Lately there has been a lot of talk among freelancers on the blog and twitter spheres about rates. In relation to translation: Per hour or per word? Source (original) language or target (translated) language? To offer volume discounts
or not? More generally: To publish on your site or not to publish on your site?
The last question in particular has been extensively debated (See this recent article
by the Freelancery and the response
by Thoughts on Translation). I’ve thought it over too, and done the “put them up, take them down” thing several times. For now I've concluded that I’m sitting on the fence, with leanings towards the no-camp. Hence, my site doesn’t have a “rates” or “fees” tab. I do mention cost at the top of my FAQ page, where I explain that prices depend on the complexity of the text, the formatting, etc. At the moment I also have a “prices start from X” type sentence, but I’m still pondering the usefulness of it.
What might be more useful is to explain what factors influence the cost of a (human) translation. While I understand potential clients might prefer to see immediately what they can expect to pay, it simply is true that cost depends on many things, and that giving a standard ‘price per word’ isn’t particularly helpful. Not to the translator, at least - all it seems to do is leave me out of pocket when said standard rate is applied to a document that is decidedly un-standard.
So what is it, then, that makes translation jobs non-standard? When you pay for a translation, what do actually get for your money? Or, conversely, what do you need to think about before you quote your price as a translator? Thinking about that might not answer the publish/don’t publish question, but at least everyone will know what to expect (ish).‘Reading’ the thing
In an ideal world, I’d get everything sent to me as a word file. It takes second to feed into a CAT
(Computer-Assisted Translation) tool and if I need to look something up I simply copy-paste the term(s) into an online dictionary
However, often the reality involves reams of un-editable PDFs. If I want to use my CAT tool (which I usually do) these PDFs have to be converted into readable files using OCR
(optical character recognition) software. OCR processing can be time-consuming, especially with Asian characters or poor quality scans. The same goes for image files, with colour images being particularly difficult to process.
If I don’t do the OCR processing to use a CAT tool I’m slightly slower too, so either way: un-editable file = extra time = more expensive. Research
Most translators specialise in a limited number of fields. The theory behind this is that the best translations are produced by those who have an understanding of the broader context of the original document. Nevertheless, even so-called ‘experts’ don’t know everything about their field, particularly if that field is fast-moving. I see this with patents; a 15-year-old physics patent may be straightforward and involve only well-known technology, but a recent one could throw up concepts so new that no equivalent term has yet been thought of in my target language. Coming up with one requires significant research.
Even in less extreme situations, any translator worth their salt will have homework to do. Who is the target readership? Does the text need adapting to suit the conventions of this readership? Are there multiple ways of saying the same thing in the target language, and if so, which is most commonly used whilst still conveying the original meaning? Answering these questions takes time, which should be reflected in the final price. Format fiddling
Japanese text takes up less space than English text. As a result, I often spend hours trying to squash my translations back into their little powerpoint text boxes. Dealing with tables and graphics also takes time. Indeed, formatting the translated text as a whole to look the same as the original can be quite a job, especially if that original was not an editable file (see above). Hence, if you want to preserve formatting, you can expect to pay for more than just the word-for-word translation.
I’m sure there are other factors that influence the cost of a translation. What do you think?
As a freelance language service provider, I collaborate with a mixture of agencies
and direct clients. For the past few months I have been working on a very large project for one such direct client: correcting the English in a 100K-word doorstop of a manuscript. Eventually the book will be published in the US. It has probably been the largest project I have done to date, both in terms of its size and the amount of time it has taken to do. I was first approached by the client in July 2011, and we’re still going!
I have always tried to prepare myself and my business processes as fully as possible for the different requirements/questions/challenges that projects may involve. I’ve got rates sheets, quotation and estimate templates, checklists of questions to ask clients, etc. Nevertheless, each project is different. Perhaps because of its size and scope, this particular job has involved a lot of eye-opening moments. I certainly learned a great deal from it, and in this post I would like to share some of the most important points.
