Last week, the American Translators Association sent out a compensation survey to collect data on current rates in the translation and interpretation industry. “The survey results will be an invaluable resource for everyone in the field,” ATA claims. Well, I have my doubts about that.
Several years ago, when I was starting out as a translator, I would have welcomed information on what is considered a “fair” price for my work. For beginning translators, the question how much to charge for their services is a difficult one. Rates are a taboo topic among U.S. translators – thanks to an anti-trust case brought against ATA at the beginning of the ‘90s, accusing the association of “price fixing.” Ever since then, any discussion of translation rates among the association and its members has been discouraged. This is in contrast to many other countries, where translators associations not only discuss but in some cases even recommend standard rates translators should charge for their services.
As a newbie translator in the United States, you’re on your own. You can turn to online communities such as ProZ.com or Translators Café for guidance, but the average rates listed there lack clarifying details and often span such a large range that they might as well be considered useless. In addition these community rate tables are based on international comparisons, and in some Third World countries, translators charge as little as five cents per word or even less, lowering the average. Rate calculators and formulas on how to figure out how much your time is worth to you aren’t much help to those just starting out either, because they usually are based on business insights that new translators simply don’t have yet.
Unfortunately, this ATA survey isn’t going to provide any more helpful information either. The problem with the ATA study is that it does not differentiate between the subject field of the translation, such as marketing, financial, medical, etc., and neither does it differentiate between agency rates and fees charged to private clients. This information is important when it comes to setting rates, however. I know translators who charge 15 cents per word for one translation and 22 cents per word for another, all within the same week. Some charge 20 cents per word for agencies but make private clients pay 50 cents per word. Others refuse to charge per word at all and invoice exclusively by the hour, and here, too, the price span can be huge. The ATA study, however, simply asks, “What is your rate for translation from language A into language B?” The answer from any professional translator should be: “It depends.”
Why are there such differences in pricing in the translation industry?
Ask five translators for a quote on the same text, and you are likely to get five different prices that can vary significantly. Why is that? The lack of a trustworthy guideline certainly is one reason. New translators in particular may not know how much is a fair price to charge, so they tend to err on the side of getting more assignments, i.e. charge lower rates. Experience also plays an important role. The more experienced a translator, the more he or she may feel justified to charge. Specialization also factors into the equation. If you specialize in an in-demand field and are a true expert in that area, you can charge more than a jack-of-all-trades type of translator.
As mentioned above, even for the same translator, rates can vary depending on the assignment and the client. Some texts require more research than others, and some clients require more overhead than others. Many translators charge less for agencies than they do for private, direct clients, because agencies take on a lot of the work that translators would have to do themselves if they were working directly with an end client, such as marketing, negotiating with the client, formatting documents, invoicing, sending payment reminders, etc.
The ATA compensation survey may have been designed with the best intentions, but unfortunately, it won’t produce an accurate overview of the realities of our industry.