This post started as a response that I wrote to a questions posed to me by Sophia Ozog, a blogger in France who is also a translator and project manager:
The question was:
“I think it must be really hard to build a positive reputation and raise your rates when you started really low. I’ve always been told that starting at decent rates was the best way to make a decent living in the long run. What do you think?”
My answer was:
“It’s OK to start low, although it’s better not to, of course. If you do start low, and many or most people probably have to in order to get some experience, you can really only raise your rates significantly by working for a different type of client, which means making the switch from agencies to direct clients. I worked only for agencies from 1987 until about 1990. At this point only about 15% of my income comes from agencies.
I think it’s OK to work for agencies if they are fair and pay decent rates, and some are like that, although not too many. But it’s not OK to depend on them for most of your income. For one thing, you won’t make any money. There won’t be really that much left after the agencies get their cut and after you pay your taxes.
But even more importantly, you are not the master of your destiny if your income depends on a middleman. If you have your own business, you should be working for yourself, not for a broker. If you need a broker to sell what you know, you are not really a business owner …. you are just a temp!
A temporary employee who works only when he or she is needed, for low wages and with absolutely no benefits. As a temp, you are not officially counted among the unemployed. But you are not exactly employed either. You are in the infernal netherworld of the underemployed. And that is not a good place to be. Although some might say that in these trying times, it is still better than being in the infinitely more infernal netherworld of the chronically or permanently unemployed, and it would be hard to argue with that.”
The truth is, no matter how long you have been translating, there will be longer or shorter periods of time when you will have very little or no work most years. The only exceptions are long projects which may take months or years to complete. For some translators, it may be a book. I translated a few books from Japanese in the nineties. Books can be interesting projects but … the pay tends to be low compared to technical translation, for example. There are all kinds of other types of long projects which may take months or years. Major lawsuits involving many boxes of documents in foreign languages, for example. I like projects like that because they can keep me going for months or even a couple of years. But if you don’t watch it, a long project can be also a kiss of death if you don’t have other customers when the long project is finished. It is really hard to juggle a major project and other clients as well, but we have to remember that every project will come to an end, at which point the client may say: “Thank you very much, it has been nice knowing you, have a nice life”.
Which brings me back to the issue of “decent rates”. I am not sure what a decent rate is, it would depend on the person, but I think that I know the definition of a rate that makes it possible for translators to pay their bills over the long run. If you can pay your bills and your taxes when you have been working for four or almost four weeks out of a typical month, your rate is too low because, as I said above, no matter how long you have been translating, there will be longer or shorter periods when you will have little work. This is not actually my idea, a friend who has been running a small translation agency since 1978, which is 10 years longer than I have been in business, told me this.
If you can pay your bills, and your taxes, although you have been working only for about two weeks out of a month, you are charging a rate that will make it possible to survive the inevitable ups and downs that come with running a small translation business.
I am pretty sure that this is how it works in other freelance professions too.