Maximizing your income as a translator

The common wisdom for earning more money as a translator is to raise your rates. Since existing clients usually balk at paying more to the same translator, even if they are worth it (weird psychological barrier), the idea is that you constantly look for better-paying clients, dumping the cheapest ones as you go.

On the face of it, this sounds like good advice. But I've found that it isn't really the case.

Maximize throughput, not rates

In my experience throughput has much more influence over income than rates. Let's take two hypothetical rates: 20 cents/word, and 10 cents/word.

Client A pays me 20 cents/word. They send me a blurry fax, with lots of hand-written corrections, a glossary as a hard copy, and several dozen pages of "reference" translations (also hard copy). The work is just at the edge of my expertise, so while I can do it, I need to do a lot of googling and dictionary work.

Between squinting over the blurry fax, deciphering scribbled Japanese handwriting, thumbing through hard copies of glossaries and reference translations, and doing Internet searches, I can only manage about a page and a half an hour. Even so, after 8 hours I'm exhausted.

My hourly rate: 1.5 pages = 300 words x 20 cents = $60.00

Client B pays me 10 cents/word. They send me the original as a Word document. I've done lots of similar work for them in the past, so I can leverage my translation memories. They send me a glossary as an Excel file, which I can import directly into my translation memory. I am very familiar with the field, and need to do little or no googling or dictionary work.

I can do the translation almost as fast as I can type. Even so, at the end of the day I'm still fresh. My output is about four pages an hour.

My hourly rate: 4 pages = 800 words x 10 cents = $80.00

So in this scenario, it would actually be more profitable for me to work at the lower rate. The scenario may seem far fetched, but I've seen it time and time again. My own rates don't vary quite so much, but my output can vary by a factor of three, with my output tending to the higher side for my lower-paying clients.

Another problem is client quality. Good clients are hard to find. If I've built up a good relationship with a client over several years, I think it would be rash to dump them for an unknown entity because they pay 20% more. Higher-paying clients also tend to be more demanding.

So rather than focusing exclusively on higher paying clients, I try to maximize my throughput. I've found it to be much more effective at increasing my income.

Working faster improves quality

Choosing jobs that I can do the most quickly has the additional benefit of improving the quality of my translations. That might seem odd at first — you'd think that working faster would mean poorer quality. But that only holds for the same job. If a job should have taken 10 hours, but you rushed and did it in 8, the quality is likely to suffer.

But the amount of time it takes varies greatly from job to job. When you can work faster because you don't need to look things up, it means you know the field better, and are likely to put out a better translation. When you don't need to spend time squinting at blurry faxes and scribbled handwriting, you have more mental energy to focus on the big picture. When you're working with an electronic document and translation memory, your translations are more consistent and you're less likely to omit entire sentences/paragraphs.

So while I do like to earn higher rates (I wonder if part of that isn't an ego thing, though), and I do take on work from new clients, my focus in finding new clients is finding work I'm better at, can do faster, and enjoy more. This way everybody's happy: me because I earn more money and enjoy my work more, and my clients because I do a better job and have better turnaround times.

5 comments to Maximizing your income as a translator

  • There’s no question that rates and ego go together. For that matter, I’ve had a client that sent me extremely challenging work that I was proud to do. I felt like it was a feather in my cap that I could keep this client at all. So my ego was tied up in the work itself. The fact that I learned a lot with every job, and got paid well on a per-word basis helped, but in terms of income per unit time, the work was completely unjustifiable.

    While the point about total income per unit time is well-made, there’s no correlation between rate per word and quality of the work or client.

  • “While the point about total income per unit time is well-made, there’s no correlation between rate per word and quality of the work or client.”

    I agree that a translator is going to put out her top quality no matter what her rate is. Although I’d say that her rates are an indirect indicator of the quality of her work.

  • Sorry, that was vague. When I said “quality of the work” I meant the quality of the incoming job, that is, legibility, client PITA factor, that sort of thing. Not the quality of the translation.

  • >I meant the quality of the incoming job

    Ah, I see. Thanks for clearing that up.

    My own experience has been that my highest-paying clients have been the most demanding. Actually second-most — the very lowest-paying clients I’ve had were actually the most demanding, but we soon parted ways 🙂

    But of course, I’ve only worked with a small fraction of the clients out there, so I can’t really generalize. Thanks for pointing that out.

    As for offering electronic (or even legible) documents, good glossaries, etc., that seems to vary on a different axis. Some clients “get it,” some don’t. That’s why I wrote that once you get a good client, you should hang onto them, even if they pay a little less than that fresh new prospect…

  • At first, in our translation company, when few customers were easy, but in the meantime should collaborate with as many translators to meet deadlines and to satisfy as many customers. Several clients – more money – more recognition of the quality of translations.

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