How to Set your Translation Rates by Using Objective Information

“How to set your translation rates by using objective information” by Corinne McKay 

 Setting your translation rates:

Possibly the most anxiety-provoking aspect of launching your translation business is deciding how much to charge. Charge too much and you’ll be priced out of the market; charge too little and you’ll be working overtime just to make ends meet. The easiest way to remove the anxiety from this decision is to gather some objective data such as how much money you would like to make, and how much it will cost you to run your business. As we’ve discussed before, every language combination and specialization has a range of rates; for example, translators of Asian languages into English will almost invariably earn more than translators of European languages. In addition, how much you need to charge depends on your cost of living. An English to Spanish translator living in rural Mexico can afford to work for much less money than his or her colleague who lives in Manhattan. Some translators get very angry about these global outsourcing possibilities, but the reality is that they are just a function of the variation in global costs of living and the evolution of the Internet-based professional service economy.

Adding to the pricing confusion is that most people are used to calculating their wages by the hour, rather than by the word. Beginning translators often don’t know how to estimate how long a translation will take, so don’t know how to set their per-word rates in order to reach their target hourly rate. Whereas an experienced linguist knows approximately how many words per hour he or she translates when working on various types of documents: general, technical, highly technical, handwritten, hard copy, HTML, etc., there is no way to know this if you haven’t done much translation; you simply have to time yourself while you translate to see how fast you work. In general, a translator who is a relatively fast typist (or uses speech recognition software that works well) can translate 400-600 words per hour or 2,000-3,000 words per day, but this is only a ballpark figure. When working on a highly technical document, even an experienced translator might work as slowly as 150 words an hour, and I once worked on a project where I consistently translated up to 1,000 words per hour because the document was non-technical and very repetitive.

Calculating your billable hours

First, complete the following calculation using your actual or estimated totals:

  • Hours per week you would like to work
  • Weeks per year you would like to work (subtracting vacation weeks)
  • Multiply the above two items to get your total working hours per year
  • If you foresee taking sick time or additional legal holidays off, subtract those hours
  • Subtract your non-billable time, normally 25-50% of your total work time, for marketing, accounting, meetings, slow work periods, etc.
  • This is your total billable hours per year
  • Calculating your target hourly rate
  • Now, calculate how much money you need/want to earn, by adding together:

  • Your salary goal in dollars
  • Taxes (15-50% of salary)
  • Internet, web hosting, phone, fax, cell phone
  • Professional memberships and continuing education
  • Marketing materials and advertising
  • Office supplies
  • Computer hardware and software; technical support
  • Auto and travel expenses
  • Other costs of operation such as work-related child care, office rent, website development, etc.
  • Add the above items together to get your total cost of business operation
  • Then, divide your total cost of business operation by your billable hours from the first calculation, which will show your required hourly rate.

  • Once you have this hourly rate worksheet completed, you’ve completed a major step in pricing your translation services. Your next step is to determine how you’re going to arrive at that hourly rate. For example if you want to earn $60.00 an hour, you can achieve this by translating 600 words per hour at 10 cents per word, 400 words per hour at 15 cents per word or 300 words per hour at 20 cents per word. In order to do this, you need to know how fast you work (the only way to figure this out is to time yourself while you do some translations) and what the range of rates for your language pair(s) and specialization(s) is. For example, you might look at rates surveys on online translation marketplaces, or look at websites of translators in your language pair to see if they publish their rates. Some translators, although not all, are also willing to discuss rates with their colleagues.

    Knowing how much you need to charge also tells you what type of clients you need to look for. For example, if your hourly rate goal is high, you may need to market to direct clients rather than to translation agencies. Also, you can adjust your target hourly rate by adding or subtracting days of vacation. When I recently interviewed members of my local translators’ association about their work and vacation habits, many translators reported that they configure their schedules to be able to take off large blocks of time, making up for the time off by working overtime during the rest of the year. For example, some translators reported taking off the entire month of August and at least two weeks around the winter holidays, but working 50-60 hours a week during the rest of the year. Others take off a day during the week and then work on Saturdays, while others such as myself split a typical work day into several blocks of time rather than working 9-5.

    Copyright by Corinne McKay, This article may be freely reproduced or redistributed for non-commercial use with attribution to the author.

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