Why You Should Adjust Your Pricing Strategy as a Freelance Translator

When I first started out translating over 20 years ago, it seemed that there was only one way that translators charged clients for their work.

And that was by word count.

Everyone knows what that means.

For you new translators out there, though, let’s do a simple lesson.

Basically what it means is that you charge a certain price per word translated.

But it’s a price per word of the source language.

So if you’re like me and translate from Spanish to English, you would take the entire word count in Spanish, multiply that by your per word rate, and get a total price.

What’s interesting is that before word processors (if you can even imagine such a time really existed), nobody really counted all the words in a source language text.

That would just take too much time.

Instead, you would take an average line from the document, count how many words were in that line, and then multiply it by the number of lines in the document to get your word count.

Talk about a terrible way to figure out how much you were supposed to get paid!

With computers, though, we don’t have that problem anymore.

Even then, getting paid by word count does have some problems, even in our modern day of word processors.

Strict translation is not the only thing in our job description anymore.

It used to be that translators were just translators.

We took text in one language and output it into a different one.

We didn’t pay attention to a lot of the other things:

  • formatting
  • design
  • notarization
  • writing
  • marketing

All these things are things that clients have asked me to do.

They’re not strict translating activities.

But they are services that clients need done in addition to the translation work.

If you don’t offer them, you won’t get as many clients.

But if you don’t offer them for free (which you shouldn’t), then you have to figure out a way to price them.

Because last I checked, you can’t price notarization with word count.

Another issue with pricing by word count is that languages aren’t the same length.

When we talk about language length, this can mean three different things.

  • Number of words in a sentence.
  • Number of characters in words.
  • Number of syllables.

All three of these add up to differences between source and target languages.

But for the sake of our translation discussion, we’ll stick with the first one: the number of words in a sentence.

Let’s look at English and Spanish, for example.

Spanish tends to generally use more words than English does.

About 20% more from some sources.

So let’s say you’re translating from English to Spanish.

And the English document is 1,000 words.

And you charge $0.10 a word.

Well, that translation is going to give you $100.

And the document translated into Spanish is going to be about 1,200 words.

But if you had had the Spanish document and translated it into English, you would have started with a 1,200 word document, which you would earn $120, if you charged the same price.

The content is the same.

It’s just that the word count is different.

For example, here’s an example from IBM’s globalization guide:

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An English phrase with 26 characters becomes 55 characters when translated into Spanish, a 112% increase in the number of characters.

That’s character length.

Here’s another example.

These character counts are based on a story called The Search for Lorna, that was translated from English into various languages by volunteers.

LanguageSentence Length in Characters
English351
Spanish374
Afrikaans379
Albanian381
Bosnian339
Bulgarian370
Chinese579
German348

Sure, these are merely representative of an admittedly small sample size.

But what can it tell us?

That languages are not static and are all different.

It can be complicated when trying to stick with a legacy pricing mechanism that might not work all the time and in every circumstance.

Luckily, translation pricing doesn’t have to be static, since there are other options you can use to price your work.

One of those options includes charging clients by the project.

The best way to do this is to take a look at the whole project before committing to it, and come up with a price.

Your client needs to  tell you everything that is required for the project to be completed.

If it’s more than just the translation, you add those other requirements into your calculation as well.

You then quote your client the entire price for the whole project, which could be based on an hourly figure that you’ve determined beforehand.

This type of pricing can be pretty foreign for a lot of translators.

They’re so used to charging by the word that they don’t feel comfortable charging per project.

But lots of industries charge by the project (or by the hour):

  • consulting
  • law
  • photography
  • recording studies
  • babysitting

Translators have traditionally based their price on units delivered.

Some say it’s more convenient that way.

Some say it’s more fair to the client.

But I think the reason that more translators keep charging by the word is because they don’t understand their own business.

As a translator, you should know roughly how many words you can translate per hour.

That is one of the first things you should understand as a new translator.

You only have 24 hours in a day, and you have to be able to translate enough words in that timeframe to make your business viable.

If you can only translate 100 words an hour, that means if you worked 8 hours a day, you’d only be able to translate 800 words a day.

At $0.10 a word, that’s only $10 per hour.

That’s not fast enough to make it as a translator.

(You’d be better off getting a different job that pays more.)

If, instead, you can translate 1,000 words an hour, then you’re up to $100 an hour.

That’s a little more worth your time.

And once you know your hourly rate, it’s easy to look at a potential project from a client and tell them how much it will cost them up front.

Even if that project includes things in addition translation.

Why?

Because you already know how long it will take you to accomplish all the tasks related to your translation work.

One of the pluses in charging by the project is that you can adjust the rate based on external factors, like the difficult of the source language.

You don’t have to worry about clients not understanding why you charge $0.10 a word for one document, but then you want to charge $0.12 a word for a different one that requires the same language combination.

Here’s the process a typical translator goes through when quoting a price to a client using word-count methods.

  1. Clients contacts translator about translation work.
  2. Translator asks for word count of project, as well as and idea of subject matter
  3. Client informs translator of word count
  4. Translator quotes a price (which is based on word count)
  5. The client now knows exactly what the translator charges per word
  6. Client tries to negotiate with translator on price based off the price per word
  7. Translator is in a losing position and can only negotiate price per word

This is a bad position to be in.

The translator should have more power than the client because the client is the one that needs the project done.

Once you’ve given away your pricing structure (which is only based on one thing), you’ve lost negotiating power.

However, charging by the project changes that.

Instead of quoting based on word count, you quote on the entirety of the project.

You say, “In looking at this project, and it’s various complexities, my price is $2,000.”

Sure, the client can try and negotiate the price, but if he does, and you feel like negotiating back, you can base your numbers on something other than price per word.

Instead, you could deliver the project at a later date, which could cost less.

You could include zero formatting.

You could deliver it without being notarized.

As a translator, you provide a level of service to your clients.

Some translators provide better overall service than other translators.

Instead of basing your pricing on a single thing like word count, base it on the whole of the service you can provide.

And if a client wants to pay less, instead of lowering your price per word translated, you would lower the overall level of service you provide to that client.

You could even set up tiers of service based on what you can offer a client.

Tier 1 would be the most expensive and offer the most personalized services to your client.

Tier 2 would include most services, but not all.

And Tier 3 would be an economized service, intended to save the client money while not tying you down to provide the best service.

If you presented these three options to a client when they requested your language services, along with their relevant prices, you would no longer be in the weak position.

Your client would see that he has the option to choose from a range of prices, that you’ve already given him (and are comfortable with).

There would be no more negotiation because you’ve already provided the negotiated options.

And before you say that translators have always charged by the word, rest assured. Charging by the project is not an an outlier.

Other translators are starting to see the benefit as well.

Even though they are still stuck with the idea that for some reason translators have to charge by word.

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This lady admitted to doubling her word rate when charging by the project.

But then admits that “I’m definitely more for per word quoting than per hour.”

Huh?

Why is that?

Why would you choose to earn less money when you’ve already proved that you can earn more money, just by changing your pricing structure?

So if you’re a translator, it’s time to start looking at how you price your work.

Does it need to be changed?

Updated?

If so, time to get on it.

Until next time.

2 thoughts on “Why You Should Adjust Your Pricing Strategy as a Freelance Translator”

  1. chispitacarreras

    Ok, Clint. I have tried to find your Contact Info all over your blog and it is nowhere. I get the feeling you don’t want to be found! De todas maneras, me gustaria hacerte varias preguntas en cuanto a este tema. Mi email es beverly@spctranslations.com. Si pudieras mandarme un email cuando estes desocupado te lo agradeceria muchisimo. Gracias!

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