Salomé Smith

8 October 2015

The problem of deciding on rates

One of the aspects of the language industry that I find the most difficult is that of the rates you ask for your work. With (potential) corporate clients especially, I am always torn between not wanting to quote so high that I don’t get the job and quoting so low that I don’t seem to have a high opinion of my own work.

Debate about this matter among language practitioners can become quite heated. There are those who feel that practitioners who offer or accept very low rates perpetuate the notion among companies that “anyone” can actually do what we do and that it is work that is not worth very much. They feel those people (should I count myself among them?) make it difficult for practitioners to be able to ask proper rates. They insist one should refuse to work at such ridiculous rates and rather go without the work. The other side of the story is of course those practitioners who need any potential income and feel they can’t afford to pass up any work. There is also a difference between being paid a lower rate for translating a book and still earning many thousands of much-needed rands, and translating a 1000-word document at a reduced rate – it doesn’t make it right, but it makes it harder for a translator who needs the income to say no.

A fair amount of my work is academic – theses, dissertations and assignments – and maybe I’m in the wrong, but I feel strongly that you can’t ask a student to pay a similar rate a big company can afford. I am actually so impressed when students contact me for editing and spend some of the little money they have on it while most of their peers don’t care about handing in high-quality work. I know there are editors who say no, the industry standard is 20–25c a word and that is what they ask regardless of who the client is, but I just can’t bring myself to do that – and if I decide to stick to the standard rates, I would automatically lose all these students as clients. I know the income I get from them is small change compared to that of other practitioners, but it does help me out and I’m grateful for it.

However, though I offer discounted rates to students and NGOs, and have accepted pretty low rates in the past, I agree wholeheartedly that the public perception of our industry needs to change. I have also been fortunate the last few months – I have decided to adopt an attitude of “quote a proper rate and come what may” when quoting for larger companies, and have had some success with my quotes being accepted. I have heard accounts of people who wanted to pay for only the mistakes being rectified in a document and not be charged for the total word count. Publishers are apparently often guilty of offering rock-bottom rates for translation while they make plenty of money out of the end product; companies sometimes pay for translation up to a point, and then decide that anyone with online resources and a dictionary can translate, so the former translator is only asked to edit the translation and clean up somebody else’s bad attempt. People don’t seem to realise that we put a lot of effort, time, knowledge and study into our work and we take great pride in doing it well. I intentionally make people aware of what the industry standard rate is, even if we come to a different agreement because the client is a student or an NGO. Hopefully, as our profession is generally gaining a higher profile recently, people will become better aware of what fair rates are and that they truly are getting value for their money.


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