Posted by: patenttranslator | April 6, 2011

Can Translators Charge More for Complicated Formatting Or Is This Just Something Else That We Have to Do for Free?

I received an e-mail from an agency today. It said:

“Hi there,

I found your profile on the ATA site, and I thought you might be a good match for a project.

That was strike one right there. What a strange formulation. I don’t see myself as “a good match”. Last time I checked, I was a translator, not a Russian mail order bride, for God’s sake. The text of the e-mail said that the (tiny) agency had about 100,000 words of a German project and that I could take on as much as I wanted for the next two weeks. “Please let us know your rate”.

The e-mail had a link to the website, so I went to the website, which was definitely done on the cheap, in three ugly colors and with very little text that would provide any real information when you discard the usual inane propaganda such as “we have hundreds of  translators who are PhDs, we have 3 layers of rigorous control”, etc. I only work for small agencies because they are usually much easier to deal with, but it has to be a special kind of agency. I am not choosy, but I am particular, as a savvy Russian mail order bride would be too, I assume. This tiny agency was definitely on the cheap side. So that was strike two against this agency, although it was still in the running.

Strike three came when I saw the sample files. There was an extremely complicated table in landscape format, equally complicated engineering blueprints with a few words scattered around the drawings, and one page was a list of handwritten instructions that seemed to have been written by a Teutonic madman. The English instructions said that I do not have to recreate the graphs, but that every page in German must correspond to one page in English. How can you do that without scanning everything into the text of your translation? It’s impossible. So I e-mailed the owner (the agency was a one-woman operation) and asked her whether she paid extra for handwritten text and complicated formatting which requires scanning. I did not think she would respond, and she did not. So she never even found out how much I would charge.

For some reason, translators are almost always expected to do things like scanning and formatting, which can be quite time consuming in some cases, for free. It’s not fair! I remember that more than 20 years ago, I charged a law firm several hundred dollars for my translation of a Japanese patent plus 15 dollars for scanning of figures at the end of the patent. I got paid for the translation, but not for the scanning. I realized at that point that my strategy must be based on higher rates over a period of time because our clients do not really value our time.

I can remember only one case when an agency agreed to pay me an hourly rate for scanning of graphics into the file. These were hundreds of pages of tests of instruments with photos in them that had to be scanned in. I don’t know whether other translators do it, but I don’t try to charge for scanning of figures at the end of patents any more. It is usually not a big deal, 5 to 30 minutes most of the time, but why are we expected to do this for free? It’s not fair!

The agency with three strikes against it that I mentioned in the introduction clearly wanted to trick me into agreeing to “approximately recreate the format”, which was pretty much impossible, for free. Even with a half decent rate, I would spend so much time formatting the translation that I would not be able to make any money.

Although everybody knows that handwritten texts, overwriting of texts with tables in them on the screen and similar tasks which can be extremely time consuming, are another major headache for translators, nobody wants to pay us more for that. At least that has been my experience. Or are there translators who are able to get paid for their time?

I remember one case, again about 20 years ago, when I was translating a box of handwritten Japanese test reports for a month at the rate of 15 cents a word, which was quite low even back then considering that the work came directly from a law firm. There was a number of translators working on the case and they all had to accept this rate if they wanted the job. There was a conference call between a partner at the firm and a bunch of dumb translators who in the end had to accept the low rate because a few of these translators asked for even less than 15 cents. The lawyer obviously knew what was going to happen, he was playing us like a cheap fiddle.

This was at the end of February and I just finished a Japanese book that I translated and I had nothing else lined up. So of course, I took the job. I spent about four weeks translating extremely boring, repetitive microbiological tests, 15 cents a word for handwritten Japanese. But once I got used to the handwriting, it went pretty quickly.

I even remember that I received a check for 12 thousand dollars in March for that job. On April 15th, I sent a check for 12 thousand dollars to the IRS, because that was exactly what I still owed for unpaid taxes from the previous year. And I had nothing again in the bank.

Would translators be able to have a healthy balance in the bank if they were paid extra for extra work?

This is something that we will probably never find out.

There were 3 interesting comments on Youtube under this video.

  • 1. anybody got a number for sue……..sounds like my kind of girl 😉

  • 2. The blonde that kept smiling is Sue and she does not get it at all.

  • 3. So, basically, Sue is a slut.


  1. That’s better than the inquiry I received today. No agency name mentioned, no contact information, just “We have a first work [sic] to start: 5000 words”. They asked for my name, a link to my “proz profile” (why was I not surprised?), best rate per word and contact phone numbers. When I read that they were “targeting 0.06-0.07 a word” I couldn’t hit the delete button fast enough. Oh yeah, and “Note: The company will replay only if selected.” Like they were expecting me to “replay” to them…


  2. At least they did not ask for your Skype handle.

    I got a message from an English agency years ago that had a detailed questionnaire in it with all kinds of personal questions, including my Skype handle.

