Should we care how much other translators charge?

A recent discussion on the Honyaku mailing list about low rates, and the clients who offer them and the translators who accept them, had me asking myself: should we care how much other translators charge?

I generally have no problem with what other translators want to charge, and wouldn't take kindly to other translators trying to dictate how much I should charge. If another translator can offer the same quality as me and charge less, good for them. If there are enough cheaper translators that all the demand in my segment is taken, then I need to lower my rates. Conversely, if there aren't enough translators, and clients are asking me to do more work than I can handle, then I need to raise my rates.

Market segments

Usually when a client offers a very low rate, it's because they're looking for a quality/cost trade-off outside my target market. And translators who accept these very low rates are targeting a different market from me.

  • Many clients want lousy translation at a low price. Fine, they were never in my target market.
  • Some want lousy translation at a high price (e.g. they insist on "made-in-Japan English" or style sheets crafted by someone who wouldn't know an English-language intuition if it bit them on the backside) — that's an education problem, but separate from pricing.
  • Then there are the ones who want quality, at the lowest price possible (it's always the lowest price possible, as their expectations dictate). This is my target market. And of course, this is quality as I define it, since it's my target market. I want clients who want what I consider to be a good translation. :)

The one problem for me is that if translation is available at a very low price, no matter how poor the quality, then it sets an expectation of the high end of the market in the minds of translation consumers, no matter how unrealistic.

When clients are convinced that the "high end" of the translation market is one half of my normal rate, I feel that all I can really do is send them on their way, and hope they educate themselves. Sometimes, they come back to me. In one case, a client came back after around three years.

Advice

I advise translators to find out about going rates. Finding out how much other translators are charging, and how much clients are willing to pay, will go a long way toward erasing rate disparities.

I also advise translators to leave room to grow. If all your time and energy is spent earning enough money to live, you won't improve the many skills demanded of translators (e.g. source & target language proficiency, subject knowledge, communication skills, sales, marketing, research, …), and you'll stagnate professionally. Leave some leeway to invest in your professional growth.

This might mean charging more than the bare minimum, so you can afford to work fewer hours. Or it might mean living a simpler life, so you don't need to work as many hours to support your lifestyle.

13 comments to Should we care how much other translators charge?

  • Ryan,

    As an experienced translator, have you ever managed to raise your rates working with the same client after you found out how much other translators charge and clients are ready to pay?
    My strategy now is to find those who pay more from the very outset.
    Unfortunately, I have random jobs from such clients.
    So, do you have hints how to tell the clients with whom you started working at the average rate and want to raise it?

  • @Mykhailo

    I’ve found that it’s very hard to convince existing clients to pay you higher rates. I think it’s generally accepted that the best way to raise your rates is to change clients. :)

    That said, I’ve raised rates successfully with existing clients two times that I can remember. Two other times, clients have spontaneously offered me higher rates. But that hasn’t been the norm.

  • @Ryan,

    Thank you for your advice.
    I also understand that there should be some good reason if one wants to ask for the increase of rates from the existing clients.
    There were two “jumps up” in my freelance career: I found those who pay more, I said that to those who pay less (they couldn’t pay as much, so we stopped cooperation).
    I guess it’s a practical way to raise rates.

  • Interesting perspectives on one of our favorite topics: pricing. We agree with you: we do think it’s good to know what others charge. In terms of general economics, price transparency is a good thing. The problem with lowering your prices is that there’s always be someone who does it cheaper. Ideally, our hope is that everyone will charge adequate rates for professional services, thus preventing customers from expecting a translation at 2 cents a word. We’d like to get us to the point where other professionals are: everyone in the marketplace expects that lawyers are expensive, and that’s just the way it is for professional services. In our humble opinion, by fellow linguists charging lower prices (undercutting), we are setting up a slippery slope for the profession.

    Loved your point about made-in-Japan English. Gentle client education is always a good idea, but sometimes challenging.

