No bed of roses on the bottom: the problems with low rates

A lot of translators charge lower rates than they could otherwise get, especially when they're starting out. There are a few possible reasons for this; here are a couple.

  1. Lack of knowledge about the market
  2. Desire to get more work
  3. Desire to avoid haggling
  4. Lack of confidence

Lack of knowledge about the market

Information isn't evenly distributed in the translation market. This is one of the reasons why translation agencies thrive: they spend a lot of time figuring out how much clients are willing to pay for translation, and how much translators are willing to work for.

Finding out how much clients will pay is a lot of work, and as a freelancer I'm generally happy to leave this legwork to the agencies. But without a little knowledge of what translation buyers are paying, and what other translators are charging, it's easy to get short changed. That's why I recommend finding this out. Translation conferences like IJET are a great way to do this.

Desire to get more work

Especially when you're starting out, it's tempting to set your rates low in order to get more work. As Corinne says in the Thoughts on Translation blog , this is a typical beginner's mistake. While it's fine to set your rates a bit low until you get a decent amount of work, and gradually raise them after, setting your rates very low in an attempt to get work quickly usually backfires.

As the About Translation blog points out, low rates lead to quality problems, and worse yet, give you a reputation as a low-quality translator. We have a term for this in the industry — "bottom feeder" — and there's a reason why the term isn't flattering.

Desire to avoid haggling

Translators generally aren't the most assertive people on the planet. If our idea of a good time was pressing the flesh and making the big sale, we'd probably go nuts cooped up in an office with a compiler manual for company. A lot of translators thus want to avoid haggling over rates in order to avoid conflict, and so they set their rates a bit lower than where they perceive the "market" rate to be. Believe me, I get this.

The problem is, no matter how low you go, they'll always want you to go lower. Price in a large way sets expectations of quality. Studies have shown that when people are given blind taste tests of wine, they report enjoying the wine more when told that it costs more — and brain scans even show greater activation of their pleasure centers when drinking "more expensive" wine.

This means that when you set your rates low, you're creating an expectation of poor quality. The client then figures that since you're delivering lousy quality, they might as well get it cheaply.

Take for example this tale of woe on the forums. The original poster related that despite charging a depressingly low 1.5 euro-cents per word for book translation, her client was demanding still lower rates. When you make low rates your selling point, clients are going to pressure you to lower your rates no matter how low you go.

Lack of confidence

Translators also might set their rates lower because they're not confident of being good enough. Although you might think your translations aren't the best, when you set your rates low you're telling this to your clients. I say do your best, and let the clients decide whether the quality is good enough. And as About Translation mentions in the linked post, setting low rates will actually prevent you from getting better, since you'll be swamped with sweatshop work and won't have time to improve your skills.


Translators set low rates for many different reasons, most of them misguided. What a lot of them fail to realize is that under-selling themselves actually sends the message to clients that their quality is poor, and creates a vicious cycle that prevents them from getting out of the low-rate ghetto.

Finally, while the cost of living varies greatly depending on where and how you live, I strongly believe in earning a living wage. I sometimes get offers from India to subcontract my translation work for 1 cent per word. I always refuse for many reasons, but two of them are because I don't believe that would be a living wage even in India, and because I'm extremely suspicious of why a good translator would offer to work so cheaply, when they can earn much more working directly for agencies or end clients.

3 comments to No bed of roses on the bottom: the problems with low rates

  • Great post, Ryan! You offer some great insights into the translator’s mindset. I agree with you completely about how much most of us hate haggling; another one of my translator friends recently said “I’m not a Moroccan spice market.” Whereas a good salesperson will say that their job starts when the customer says “No,” I immediately end the conversation or e-mail exchange when the client seems put off by how much I charge. But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: cutting your rates is a losing battle because they will never be low enough for some clients. So why not aim for the top; aren’t you worth it??

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  • Thanks for this great post!
    I can add the following piece of advice for beginners.
    Wnen you quote for a job, state your rate in the beginning of your email. After that, start describing in details all the advantages the customer will get if the job is assigned to you.
    If you do it vice versa (first advantages and then the rate), the rate will be in the strong position of your email, which will make it more significant than your skills, background, experience, and quality of your work. Moreover, the rate in the end is a “cold blanket” for the customer. 🙂

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