- Face-to-face meetings are invaluable
Although our profession is conducted mostly through the Internet these days, and quite effectively at that, whenever circumstances allow it is still worth making the effort see the client in person. When someone hands you a large project, such as a manuscript of their book, you can bet that it is important to them. I think one needs to be sensitive to that. By talking through everything involved in the project in a face-to-face meeting, it’s much easier to give the client the feeling that you are on top of things in terms of organisation, that you are well-informed, that you are on their side. In essence, you want to let them know that the project involves teamwork and you’re both part of that team.
Face-to-face meetings are also useful for getting all the details of the project straight. Making clear, extensive notes is helpful, as is sending a summary of the points discussed in the meeting to the client afterwards. The aim is to be unambiguous about every aspect of the job (see next point).
- Certain aspects of your job will be a mystery to the client
Some clients know exactly what is involved in a translation/editing/proofreading project, but many don’t. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to realise that they don’t understand something, and even if they do they may not tell you.
When I worked in a research laboratory, I attended many meetings where researchers proposed new inventions for patenting. 95% of attendees were also research scientists, but they often worked in different fields. On several occasions I overheard people commenting they had not understood this or that aspect of the invention, but always after
the meeting and rarely in front of the presenter. People generally don’t like to admit that they don’t understand something. As a result, the presenters who took it down a few levels and did not make too many assumptions about what their audience already knew were usually more successful.
I think the same holds true in this industry, especially if the client is not an agency. Misunderstandings can easily occur if you don’t spell out exactly what your service does or does not involve, how long each task will take you to complete, which aspects incur extra charges, etc.
- You don’t control how your client manages their project
Ideally, the schedule would be clearly defined, deadlines would not change, the draft that lands in your inbox would be the final one, etc. However, how you would prefer to manage a project has absolutely no bearing on what your client does. If they keep amending the project schedule because of other commitments, the best you can do is keep insisting on certain minima (say, at least a week to translate x number of words) and hope the message gets through.
It’s worth bearing in mind that your client (i.e. the person you’re dealing with) might not even control how they manage their project themselves. They could be bound by what their publisher/supervisor/co-workers require. Other people may be revising the text, for example, but you might never deal with them. It certainly makes organising your own schedule interesting...
- You had better love the project, or at least know how to motivate yourself
100K words on one topic is a lot. Really a lot. No matter how interesting the topic, such a long project can make you feel weary at times. Deadlines are deadlines though, so it’s clearly important to find a way to self-motivate
and to keep standards consistently high. Personally I prefer to spend a set number of hours on a large project every day, and intersperse those with different, shorter jobs for a bit of variety. Every 4-5 days I take a break from the large project completely to avoid getting stuck in a rut (see below). Obviously, every freelancer has their own way of making sure they stay sharp and on top of their work.
- Extra Quality Assurance steps to ensure consistency are important
When a project takes weeks or months to complete, it is inevitable that you will not approach it with the same mindset every time you take a seat at your desk. What might seem like a monstrously awkward phrase one day might appear perfectly reasonable a week later. Or you might find two different solutions for the same problem. For this project, therefore, I found it helpful to keep a list of recurring issues, and how I solved them. Regularly consulting an appropriate style guide (ask your client, or suggest one if they don’t provide it) is also crucial.
Another potential issue is getting stuck in “language rut”. I’m the first to admit that I have favourite words, expressions and turns of phrase. However, over a long text and with a repetition-averse language such as English, it’s a sure-fire way to send your reader (and possibly yourself) to sleep. The solution for me has always been to read extensively, especially material that is related to the subject I’m working on. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as finding a juicy new word or expression to use!
These are some of the lessons I've learned first-hand from working on a very large project. As part of your own work (or when you've commissioned someone to do a large job for you), have you noticed any other important points?
