobody broke a sweat.
  • How nice everyone is, since everyone starts phone calls by asking how we are doing. I like being treated as a human being.
  • FaceTime stories with my two-year-old grandson every day! That lightens up my day.
  • The sense that we are in this together. The whole community is acting that way in so many ways. When one person is successful, the whole Chamber rejoices. When one interpreter gets quarantined because they were with someone who got COVID-19, everyone is sad. There is a huge sense of community.
  • The respect for people who are ill. “No, stay home, please.” It used to be, “Well, can’t you go interpret anyway?” (and probably catch whatever bug is floating around with a weakened immune system if you are not well, to add insult to injury.) Now, if only some interpreters didn’t have to pay a penalty for missing appointments… I would be even happier.

So, stay well. Take care of business every day. Remember, taking care of business includes:

  • Taking care of yourself. You are your most important asset. Never skip this.
  • Doing paid work, if that is on your schedule for the day.
  • Contacting sources of work. Always save some time for this!
  • Doing other things that will set you up to be a stronger professional. This should always be on your weekly schedule.

By the way, some say we will be interpreting remotely for the long haul and that remote meetings are the norm for the rest of our lives. As I interact with my neighbors at the Chamber, I am not so sure. We are tired of Zoom. We want to connect in person. We celebrate every meeting that moves from Zoom to in-person!

How we stay in touch might change based on the circumstances. We are still people and work with people we know, like and trust.

Stay connected. Be human.

Public Outreach Presentations: Change Perceptions Outside our Industry

This past fall, Veronika Demichelis and I had the opportunity to speak about translation and interpreting at Rice University. My hope is that in sharing our experience, you will be encouraged to seek out or accept similar opportunities. It’s important to bring greater awareness to the general public about our industry and to educate potential buyers of translation and interpreting services. We each have a role to play in that.

The opportunity

Located in one of the most diverse cities in the country (Houston), Rice University offers a class called Multilingualism. Rice linguistics professor Dr. Michel Achard teaches this course and approached Veronika about presenting to his students because of her volunteer efforts with the Houston Interpreters and Translators Association, where she serves as VP of Professional Development. Since our experience attending the Offshore Technology Conference together last May had gone so well (read about that here), she invited me to join her for this presentation. This was especially exciting for me because not only would we be presenting at my alma mater, but most of these students were majoring in Cognitive Science, which was one of my two majors. What a small world!

This course was focused on the challenges faced by governments and society as a result of multilingualism. Veronika and I were asked to discuss how translators and interpreters solve some of these problems. Additionally, we saw the students as possible future buyers of translation and interpreting services and felt the presentation could have a real impact in whatever fields they will later choose to dedicate themselves to. It’s always good to have allies.

Preparing the presentation

Have you ever attended a lecture/presentation/conference session and left disappointed because the presenter hadn’t spent enough time preparing or didn’t have you in mind while preparing? How about when the presenter shows up with a few points written on a napkin? Ack!

Here are a few tips to consider when preparing your public outreach presentation:

  1. Get to know the audience and think about how our industry can solve some of their headaches.
  2. Spend time both brainstorming and whittling down your list of topics so that you can focus on quality and not quantity. A good presentation takes time to prepare.
  3. Avoid writing your full script on your PowerPoint slides whenever possible.
  4. Consider using information from the ATA’s Client Outreach Kit (read here for more information).
  5. Practice your presentation beforehand.
  6. Ask questions of your audience and be receptive to audience questions.

We wanted to ensure everyone would walk away feeling like their time was well-spent. Before the day of the presentation, we chatted with Dr. Achard for an hour on Zoom and were able to get a deeper understanding of his class, his students, and his goals for our presentation, as well as learn about some topics he was interested in us exploring.

Objectives

Dr. Achard wanted us to introduce the students to the fields of translation and interpreting. Additionally, he hoped that our presentation would give the students some ideas for the research project they were going to carry out later in the semester. Knowing his goals helped us immensely.

We talked with the students about how translation differs from interpreting and we discussed the variety of different environments translators and interpreters work in; the different types of assignments that translators and interpreters are asked to work on; and the skills, education, and tools translators and interpreters use to perform their jobs successfully.

Our hope was that when multilingual issues come up for these students in the future, they will know how to and why they should find professional translators and interpreters to help them.

In line with Dr. Achard’s objectives, we discussed with the students how interpreters and translators can solve some of the challenges found in societies where residents speak many different languages. The two of us were able to give several impactful examples of challenges that hospital administrators, medical professionals, and non-English-speaking patients face every day in Houston. The students also learned about some of the difficulties LEPs face in the legal system and that courts face in dealing with the wide variety of languages found in Houston. I also spoke about some legislation that a local Texas representative had drafted last year that would have reduced the passing score required to become a Licensed Court Interpreter in Texas. ATA, HITA, TAJIT, and others opposed this legislation and worked to successfully defeat it.

Conclusion

Veronika and I enjoyed the chance to educate these college students about our careers. The students asked several great questions and walked away with a new perspective on some important issues. Veronika and I are hoping that we can leverage the hard work we put into preparing this presentation and use it to do more public outreach in Houston. We do not want this to be a “one and done” effort.

I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Rice students so much that I decided to sign up as a volunteer associate at my former residential college. The Linguistics Department also recently invited me to join an Alumni Panel. What unexpected outcomes!

While we don’t know whether any of the students left our session inspired to become translators or interpreters, the truth is that I was inspired to turn my dream into a reality after attending a similar outreach presentation in Tokyo while I was wrapping up my time working on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme.

You just never know how much you can impact others and I encourage you to get involved in sharing our profession with your community. This brings greater awareness to our industry, helps prospective clients know what to look for when hiring language professionals, and is an interesting way to network and learn.

Author bio

Jessica Hartstein is an ATA-Certified Translator (Spanish>English, French>English) and a Texas Master Licensed Court Interpreter (Spanish-English). She holds an MA in Conference Interpreting and Translation Studies from the University of Leeds and graduated Cum Laude with a BA from Rice University.

Prior to working freelance, she held full-time, in-house translation positions at a marketing firm in Luxembourg and an oil and gas engineering company in Houston. Jessica specializes in legal, medical, asylum, and oil and gas translation and interpreting projects. She has been fortunate to have lived abroad in Spain, China, Japan, England, and Luxembourg.