    We are personally located at the high end of the spectrum, and have traditionally not had trouble finding clients (present recession, a bit of a slowdown now — excluded). In general, our advice is to go high, especially if you are an established, very competent languages professional. Good question from @Mykahailo: one of the things I always talk about it in my workshops is that you really need to raise your rates every year to adjust for inflation. Every business does it, and it’s pretty much expected. We have encountered no resistance on behalf of customers — after all, it’s not an increase in real price; just an inflation adjustment, the same our customers are doing with their customers. If you don’t adjust for inflation, you are voluntarily making around 4% than last year. Now, if you were in-house (like I was), and you didn’t get your adjustment every January, you’d be upset (never happened to me). Now that most of us are both boss and employee, we need to treat ourselves nicely. :)

  • @Judy

    That’s a great point about inflation. The thing is, Japan has been in deflation for around 15 years. That trend was kind of reversing over the past couple of years, but is back strong now. So maintaining your income over this period meant that your purchasing power was continually improving. The only problem is that every time I travel back to the United States, I’m surprised at how expensive everything is. :)

  • Judy,

    Thanks for your advice.
    Though I guess it wouldn’t work in my case. I get USD and spend UAH. We’ve had several increases in prices for everything, but the USD rate rate increased as well, say from 5UAH to 7-8UAH per USD. Moreover, I am still hunting clients as I still don’t have a steady flow of jobs. Thus I should be very careful with my existing clients :)

  • Wonderful post! Yes, information about the prices on the market is important. Getting up in arms and outraged about someone who charges what we consider “too little” gets you nowhere – maybe to the hospital with an ulcer.
    I also like that people usually have the heated discussions thinking they can “educate” their colleagues by telling them they don’t charge enough. I am pretty sure most translators are aware how they rank on the price chart for translations and most set their prices relative to their ability, quality and services offered.

  • Ulrike Walter-Lipow

    Mykhailo,
    I have been raising rates with my existing clients for years – prices go up everywhere, for everything, and people are used to it. I tell people that due to the increase in living expenses and/or the changes in the exchange rate it is necessary for my to raise my rates. Done. Sometimes I point out for how long they have enjoyed the same rate with me, while most of their other expenses have likely increased, sometimes I don’t. The point is: I charge the rates that I need to provide quality translations and to make a living at the level I want to. If someone does not want to pay those rates, that someone will have to find another translator. It has happened, but over the years, many clients have accepted price increases from me just as they have accepted the prices for milk and gas going up…

    Best,
    Ulrike

  • Ulrike Walter-Lipow,

    Thanks for your advice. I’ll definitely follow it when I have the steady flow of jobs.
    Now all I can do is to indicate the increased rate when asked by new outsourcers.
    As I see some of them prefer to look for somebody more suitable in terms of money or qualifications.

    Best wishes,
    Mykhailo

  • Thanks to everyone for the interesting discussion.
    I have also found this approach productive: find a good customer, establish a reputation with them by offering high quality at a reasonable price, identify your customer’s hidden needs and sources of vexation (involves a bit of research) and adapt your services accordingly, make yourself an indispensable part of their business, and negotiate an increase in the rate. I have repeatedly applied this to several customers, each caving in and giving me an average 20% first increase.
    And I do agree that higher rates give you more time to improve yourself. So even if initially you work shorter hours, eventually you end up earning more.

  • Highly informative post and discussion. Thanks. I have always believed in the philosophy “Live and Let Live” and never bothered about how low other translators were charging. One has to believe in the quality of one’s work and charge accordingly. And yes “inflation” is a very potent reason for convincing clients to pay higher rates.

  • Well, maybe qualified translators should unite to let the world know that using lousy translations can cost you your business abroad, as indicated by the EU report
    http://www.articlesbase.com/international-business-articles/the-steep-hidden-costs-of-free-translations-2909135.html

  • […] Ryan says: I generally have no problem with what other translators want to charge, and wouldn’t take kindly to other translators trying to dictate how much I should charge. If another translator can offer the same quality as me and charge less, good for them. If there are enough cheaper translators that all the demand in my segment is taken, then I need to lower my rates. Conversely, if there aren’t enough translators, and clients are asking me to do more work than I can handle, then I need to raise my rates. […]

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