A Master's Degree, a CAT tool, a copy of the Prosperous Translator
and a comfy desk chair are important to fashioning a career as a professional (freelance) translator. In addition, here is a little list of oft-forgotten things that will also help see you through both the light and the dark days:A computer gremlin
I’m a firm believer in the need for translators to be fairly tech-savvy. All sorts of file formats come our way, CAT tools
are pretty much ubiquitous, and if you’re so inclined there are all sorts of toys
to make this job about more than just typing. However, there are many, many things that I don’t know how to deal with. Cue my computer gremlin. Of a naturally geeky disposition, he happily finds solutions to my PC problems whilst I hover nervously in the background, cup of tea in hand. Unless you’re very good with computers, everyone needs a go-to specialist on 24h call. Our livelihood depends on those silly machines! Rhinoceros hide
A translator’s work is (and should be!) always checked by somebody else. For various reasons - to fit in with a certain style, to make a more coherent whole, to provide a better choice of wording - our work may be amended. Unfortunately it is far too easy to dread this red penmanship and take revisions personally
. In fact, I dread it because even the slightest amendment leaves me wondering whether I’m staring over the abyss into failure and about to be tossed aside for a more competent colleague. A little dramatic? Certainly, but translators don’t have a reputation for being perfectionist pedants for nothing. The only way I cope is to make a cuppa, calm the hell down and remind myself that a) revisions make a good text great, and b) I might actually learn something this way. A wicked set of mental gears
I started off with just one client, who always sends the same type of document, in one language combination. With time, my client portfolio expanded to reflect my various areas of expertise
in both my language combinations. The result: all sorts of projects end up in my inbox. For example, I recently translated a Japanese article on cosmetics one day and a Dutch patent on photovoltaics the next. Not only did I have to switch languages, the former job had me happily flicking through beauty magazines for ‘research’ while the latter saw me quizzing my (physicist) other half on the prevalence of a particular acronym. Although the variety is precisely what I love about freelancing, finding strategies to deal with word soup
is a must. An infallible sense of humour
The internet and its many freelance portals (e.g. Proz
etc.) bring endless marketing opportunities for independent Language Service Providers. As an unfortunate by-product, however, they also seem to bring a consistent stream of what someone who needs to pay rent, taxes and bills can only call ‘crap’. One such gem:
Sent on: 07/07
Word count: 500000
Subject matter: Legal
Deadline: 09/07 at 8 AM GMT
Rate : 40 $/1000 for target words
500K words in two days? The guy did ask whether I knew anyone else who might be able to help, but still: Yer gotta larf. A plethora of minor distractions
The mantra “revise, revise, and revise again” rings just as true for a translator’s work as it does for a writer’s. One draft is never enough, and between drafts it is good practice to go off and do something completely different for a while. I find tackling a mountain of laundry is mundane enough to relax my mind, and boring enough to fire me up again before starting the next draft. Small distractions work for me too. When I’m having trouble coaxing a word off the tip of my tongue and onto the screen, making a cup of tea or reading a few well-written articles can really help. So distractions are a good thing - it might look like I’m faffing but my brain is actually still going.An industrial-strength kettle
As you might have guessed, I’m not actually capable of much without a cuppa. My day doesn’t begin unless I’ve had one. That first hour of the day is my favourite thanks to a cup of tea. Favourite mug in hand, I read the news, catch up with Google Reader, and see what’s happening on Twitter. Post-tea, I’m ready to tackle the day’s emails. Same goes before (and probably during) any big translation or revision job, blog post, invoicing session,... As a result, my kettle is my best friend. My long-suffering, extra hard-duty best friend.
So there you have it, my list of underrated yet essential items in the survival kit. Do you have anything (or anyone!) you wouldn't be without as a freelance professional?
Translation agencies seem to cop a lot of flak. When I first started telling independent colleagues that I was planning on going freelance too, several warned against working with agencies. In the Patenttranslators’ Blog
, Steve Vitek lets few opportunities go by to remind readers that he does not work for agencies. Both Steve and other colleagues cite reasons of unreliability, bad pay and bad conditions.
