Should beginners work at low(er) rates?
(This article is now replicated in this blog post where you can leave comments.)
Charging extremely low rates is a common beginners' mistake. It may seem to be fair enough, but a bit later I will explain why it is logically flawed.
Before then, two other points about low rates-per-word in general that are worth bearing in mind.
1) Some clients, especially those who pay towards the low end anyway, are resistant to subsequent increases. If you find this to be the case, then to increase your rates, you have to find new clients and charge them your new higher rate while quietly dropping the old clients.
2) I appreciate that some markets are saturated, but I don't see how anyone in Western Europe could charge less than 50 quid per thousand words (roughly 0.06 EUR per word in Feb. 2009) unless they work at the speed of light. A thousand words is typically about 4 hours work, once you include all the admin and re-reading and frigging about with glossaries and suchlike. So £50 per thousand could be thought of as a hundred quid a day, or thereabouts.
But twenty quid for 4 hours (1,000 words)?
You'd be better off with a McJob, wouldn’t you? The news recently (early 2009) said KFC were going to recruit 3,000 new staff this year. Your hair will smell of chicken, but at least you'll get free chips!
Having once made a forum posting along those lines, I once received a reply to the effect that:
“Many people make comments like that, but what if you actually prefer translating to working in fast-food and are struggling to get work?”
To which I reply – So, what if you do?
We all have to ultimately earn an optimum living by taking into account factors such as aptitude, supply, demand, comparative advantage, opportunity cost and probably some other stuff besides; that is just what I can think of at the moment.
Preference, if it appears on the list at all, plays a very small part, in truth. Otherwise surely the world would be full of actors, artists, sportsmen and women, and entertainers of all kinds and no bugger would ever actually 'do' anything.
If you decide to earn a sub-optimum living by doing what you prefer - fine. But if you are struggling to get work then like anyone else you either need to change your search strategy or change your line of work.
Having expressed that view publicly too, I received a (public) reply along these lines:
"Working at low rates is a necessary evil whilst starting out. Any respectable company would hastily cut a reasonable initial offer of £25000 per year to £18000 on seeing the candidate had not so much experience, why should the translation industry be any different?"
I’m afraid this is where the logic flaw I referred to earlier arises.
Yes, companies employ the inexperienced on lower rates. However, the product or service the company itself markets is typically of uniform quality, no matter which employee was responsible for producing it. And the price of a given product from that company is standard no matter who produced it. In order to maintain margins, if the price is standard, then the cost needs to be standard too, including that portion of the cost that is the labour cost.
Depending on the industry, an inexperienced employee will either take longer to produce something of proper quality, which means their hourly rate will need to be lower, or their work will need to be checked by an experienced employee, which is an additional labour cost. Maybe even both. The same applies to piece work.
A self-employed translator is a slightly different kettle of fish. Ultimately, you do your own QA (for the most part), and either your stuff is good enough to sell, or it ain't.
If you are a beginner, it might take you a day to produce a decent 1,000 word translation - fine. Your earnings (per hour or day) might be less than an experienced person, but it doesn't mean that the client is entitled to get 1,000 words dirt cheap.
Alternatively, you could do the work in the usual time (i.e. the time it would take a more experienced person to complete) and then get someone to review it - pay them, of course. Out of your rate. Again, your earnings might be less, but the client pays the same as if he had got an experienced translator to do the work.
Those are the situations which equate novice self-employed translators to starting salaries in other professions.
Not just charging a lower rate per word.
List of ramblings, musings and what have you