Posted by: Steve Vitek | July 30, 2012

Some Thoughts On What Is Referred To As Declining Rates Being Paid to Translators

There are several reasons why people are talking about what is referred to as lower or declining rates. One of them is the never-ending recession. Since the bubble burst in 2007, business has been slow in many sectors of the economy and translation industry must have been logically affected as well.

Then there is a plethora of other sinister developments that translators fear have been and will continue to exert downward pressure on rates:

1. Machine translation, which is supposedly replacing human translators and soon will turn most human translators into mere “post-editors of MT”, also referred to on translators’ blogs as “human hamsters”.

2. “Online translation venues” offering “translation workflows” where legions of hapless translators compete with each other on who will offer a lower rate. As P.T. Barnum said 150 years ago (if he’s the one who said it), there’s a sucker born every minute. And a few such immensely innovative venues where translators are perfectly free to underbid each other once they have paid a yearly membership fee for this privilege are born every year.

3. Reports from companies such as MyGengo.com or Common Sense Advisory which seem to indicate, among other things:

a) A trend toward lower prices for translation, although

b) At the same time, they also stress hunger on the part of translation consumers for highly specialized translation services that can be provided only by highly educated, experienced human translators. This hunger is understandable in a world where information, which may be encoded in a foreign language, is and always has been the most valuable currency.

See a highly entertaining post about the cognitive dissonance created between the propositions a) and b) on Financial Translator’s blog.

So what is really going on? Did the rates that are paid to translators decline in the last few years?

I don’t pretend to know about what is really going on more than the next guy, providing of course that this guy (or girl) has been earning a living as a freelance translator for the last 25 years as I did. But I think that the answer depends to a large extent on who your customers are.

Like many freelance translators, I work for two types of customers, direct customers and translation agencies. I did not see a downward pressure on rates among the former, but I did notice a downward pressure on the rates offered to me by the latter type of customer.

As I have been increasing my rates in order to keep up with inflation, over the years I lost most of my agency customers, except for two agencies, both of them very small operations. This year I lost one them for good because I refused to lower my rate by 2 cents. I offered a discount of 1 cent, but that was not enough for this agency. So I stopped working for them, after about 5 years of fairly consistent supply of work from this particular source. I see in my files that they paid me between about 6 to about 12 thousand dollars for my work every year between 2007 and 2012.

Thoughts on Translation calculates in one of the posts on her excellent blog that reducing your rates by 1 cent per word results in a lost revenue of about 5 thousand dollars a year, depending on your output. I can’t find the post right now, but it is not a difficult calculation to make. Let’s say that you translate about 10 thousand words a week and take 2 weeks of vacation every year: 10,000 x 50 weeks = 500,000 x 0.01 US dollars = 5,000 US dollars.

The other agency, which is in fact a one man operation, did not explicitly ask for a lower rate. Instead, it changed its modus operandi, and not too subtly.

This guy used to call me or e-mail me when he needed me to translate something, and we would then agree on the rate and on the turnaround time. But since about a year ago, he started sending the same job offer in the same e-mail to several translators while asking for availability and turnaround time, so that whoever would offer the shortest deadline and the lowest rate would get the job.

I tried to play this game for a few months, but since I was consistently losing the jobs to other people who were either cheaper or faster (or both) than this mad patent translator, I finally read the guy the riot act and told him that I would respond to his e-mails only if they were specifically addressed to me.

So far I did not lose this agency completely. He is still sending me e-mails with job offers that are sent to multiple translators which I ignore. Most of the time he can place all the work with the translators in his stable of freelancers who don’t mind to fight among each other for work in this manner. But sometime he calls or e-mails me when everybody else is busy. This small agency has been sending me work for 18 years now and I see in my files that the guy paid me for my work between 6 to 27 thousand dollars a year, every year since 1994.

So how much did I lose by trying to resist downward pressure from two of my clients who are translation agencies, since one of them sends me now no work at all, and the other one less work than before?

I believe that I did not lose a single cent because I did not experience downward pressure on my rates from the market segment that is much more important for my freelance translation business than translation agencies, namely from direct customers.

In fact, I slightly adjusted my rush rate to most of these customers upward, depending on how sensitive I assumed they would be to a price increase.

My website and referrals from old customers and other translators more or less constantly bring in new work from new customers. For example, last year I gained 9 new direct customers in this manner. And I see that this year so far I gained 10 new direct customers through my website and through referrals, one of them from a reader of this blog.

Translation rates are always in flux. As Heraclitus put it some 2,500 years ago according to this translation:”All entities move and nothing remains still”. Over time the rates tend to go up some, and sometime go they down. But as far as I know, although there have been a number of bubbles in recent time in the economy, such as the “Internet bubble” about twelve years ago, or the “real estate bubble” and “bank debt bubble” more recently, there has been no “bubble” in prices that are paid for translation because they have never been very high.

It is only natural that some translation agencies will try to use any means to squeeze out more profit from people who work for them, including the threat of machine translation and the fact that thousands of translators are competing with each other and many “subprime” translators are offering pitifully low rates.

It makes sense for translation agencies and businesses such as Common Sense Advisory to create a narrative according to which downward pressure on rates paid to translators is a natural force that cannot be resisted.