While I don’t doubt that there are less-than-professional agencies out there, or think that Steve & Co’s choice to only work with direct clients is not a valid one, I do find it unfair to dismiss working with all agencies in one fell swoop. The bad agencies, and the amount of time devoted to berating them on twitter and the blogosphere, give the good ones a bad name by association. For once, therefore, I’d like to do the opposite and point out why I like working with good translation agencies. 1. They do all the running for you
When an assignment lands in your inbox, the agency will already have done the marketing, negotiating, communicating, etc. Some minor issues over details or rates do often remain, but in my experience these are very easy to resolve. My only responsibility is simply to get on with the job. 2. They understand what our work involves
While it’s possible to command higher rates when working with direct clients, they usually don’t have much experience in dealing with the LSP industry. There are always exceptions, but I often find myself putting a lot of time and effort into explaining the ins and outs of commissioning a translation, why I need certain information, why a particular deadline is not realistic, etc. I see this sort of communicative work as being part of my job and I do it gladly, but it’s simply something I don’t need to do with agencies.3. They take care of the external proofreading
While I obviously proofread my own work very carefully, it is good practice to get a second pair of eyes to look over your translation too. Any agency worth its salt will sort this out themselves, either in-house or by contracting another freelancer. Another time-saver for me. 4. The good agencies are not that hard to find
Although there are literally thousands of translation agencies operating, word gets around fast if an agency is particularly good or bad. I never agree to work with an agency before I’ve checked their Proz Blueboard entry. If I can’t find them on there, I just ask my colleagues. Hence, it never takes very long to get at least some basic info on what an agency is like to work with and whether they tend to pay on time. There’s really no need to work for the bad ones (unless you like having something to moan about).
So, while there are certainly agencies out there who pay silly rates, demand ultra-fast turnover or try to foist the responsibility of proofreading onto the translator, there are also many good ones. Once you’ve found them, stick with them; I go out of my way to maintain a good working relationship with the agencies I like. I hope that, in return, they like working with me.
Just under a year ago, this translator made a momentous decision: to leave the comfort of the corporate coffee machine and go from in-house to independent. It’s something that had always been at the back of my mind but never seemed pressing. The corporate coffee machine offered a security that was strangely addictive. Then, suddenly, an opportunity to go it alone came from someone else; my Other Half decided to move across to the other side of Europe to pursue his own career-related dreams. I followed and have set up shop in a tiny office overlooking the rooftops of Milan. My journey to this new and strange environment has gone something like:1. Get wildly excited
Still safely ensconced within a regular salary and company biscuits, the prospect of going freelance seemed like a big adventure. On days when the biscuits didn't cut the mustard and the office-mates got a bit too irritating, I fantasised about my website-to-be, the networking I was going to do and the fascinating jobs I would get. 2. Panic
Insecurities caught up with me. As I handed over 3 years of hard graft to someone else, I began to worry about not having a regular salary anymore. I also spent many worry-minutes on how I would find clients, how I would even begin to find out about the Italian tax system, whether I would go slowly mad with loneliness, etc.3. Move countries
(in the middle of a bitterly cold, snowy winter)
Enough said and best forgotten. Note: not essential for in going from in-house to freelance.4. Begin at the beginning
Realising that neither Rome nor freelance businesses are built in a day, I spent my first month of independence making sure that I’d never have to say I was unemployed. I dusted off my old TEFL certificate and got a few hours a week of teaching. At least I would see other human beings from time to time and have a little of my own money coming in every month (have a look at this excellent post
by Catherine Jan on why she does part-time teaching too).5. Attempt to crack the Italian tax system
Hmmm.6. Give up on (5)
I found myself an accountant who could speak English and who was willing to at least try to explain the Italian tax system to me. And who deals with the formidable amounts of bureaucratic palaver for me, for which alone she is worth her weight in gold.7. Spend, spend, spend
Following a stint of freelancing from my bedroom with nothing but an old laptop for company a few years ago, I decided that if I was going to change the scenery again, I would do it properly. Even if it meant moving into the broom cupboard, I would have my own think-space, a kick-ass computer and the latest software. After all, you wouldn’t open a new garage armed with just one rusty screwdriver either, would you?8. Panic v.2
Having spent more than I care to recall on the meanest PC I have ever had, I realised that I had better make some money with it. Yet reality hit - nobody who would conceivably buy translations from me knew I existed.