    That was not a job offer, mind you, they just wanted information.

    Maybe some genius at the company wanted to interview prospective warm bodies via Skype.


  3. Crazy.

    @Jill – This “replay” thing keeps happening with dodgy agencies/scammers. Do they not realise that y functions a bit like a vowel? Bleh.

    @Steve – Thankfully, it is not something that happens too much to me. I guess I work mostly for good agencies, and, given that I specialise in IT and finance (mostly, plus very closely related fields), things tend to come with proper, editable formatting. I think it has a bit of a connection to the fields one specialises in – as this problem certainly seems more common with patents, engineering and medicine. This should, as you say, be reflected in your rate. A specialist patent or engineering translator should be charging more in the first place, than, say, a humble IT and Finance translator such as myself – simply because I can translate more in a day, and won’t need to fiddle around with formatting. If you take longer as a direct consequence of the type of translation you do (not because you are not very good, more, the opposite), then you should be charging more.


  4. I agree that translators should charge more if they have to reproduce complicated tables, scan in graphics, etc.

    My guess is that most don’t do that because clients don’t want to pay more. They don’t care how much time we spend on things like that.

    Or are there translators out there who can get away with charging more for time consuming tasks like this?


  5. With requests like this I try to quote a flat fee that includes scanning, formatting and anything else that isn’t translation. Unfortunately, most of these queries seem to come from agencies or clients that want cheap translation anyway or that have not been educated as to the time and expertise involved in DTP tasks. Sometimes, if it’s a direct client, explanation helps, but with agencies, I’m inclined to believe that if they don’t even address those issues or take care of them themselves, they are in the lowball market and will not pay for these services. Good thing there’s enough work without them!


  6. I agree. It’s probably easier to get away with a flat fee rather than an hourly fee.

    It’s probably better if our clients don’t know how much we want to make by the hour.


  7. Hi Steve! I recently did a job for an agency and charged an extra 30% for the formatting of the PowerPoint file I translated. The agency was totally okay with that. I agree with you regarding this issue. Translating is one thing, proofreading is another, creating a glossary is also a specific task and formatting or dtp is another too. I think explaining to your client why you’ll need to charge more is important. Sometimes people just don’t realize how time-consuming these things can get. If the client is ok that’s great. Some clients will always try to get more service for the same price but our job is to get paid for what we do and every second of our time, except for occasional extra services for really good customers. I know it’s hard because you’re afraid you might lose the client but, as I was saying a while ago in my own blog, what kind of professional doesn’t charge for extra services? That’s just a matter of principle, money and image, isn’t it ? Do your clients work for free? I don’t think so.


    PS : you recently blogged about an ultimatum you had to set for one of your clients who wanted to extend payment deadlines, how did that turn out?


    • About the law firm that received my “ultimatum”.

      They sent me 4 new jobs after the late payment.

      So I told them that I would still charge the same rate on these jobs, but if their payment is again over 30 days, my rate will go up by 10%.

      They will probably just pass the rate increase on to the customer. Or maybe they will start paying faster.

      Either way, the important thing is to fight back.


    • About the law firm that received my “ultimatum”.

      They sent me 4 new jobs after the late payment.

      So I told them that I would still charge the same rate on these jobs, but if the payment is again over 30 days, my rate will go up by 10%.

      They will probably just past the rate increase on to the customer. Or maybe they will start paying faster.

      Either way, the important thing is to fight back.


  8. “I recently did a job for an agency and charged an extra 30% for the formatting of the PowerPoint file I translated.”

    Good for you. In my experience, agencies usually only agree to pay extra for for formatting if they are desperate, which happens sometime. This month I turned down several translation offers because the formatting was too complicated and I did not feel like haggling. In any case, nobody really wants to pay an hourly charge for formatting that would correspond to what I can make in an hour by translating.

    One of the jobs I turned down last week due to expected formatting problems was a complicated Russian table in PowerPoint. I then asked the agency why couldn’t they place it since everybody knows that there are legions of Russian translators out there.

    The answer was:”They are out there, but nobody wants to touch this job”.

    All they have to do is agree to a decent flat fee instead of asking for a per word rate for a job like that and somebody will do it.

    But I think that it also makes sense to throw in formatting for free sometime. For instance, I am translating a German article right now which has about 8 figures in it. I scan the figures in and don’t charge anything for it because it really takes only about 3 minutes per figure since I am being paid a nice rush rate for the translation. I even recreate the original format with two columns, which is a total of 3 clicks with my mouse, for free because I’m a nice guy.

    But I have this nagging feeling that I may be a stupid guy rather than a nice guy for doing something for free, which is why I wrote this post.

    Best regards

    Steve Vitek


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