Freelance pricing: day rates for translators a possibility?

Every freelance profession has its average project costs and ball-park day-rate estimates, but freelance translation has limited itself to a per-word model for the most part, with little room to price for value created rather than quantity of words translated. Agencies charge extra fees for project management, glossary building and so on but tend to base their quotes on source word count also. So is there anything that can be done to improve the balance of perceived and real translation value through pricing?

Discussions on startup community websites about programmer and designer fees tend to show ranges of $500-$1000 per day, giving around $50-$100 an hour in Europe and the US. Many say they charge by the project, with $5000 dollars often given as an example figure. These freelancers sometimes re-use code for subsequent projects without discounting. It all of course depends on the value perceived by the client, and the scarcity of freelancers available to do the job. When it comes to new programming technologies these freelancers and contractors can certainly charge a premium; the question for us as translators is, where is our added value and where is our scarcity?

It lies, at first glance, in the particular subject matter expertise of the linguist, that's after the scarcity of the language pair itself. One of our few tools to signal quality and expert experience at present is to set our per-word price at a 'respectable' rate. The problem with this, from a buyer's point of view, is that it is nigh-on impossible for them to know what is 'respectable' and to convert that per-word rate to a total project cost, time required or to understand the potential return on this investment.

Would pricing at a day rate, or project rate, solve this problem? Let's take a 5000 word project as an example. Let's say it's an English version of a website for a French company selling widgets, each widget sale earning them €5000 in profit. They sell 3 widgets a month through their French site. They're doing OK.

This job would take us, on average, with domain expertise, two working days to complete the translation and proofread. A third day would certainly allow us to be sure we've covered all bases, so to ensure optimal quality for our client we can quote for three days at our new day rate. We could calculate this day rate from average words translated per hour, but then we fall into the old trap of pricing without consideration for value, so we scrap that model and say we're worth €500 per day. The project will thus cost the client €1500 to obtain an English version of their website. They might have paid anywhere from €5,000 to €20,000 to have it developed in the first place, so this may actually be quite palatable for them in order to open new markets. All hypothetical, of course.

However, they could then turn to another freelancer and see that they would only charge €0.10 per word, giving a total cost of €500 and a turnaround of 2 days. Now, depending on what is important to the client, they can either choose to save money here, and potentially risk quality, or rely on the confidence-inspiring qualities of high prices, expertise guarantees and longer lead times to help ensure more future sales. In their case, provided that they have enough cash allocated to invest in the best, it wouldn't seem completely inconceivable that they would opt for the day rate.

If you had made this proposal and the client refused it, you have either:

  • just lost what could have been €500 for two days' work
  • given your competitor a free lunch

This is obviously bad, but on the upside, if they agreed in principle, you have either:

  • reduced pressure on yourself to move on to the next project, ensuring better 'craftsmanship'
  • created an opportunity to negotiate a significantly higher rate than €500
  • educated the client on the value you represent, for future reference

It's a tough decision to make, with no clear answer, and one made especially harder by the entrenched practices of a whole industry, but perhaps it's a goal worth working towards as we face an ever growing market. A market of buyers who are starting to see translation as something that's nowadays done poorly by machines, cheaply by humans and so bolted onto budgets and schedules at the last minute.

Not to be overly sentimental, but shouldn't our efforts take a little more time to get it right? Shouldn't our expertise be valued as an investment by the client, not a word-for-word dictionary to be skimped on where possible? I think it is partly our responsiblity to ensure that this happens, and it could all start with a price.

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