When you work in-house, you are someone: that girl who you send stuff too with far too little notice, who will grumble at you a bit but who will eventually send the thing back to you all translated automagically. For all its annoyances, restrictions and politics, an in-house job gives you an identity. As a newbie freelancer, however, that identity and all its associated knowledge counts for nothing unless you manage to find yourself some clients (being in a foreign country without any friends probably didn’t help my frame of mind much at this stage).9. Reinvent
Having got a grip on myself again, I sat down and did what every new business needs to: I brainstormed and planned my world domination. I asked myself what it was I wanted to do for my clients. I tried to imagine how they would go about finding, selecting and working with the likes of me. I forced myself to think about where I wanted my business to be in 1, 2, 5 and even 10 years. I got excited again. 10. Shout it out loud
I’ve made myself a website, joined twitter, gotten a logo, taken part in discussions on LinkedIn and told acquaintances old and new that I was open for business. And so far, so good...
So here I am, looking out at the Madonnina atop the Duomo of Milan on my right and our kitchen on my left. As scenery goes, it beats the rows of endless desks of my previous incarnation hands-down...
To put this discussion in context, I felt compelled to write my post after reading GTS Blog's "Translation prices are dropping. How low will they get?" a couple of days ago.
With alarming regularity I come across articles, blog posts or forum discussions lamenting the fact that translation prices are ‘plummeting’. Advances in Machine Translation, dastardly translation agencies working to ever-narrowing margins and a handful of unscrupulous translators undercutting everyone else are usually cited as the perpetrators of this ‘problem’. Whenever I see these posts, I can’t help but recall a phrase an American friend kindly taught me a few years ago: “Would you like some cheese with that whine?”
Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that low translation prices do not exist (a look at www.Proz.com confirms that there are indeed some pitiful ones out there). Nor do I propose that we should all be lowering our rates accordingly. However, I also don’t think that translation prices ‘going down’ is necessarily a problem. I think it could equally be intepreted as progress.
What many translators seem to forget is that the language service provider (LSP) market has to develop like any other. Take the way prices for consumer electronics go down, for example. I own a smartphone, an e-book reader and not one but two LED monitors. Five years ago, however, neither the market nor the technology were sufficiently developed to make these kinds of products generally affordable. But do you now see the electronics companies weeping into their cups of tea over falling prices? Of course not, they’re too busy thinking about how to continue to innovate, bring their next cutting-edge product to market, and stay ahead of the game. By doing so, they shape the market themselves and lower prices do not necessarily mean a lower income.
The LSP industry is no different. Failing to innovate as a translator would be akin to following the example of the music industry in digging in its heels against the online dissemination of music. The only outcome is to be left behind, whine about the unfairness of it all and ultimately go bust.
So what can we, as language service providers, do to make sure we shape our own market and make sure that falling prices do not affect our overall income?
- Prove your worth - If we truly believe our services are worth more than average, then the onus is on us to prove to our clients that this is indeed the case. We need to be the luxury car, the gourmet burger or the designer dress of the LSP industry. How do we do this? By creating a strong brand, by providing excellent customer service, by getting certified/accredited, etc.
- Embrace change - This includes technological developments like Machine Translation. Rather than fearfully eschewing these tools we need to figure out how to use them to our advantage, lest they become an excuse for our clients to pay us less than we think we’re worth.
