A “10% off” tag on knowledge and accountability?

Would you go to a lawyer’s office and say, “Hey, if I bring coffee and donuts to our meeting, could you drop your price down from $250 per hour to $175?”

You would never consider that, would you? Lawyers offer specialized knowledge of the law, help you navigate through legal troubles, and help your business succeed. So why should translators be treated any differently?

Since we don’t necessarily need a degree or license to work as translators, many tend to believe that translating is an informal occupation, a side job we can do in our spare time, you know, while we’re taking a break from our “real job.”

I can assure you that is not the case for most professional translators, at least not in the long run. I started as a translator back in 1997, while I was teaching English as a second language. However, after translation work put me through college, I decided to make it official and become a full-time translator, starting my own business and teaming up with like-minded professionals whose main purpose is to offer responsible language services.

“Responsible services?” you might ask. Being the go-between, transmitting somebody else’s thoughts and intentions in a different language, does come with a lot of responsibility.

Just as a lawyer represents you in court and before authorities, translators and interpreters represent you in your interactions with a target audience that doesn’t speak your language. Translators can make or break a project, contributing to having consumers either rush to the store to buy your product or laugh at your expense.

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With that in mind, I’d like to go straight to the point: Why do clients feel the need to ask for discounts when hiring translation services? Here are the Top 3 arguments I’ve heard in the past fifteen years:

  • “The text is very short!” ― Translating is not about word count alone; it’s about content and context. Taking an example from David Bellos’ book “Is That a Fish in your Ear?,” the following headline is pretty short, but it takes considerable effort to be rendered in an intelligible way in another language and culture: GOP VEEP PICK ROILS DEMS. Anyone hired to translate these five little words must first know about American politics and be up to date on current events to produce something that can be understood by non-US readers.
  • “The text is very easy!” ― Information on sophisticated chemical processes is commonplace for chemical engineers. An article on advances in cardiovascular surgery is very accessible to most physicians. Building codes and regulations are right up a civil engineer’s or an architect’s alley. However, specialization is just one of the aspects that go into translation. What may seem easy in the source language might not be easily transferred to the target language. Do the same technologies exist in the target country? What are the terms and concepts being used nowadays in that market pertaining to the specific area? Are there any cultural sensitivities that need to be factored in? Even the simplest texts take research and tact to sound natural to readers in another language.
  • “If you give me a discount, I’ll assign more work to you in the near future!” ― Ah, the good old “volume discount”… More work simply means MORE WORK, period. If you go to a dental hygienist once every quarter, it means you like the service. Any dental hygienist would surely appreciate your loyalty, but they can’t offer you free sessions if you promise to come back periodically. If they did that, they would soon be out of business. The same is true for translators: If we give discounts for a small project on the promise that more work will come our way or―worse―discounts for a huge project because you think long-term commitment provides us with some sort of financial stability, we’ll be making less and less per hour and our bills simply won’t pay for themselves.

When we name our rate per word, page, hour or project, a lot goes into that calculation. Most professional translators have a pretty good idea about our daily output in the best- and worst-case scenarios. When we first take a look at your files, we can estimate how long it will take us to finish the job and how much it is worth, considering our background, specialization, and other important variables, which also include our own expenses in getting the job done well.

We spend years studying and investing in our continuing education and the fruits of that investment go into every single project we accept. We also spend a lot of time learning about new technology, which will make our work more manageable on several fronts, from easy accessibility to legacy material through redundant backup solutions (CDs, zip drives, and servers in the cloud) all the way to the consistency provided by computer-assisted translation tools (which record our progress and allow us to retrieve previously translated sentences and refer to glossaries we’ve built with preferred terminology.)

Our investments actually “translate” into the time savings that we pass on to you when taking less time to get your project done correctly, while being more efficient and accurate in the process. And all that comes with a fair price tag.

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7 Responses to A “10% off” tag on knowledge and accountability?

  1. Thais Lips says:

    Why do we make per hour less than a plumber? I still don’t understand why we don’t have a union.
    It is true that we -still- don’t need a license to work, but more in terms of marketing and public education should be done by our associations.

  2. Nelida K. says:

    Excellent post. Those arguments are heard from clients, or prospective clients, time and again. I am a certified translator in my country, with a University degree in translation, and we do have a union, of sorts (in fact an association of certified translators) with an official price list. And yet, even our own colleagues, some hungrier than others, constantly undersell us and drag the price market down (below what a plumber charges, as @Thais Lips aptly mentioned).
    The promise (or bait, rather) that is dangled in front of our noses, of more work to be assigned to us in future, is indeed commonplace. As well as the “it’s a pretty straightforward text” (a variation of the “it’s simple”). How would an agent, who does not speak the language, know what is straightforward or not? A simple idiom could take hours to be acceptably translated, or rendered, into the target language.
    Again, congratulations on a clear, no-nonsense post with truths that need, from time to time, be again hammered home.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Nelida! It’s always good to repeat these truths, because some clients may not be aware of what goes into translation.

    I believe it is our duty to make it clear how labor-intensive this profession is and how much knowledge professional translators must accumulate in their areas in order to do a good job that will respect both the owner of the original document (being faithful to their intentions) and the reader receiving the information (for the obvious reason of fulfilling the purpose of the message.)

  4. Tim Windhof says:

    I could not agree more with your article. I have practiced law for several years in Germany before becoming a full-time translator. Not one of my clients tried to negotiate regarding my rates when I practiced as an attorney! And sometimes (at least in Germany)there are minimum charges based on the subject matter, which will not allow (!) an attorney to give a discount. However, I simply don’t go below my minimum price as a translator, and simply enjoy translating…

    • Hi Tim! Thanks for corroborating my argument. Yes, lawyers are seen as professionals who provide very important services; therefore, their rate is justified. Translators are unfortunately still seen as someone performing an activity on the side, something everybody else could do if they had more time on their hands, so they can always give clients a discount, right? 🙂

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