Charlie Bavington @ C Bavington Ltd

French to English Translation Services

Meeting translation needs since 2003

Charlie Bavington - French to English freelance translator

Charging policy

Fixed or variable rates for one client?

I am often to be heard repeating "a fair day's pay for a fair day's work" in discussions about rates (I have even been quoted on other people’s blogs!). This is usually in respect of rates in the sense of price per word. Cutting straight to the chase, I prefer to look at the earnings per hour or per day or per even longer period before I decide whether a “rate” is too low or not. And in September 2009, something I knew was theoretically possible actually came to pass. I was working for effectively 2.5 eurocents a word, and earned myself over 200 euros in about 3 hours. And yet I can well predict the reaction in some quarters if I were to start a thread entitled, say, “I took a job at 2.5 eurocents a word”.

You will note that here, as mentioned elsewhere, I consider we are paid for our time, like most labour, and the value of what we can produce in that time. A rate per word is just a device to arrive at the appropriate figure. (Note: this is not the same as being a "labour cost" for clients, see also the start of here. In essence, the client is paying for the deliverable of a translation; to the translator, that same money equates to payment for their time.)

Anyway, (seemingly) low rates per se are not the point at issue here (maybe I really just wanted to share my good luck with someone). The issue here is one of how much variety there is within the rates that one translator charges one client. I know of people who determine rates per job on the basis of vast numbers of criteria – the file format, the layout, the content in terms of i) difficulty and ii) subject matter, the deadline, the day of the week, even whether the client pays promptly…

This is all quite valid of course. I can even see that if you can compute the price without spending half a day over it, it is probably fairer to all concerned. Clients pay for what they actually need and receive; the translator does indeed get the fair day’s pay for the fair day’s work, each and every day. But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and I personally cannot be arsed fagging about adding half a eurocent per word because it’s an Excel file and deducting 5% because it’s not due for 2 weeks, or whatever.

I usually have one rate per client, on the grounds that the tricky stuff tends to be counterbalanced in the long run by something easier (or something that allows you to leverage the previous hard work). That is not the same as charging the same rate for all clients. Different clients offer different kinds of work and some clients’ projects are definitely easier than other clients’ projects, at least, that is how it seems to work for me. One agency tends to offer quite technical material, for example, and another more general commercial texts that are more straightforward. The word rate reflects that in each case.

(In case you think this doesn’t match what it says under “Prices” on this website – that section is primarily for first-time clients. In my experience, the first job for a client is often a fair reflection of the content of future work. So the initial rate is determined by factors such as content, but for subsequent jobs for the same client, the rate is likely to be unchanged. Unless it isn’t. I’m not an idiot. If the second job is nothing like the first, the rate is different, and ainsi de suite until we settle on an average.

I see three main benefits in this approach that I view as important. One is that the client knows what the cost is likely to be before they even contact me. Second, less time on admin and estimating for me. Third, I am less likely to make a billing mistake.

As regards surcharges for urgency or weekend working - basically, I take the view that I either have time to do the job or I haven't. If I haven't, then a client can offer 1 euro a word, but that doesn't create extra time in the day, and I would still have to decline. I definitely can't and definitely won't miss client X deadlines because client Y has offered me more money. Unfair and unethical, and if I were client X, I would hate a translator to do that to me. "Do as you would be done by” and all that kind of thing.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I typically charge one rate and one rate only for a client, and if I can do the job for that rate I will, and if I can't, I won't. And probably means I should change my mantra to “a fair month’s pay for a fair month’s work”, because that is actually the timeframe over which I tend to view whether or not an arrangement is “fair”.


Of course, if you spout words of wisdom along these lines, even if you openly and willingly admit that you fully understand and appreciate the opposite viewpoint, you’re always going to get the “yeah, but…” crew popping up and giving it large eventually. Such as:

I guess many translators do not understand that we have to charge different rates for different kinds of translation. It is obvious that we cannot have a fixed rate for all kinds of translation. For instance, I would charge only something like €0,06 per word or €0,80 per line for “slot translation.” However, I would charge for some special jobs €0,24 per word or €2,80 per line. The key lies in the time consumption.