- Innovate & diversify - If you call yourself a professional translator, is translation really the only service you’re capable of offering? Surely we all have more linguistic strings to our bow and can provide editing & proofreading, terminology management services, translation teaching, etc. And what about all that background cultural knowledge we have? It has ‘consultancy’ written all over it. We need to make the most of the skills we have, in much the same way as consumer electronics company Sharp has gone from making calculators to LCD TVs to solar panels all on the back of the same expertise in semiconductor technology.
- Be flexible - When the market/client/sector you've always relied on goes belly-up, change tack and find an alternative. Freelancers especially can take advantage of the fact they don’t need to work their way through multiple corporate strata to make changes to the way they operate.
- Keep calm and carry on - The language service provider market is not about to collapse. Many of my colleagues, including those without particularly rare language pairs or niche specialisations, continue to stick to their guns and charge high rates. They never seem short of work, because they know how to be the best at what they do and more. In the end, then, 'falling prices' don't seem like that much of an issue.
In a past guise as an in-house translator, I was once asked to outsource a job that we couldn’t do ourselves. It provided a very interesting opportunity to see things from the 'Other Side' - that of the client.
The job in question involved the translation of a Chinese electronics patent into English, making it highly specialised. I didn’t know anyone personally who could do it nor did I have any recommendations, so I had to turn to the web and find an agency or independent translator. After getting quotes from two agencies and one freelancer, I ended up placing the job with the latter. Some of the reasons for this decision were personal; I can’t help but be a little biased towards freelancers. Nevertheless, during this outsourcing process I made some interesting discoveries that I think are worth sharing.
1. It was surprisingly difficult to know where to start finding someone
Googling “Chinese translator” or “Chinese to English” is probably the most obvious way to go about it, but it annoyed me. The first page of results shows only online and machine translation tools, with the first agency not appearing until the bottom of the second page. I did eventually pick two agencies from the results, but I realised that a google search was not the way to find a freelancer. Instead, I found someone through the Institute of Linguists’ Find-a-Linguist service, where one can search based on language pair, specialisation and location.
What struck me, however, is that this is quite worrying from a freelancer’s point of view. Freelancers can rarely afford the Search Engine Optimisation that would get them higher up on the Google search results, but how many corporate clients outside of the translation industry really know about the Find-a-Linguist service, Proz.com, etc.? Not so many, methinks, which strongly suggests that the onus is on freelancers to be incredibly inventive and proactive in marketing their services to direct clients.
2. Few freelancers have a website that is actually helpful
This really surprised me. Whenever I want to buy a product or service, the first thing I do is Google for a provider. Their site has to be nicely laid-out, easy to navigate and full of the information I need in order to get my custom. This all sounds very obvious, but in my search for a freelancer I came across sites that were full of lengthy text and theory on why it was important to use a properly qualified translator but which failed to tell me what was actually involved in commissioning a translation from them.
As a potential client who’d never commissioned a translation before, I wanted the practical stuff: what exactly they specialised in, what their modus operandi was, and how much they would charge me. Agencies are much better at explaining what the client can expect when they place a job. This is definitely something freelancers can learn from.
3. You never really know who you are getting with an agency
As I mentioned, the translation was highly specialised in that it required someone who was familiar with both electronics and patent legalese. I expected to have to pay a premium for this. However, one of the agencies gave me a quote that worked out to a dismally low rate of about £60 per 1000 words. It made me wonder what on earth would the translator end up with?! More importantly, what translator qualified and experienced enough to deal with a Chinese electronics patent would accept such a rate? I decided that I simply couldn’t trust the job to be done to a high enough standard for such a price, and refused their quote.
One thing that works to a freelancer’s advantage then, is that we can use the more personal nature of our business in combination with our demonstrable qualifications to prove to a client exactly how suitable we are for a job instead of asking them to take this on trust. In addition, daring to charge a premium rate for a premium service rather than always trying to undercut our rivals in the way many agencies do can also work in our favour.