To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.
French realist novelist (1821 – 1880)
The prices of everything are going only in one direction – up, regardless of the country where you live. The rates paid to translators are – not going up, regardless of your country of residence.
In fact, some translation agencies have been using the present economic crisis, which officially started in 2007 and is expected to last until at least 2070, to force translators to push their already low rates even lower as I wrote on my silly blog in a number of posts.
So what is a poor translator to do? If you don’t raise your rates, inflation and taxes, which are also going only in one direction, regardless of where you live, will be eating up a greater and greater share of your income.
But I believe that all is not lost and that a happy outcome can be found even in this precarious situation.
The trick is to know which clients are extremely prices sensitive, and which clients may understand that over time, inflation will force everyone to raise prices because the alternative is to die of hunger.
Freelance translators generally work for two types of customers: 1. translation agencies, and 2. direct clients.
It is very difficult to raise prices to translation agencies. Since they live off the profit they make of your work after they sell your translations to direct clients, if you raise your price to them, you are reducing their income.
When an agency is so slimy that it sends every translator in its database a letter demanding a lower rate due to current economic conditions (while press later reports that an executive director of the agency took home a discretionary bonus of £1.68 million), that would be actually a good time to respond by increasing your rate to the agency because you don’t want to work for a company like that anyway.
You can raise your rate on a particular project to an agency, for example for a rush translation, but if you ask for a higher rate on all future projects, the chances are that the agency is going to start looking for another translator who charges less. None of us is indispensable. As somebody said in a novel I read recently (I forgot which one), graveyards are full of indispensable people.
So if you work for an agency, and if you want to keep working for it, my advice would be to ask for a higher rate only when you are contacted by a new agency. That is how I have been doing in the eighties and early nineties when I worked mostly for agencies.
But you can often increase your rates to your direct clients without losing them, provided that you do it slowly and in a reasonable manner.
Unlike translation agencies, direct clients do not live off the difference between what they pay you and what they can get for your translation as they make money the old fashioned way – from their own work. At least in my case, they just pass the cost on to their client, which means that as long as the client approves the amount, they don’t care too much about another penny more per word.
Depending on where you live, fluctuating exchange rates can work for you or against you. If you live for example in England or Western Europe and your clients live in United States, exchange rates have been working against you for at least the last decade as the dollar has lost a lot of its value during that time. But if you work in United States and your clients are in Europe, you can raise your rates to them and they will not notice it if you charge them in dollars until the fall of the dollar stops, which is expected to occur when we finally come out of the present economic crises, around 2070.
You can also raise your rates by switching to a different way to count words in your translation. For example, if you are a translator who translates from English to German and who charges by the target word count, you can simply switch the word count to the source language. As a rule, due to numerous compound nouns in German, 1,000 German words will correspond to about 1,300 English words.
French has generally a higher word count than English for reasons that I don’t quite understand, probably because the French like to use a lot words.
Slavic languages have fewer words than English, probably because there are no articles in them (with the exception of Bulgarian) and endings of nouns can be used instead of prepositions. So if you work between two languages and one of them is more “wordy” than the other one, that is the language that you should use for your word count.
Especially if you work for direct clients who just pass your invoice on to their customer, the rate increase is not likely to be a major problem because on paper, everything will still look pretty much the same.
And let’s face it, it is not fair when people who translate into German are asked to take a 30% pay cut just because “Deutsch ist so“, is it?, while their French colleagues are making fun of them behind their backs.
But whether you work mostly for translation agencies or mostly for direct clients, the fact is that you can only raise your rates to match increased cost of living if you are not overly dependent only on one or a few of your clients.
You have to be able to walk away from the client if your reasonable demand for a rate increase over time is turned down.
None of us has permanent clients. It is their choice to work with us, or not. And it is our choice to work for them, or not. Because client attrition over time is inevitable, we have to have a program in place for replacing the clients that we may eventually lose with new ones.
And it is not that difficult to ask for a higher rate from a new company because this company will generally have no idea how much we were charging other people.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is more than just one way to raise your rates if you are a translator. Sooner or later, this is something that must be done if we want to be able to pay our bills, and it can done fairly unobtrusively depending on our personal situation, including factors such as which languages we translate and where we live.