I love it when people accuse me of not understanding something I have managed to grasp perfectly, but have merely rejected, like reincarnation or slapping people to get them to act how I would prefer. OK, so I remain hazy on the precise nature of “slot translation”, but I get the idea. I merely disagree with the assertion that "we have to charge different rates for different kinds...". I can fully comprehend the rationale behind doing so, and we are all completely free to choose the pricing structure that suits us and our customers. But we don't HAVE to do anything. And quite honestly, I’m old enough and ugly enough to start resenting it when I am told I do.

After I had thus responded by pointing out much of what precedes in summary form, my protagonist tried another angle, having first acknowledged my point about things evening themselves out in the long run, and then declaring herself a non-believer in the theory on the grounds of practical experience in an agency:

Working with those translator colleagues in house I found out how tricky this business is. The easiest projects were picked out by them and the harder ones go out to freelancers. Those PMs had their favourite freelancers and provided them easier projects while they assigned the hardest ones to the unflavoured freelance translators.

I can see that if the translator is the sort of person who is “assigned” work, then that could happen. I prefer to take the view that I am offered work, which I then choose to accept or decline, a decision based at least in part on whether I think I will earn a decent whack given my assessment of how long I think it will take. As I don't have the same rate for each client, it therefore follows that I tend to turn down the trickier-looking work from the lower end of the scale, safe in the knowledge that something offering "a fair day's pay...etc." will turn up within hours, like as not from the same source. So, if an agency keeps offering me things that are too "difficult" for me to hit target earnings per hour (day, week), I decline – for example in July 2009, I was offered nothing but PowerPoint by one particular agency for a couple of weeks, so I muttered darkly about increasing my rates if this carried on, and have not so much as sniffed a PowerPoint from that agency since. I am in no way forced to work on “hard” projects that otherwise warrant a higher rate as a result of my policy. If you are a translator who is “assigned” projects, perhaps my approach is unsuitable and the variable rate is better – there again, if you are assigned projects, I daresay you are probably told what you will be paid, not asked how much you will charge.

As a parting shot, she tried to batter me into submission with some maths. Maybe I should mention my Further Maths ‘A’ level (from back in the days when A levels were not available for 200 Nectar points) on this site somewhere to stop people adopting this tactic in future.

For example, I have had 9 projects from 3 direct clients and 4 agency clients this month. The total turnover comes to €12.214,36 and I pay 5 freelance colleagues for their help in 6 of those projects a total of €3.322,29. An income of €8.892,07 is not bad at all. The rates charged were from €0,06 to €0,18 for different projects.
If I had a flat rate of, say, €0,12 per word, the income would be €7.717,30. A difference of €1.174,77. Not a big deal?
Everyone has the right to stick to his own pricing structure. But just think this example over. I do it business-like.

I confess I became a little tetchy at this point. I know, me, tetchy – who’d’ve thunk it. But I felt it was a little rich that someone who claims to be business-like (and in the context could be at least hinting that she felt my approach did not warrant this description) could show such flagrant disregard for arithmetic. I responded thusly. So: I deduce from the income figures you gave for a rate of 0.12 that you handled about 64,300 words. If you cleared 8,892 for that, then your mean was a little under 0.14 per word. Given that you charge a range of from 0.06 to 0.18, it becomes immediately obvious that there is not a normal distribution around the median value of 0.12, and that it is skewed towards the upper end. Quite clearly, therefore, to opt to charge a flat rate of 0.12 would be idiocy, since you are clearly doing a higher volume above that rate than below it. If I were to come hypothetically strolling into your business and insist on a single rate, it would be 0.14. Although I expect we would then lose the customers that you usually charge 0.06!! I trust that satisfies your request to “think this example over”.

Some people have a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics. By all means argue against single-rate approach, but don’t do so by relying on an argument that confuses the median with the mean. Although really, I’m not sure I can be converted to adopt a case-by-case approach anyway.


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