And it also makes sense to have a strategy in place for replacing customers who would like to force us to lower our rates because “translators must be more competitive when the economy is bad” by other customers, who are usually found in a different market segment.

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Responses

  1. What an excellent post! I totally agree! Also very well written! Every freelance translator out there should read this!! Big thanks!

  2. “And it also makes sense to have a strategy in place for replacing customers who would like to force us to lower our rates….”

    Very well said. I agree completely.

  3. @ Cristina and Tom R.

    Thank you both very much.

  4. Excellent!

  5. I have just a two-word comment; “Of course!”. I would only add, that I have also more or less shooed away agencies and work almost exclusively on a direct-client basis. Less headache, more professional satisfaction.

  6. @Aurora and Nelida:

    Thank you very much.

  7. Nice writing as usual, Steve.

    This post of yours reminds me of Sarah Dillon’s blog post back in 2011. I think it worth mentioning http://www.sarahdillon.com/2011/10/freelance-translation-is-hard.html.

    It may encourage translators to go on the right tracks, instead of wasting their time, getting frustrated with wrong approaches and eventually quit the profession.

  8. The loss calculations assume 1) that you’re already booked to the gills and will remain so and 2) the discounted job would cost you the same amount of time as an undiscounted job taking its place. I keep careful track of time for each project, and in my fields (chemistry, physics) for the types of jobs I get, there is no simple correlation between cents per word and dollars per hour. People in other fields may find that they have an easier time predicting their real income per hour, but in mine it fluctuates terribly depending on the subject matter and difficulties that arise in a particular text. So I can discount some jobs and do much better per hour than on other full-rate or even rush-rate jobs.

    In general deadline expectations have also become insane, putting more stress on the translator with bills to pay who can’t just say “no” all the time. I’ve lost jobs just because I needed one more day to avoid sleep deprivation. So longer deadlines can also be a tradeoff for discounts, letting us save on health care bills and also more easily fit in more agreeable jobs. Rush jobs wipe me out for long after the send button is clicked, so even at rush rates (harder to get today at least for me) they aren’t always worth it when you consider later work time lost due to recovery time and general inefficiency.

  9. Hi Cathy:

    Good to hear from you again.

    I find that there is a very clear correlation between the rate per word and my income, probably because I am mostly dealing with the same patents all the time (electronics, chemistry, physics), I usually produce the same amount of words on most days and the level of difficulty does not really change that much for the most part.

    Rush deadlines are killing me too. I am completely wiped out when I finish a long rush job like everybody else. That is why I am offering a discount of about 40% for non-rush jobs to direct clients, mostly patent law firms. Most of them have the cost approved by their clients first and most of the time they go for the cheaper turnaround time.

    But sometime they sit on the order, especially if it is a long and expensive project, and by the time they make a decision they have to choose the rush variant which works for me just fine, except for the being wiped out part, of course.

    In an ideal world, there would be no need for rush jobs and we would have just about the right amount of work most of the time. But things look very different in the real world.

    Incidentally, I just politely declined a fairly short rush job from Russian that was due today. I could have done it and I was sort of intrigued by the subject, but it’s not really worth the aggravation to me given that it was from an agency and the rate would be probably close to regular rate.

  10. Hi, I came across your blog a few days ago and I’ve looked high and low and failed miserably. You don’t happen to write blogs, advice or other whatnot in German, do you? If you do, I would love to follow you. I am trying to improve my German and desperately need to stop reading English.

  11. Sorry, I only tweet in Japanese.

    ……..

    Just kidding, I only tweet my new posts and follow tweets about posts of other people. That’s all I do on Twitter.

    Please don’t stop reading English! A lot of information is available in that language!

  12. Great article… I hope all the translators that are undermining the industry read your blog. I certainly tweeted your article. Similarly I lost a client because they constantly mass emailed translators and no matter how quick I answered I never got the job, so one day I decided it was too much and told them not to interrupt my work paid by other agencies with bogus offers of jobs. Oh well do not miss them, they never gave me much work anyway. But the problem does not lay with the agencies or recession but with our so called colleagues who like you rightly say fight over 1,000 words…

  13. No worries ;-)

    I don’t use Twitter.

    I just hoped that you wrote in German too.

    I didn’t really expect you to, just thought there was the remote chance that you might.

    I absolutely agree of course, there is a vast amount of information in English.

    But, you know, it’s great fun to read in other languages too.

    And as it happens to write in them too (hint, hint!) ;-)

  14. [...] or however pretentious. All, in many ways, do not appear to be less worthy of attention than the genuine thoughts of one who honestly declares he does not pretend to know about what is really going [...]

  15. [...] Some Thoughts On What Is Referred To As Declining Rates Being Paid to Translators [...]

  16. Great post! I absolutely agree! If you feel really confident that you are doing a good job, and you are responsible enough, why should you charge less or accept a low rate?
    I don´t know…Maybe rates are declining because translator´s self-steem is lowering.

    • Sorry: *self-esteem

  17. [...] Tool When the professional and honest translator or interpreter saves time and money to the client Some Thoughts On What Is Referred To As Declining Rates Being Paid to Translators Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing and Analyzing Our Power & Privilege The Real Barrier To [...]


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