Monday, January 12, 2009

Low rates for beginners

Corinne McKay, in her blog "Thoughts On Translation", has an excellent post on Avoiding beginner's mistakes.

I would like to underscore one of the points she makes:
"DO NOT set your rates suspiciously low. I think that especially in a down economy, many beginning freelancers are tempted to set their rates markedly below the going rate for their languages. [...] I think that lowball rates attract bottom-feeding clients who are looking for high-quality work for minimum wage. "
I agree, and would like to add something:

Not only do many beginners set their rates too low, but, when this is pointed out to them, they complain that otherwise they would not get any work.

What they don't realize is that work will eventually come aplenty to good translators, but that working for substandard rates leads to lower-quality work.

When working for low rates, the most obvious way to increase revenue is to accept more and more work. This means that work gets rushed and the inevitable errors creep in. Being kept busy by low-paying customers, also leaves little time for keeping up to date, for searching new customers and for accepting higher-paying work, should it arrive.

Working for substandard rates easily leads to accepting work for which one is ill suited: but in this regard, see another point in Corinne's post:
"DO NOT take on work that you know is wrong for you just because you need work".
Another error many beginners do is to complain about "the agency's rate": there is no such thing - it's your rate, not the agency's, but thinking of it as the agency's rate leads to accepting things such as agencies unilaterally lowering their rates (as recently discusses on ProZ).

Finally, working for low rates means accepting work from the cheapest agencies in the industry. Eventually the translator's résumé will list a whole range of agencies notorious for paying little and for their little regard for quality. And once that is the image one conveys with his or her résumé, it is difficult to rebrand oneself as a "high-quality translator".


  1. The problem with (absolute) beginners lies in what we teach them. Students are generally taught to be stiff as to rates. Even though it is in Italian, may I suggest to give a look ata post of mine (, triggered by one by Corinne McKay discussing another one by Ryan Ginstrom.
    Rates cannot be prescriptive while teachers are often used - whey they rarely do, in fact - to educate/train students to bill per word, rather than for the service.

  2. Soooooo, what about the not so good translators?
    I absolutely and totally agree that you should never sell yourself under value. But whenever I hear the "low price discussion", I am wondering - what the "average" or "below average" translator? Or what should the newbie do, who in most cases really just isn't as good YET?
    For some people, the lower price is the unique selling point that they resort to - and they use it to sell their average service or to train/learn to climb up the ladder. Not everyone can be in the top percentile - whether it is talent or price.
    If you are on translation mailing lists, you see a lot of people ask and reply to questions. Do you think they are all "high-quality translators"? Should they all charge (and get paid) the same price?
    I see it like any other service - I can get the top interior decorator to paint my living room and he/she will do a wonderful job. Sometimes though, I have a basement or a guest room that needs to be painted and I surely cannot contract the same person, but I will find a local painter who will do it for less. Or I simply don't have the money to pay for the top product (otherwise I would drive around in a Prius and not a 10 year old VW Beetle). It may not just be as perfect, but it's good and does what it's supposed to. Should we advise the neighborhood painter to charge the same as the top interior decorator?

  3. Hi Susanne,

    Lots of interesting questions - I'll try to give my answers in a separate post soon.

    The short version is that in my opinion a beginning professional may choose to set his or her rates towards the low end of the professional range for a specific market nice to somewhat offset lack of experience with a more attractive price.

    However, I think there is a fine difference between low end of the professional range and bottom-feeder rates. Say for example that in a language pair good established translators quote between $0.12 and $0.16 to translation companies: I think that a beginner may be justified in quoting maybe $0.10, but that going to $0.06 means aiming at a different market niche instead, where one is likely to be perceived as a cheap provider of low-quality services.

  4. Very interesting article!

    It made me think about a new translation service concept I came across recently. It is a website that allows translators to bid for work in the marketplace, consequently allowing clients to choose the best offer for their translations. You are allowed to look at the translator profiles and I’ve noticed that it is the young, recently graduated, inexperienced, or bilingual but not professional translators that bid at the lowest prices. As Susan Aldrige stated in her comment, for them, a low price is their unique selling point, whereas the higher bids seem to come from professional translators with many years of experience.

    Nevertheless, I do believe it to be fair, and it is essentially up to the client whether they prefer to pay less for lower quality, or more for guaranteed quality. As mentioned in the last comment, they shouldn’t however bid at too low a price. After all, if I were hiring that translator, I would be worried that their low price signifies poor quality, were as just below the average price is more of a good deal.

    If you are interested in the website I’ve discussed in this comment, it is called, it is quite good to find work, but it’s a new website and I can’t tell you much more than that.

  5. Here are some new tees “I’m a translator. My cleaning lady earns more than I do” to protest the low rates with some dark humor and raise awareness for the issue!:

    I’ve written a few articles on translation & subtitling:

  6. To Mira! Stop hiring cleaning personnel if you can't afford one!


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