An hourly rate for translation?

A few articles have recently been published on the possibility of changes to fee structures in the language service industry. The time-honored way in which freelance translators charge out for their work has been per word, while freelance interpreters generally charge out per hour or day.

Now, however, there is talk of translators charging out per hour for their work as well. This suggestion has been with backlash, as translators assume that an hourly rate will result in less income than they might earn per word, especially if they are able to translate a job quickly, thus getting paid for fewer hours of their time. And indeed, their fears may be justified if they fail to focus on productivity and total project cost.

When a client requests an estimate for a job, what they really want is the total cost for that project. As translators, we have taught them that we determine our costs per word, but this really is just one way of valuing our work. In the end, money is money, regardless of the calculation used to come up with a final number. But it does require that translators rethink the way in which they quote jobs.

A theoretical example may help clarify this idea. Let’s say that a client has 1,000 words to be translated. Normally, translators would quote a price based on their per-word rate. For simplicity’s sake, let’s use a theoretical fee of $0.10 a word. So, the translator would tell the client that this job is going to cost $100.

This is where productivity comes in. An experienced translator may think, “I can do this job in about 90 minutes”; whereas a less experienced translator may say, “This job is going to take me 4 hours.” In both cases, the client is going to be invoiced $100 for this job, but one translator will earn around $67 an hour, while the less experienced one makes $25 an hour.

Thus, from total cost to output per hour, we have one way that translators can charge out at hourly rates and still earn the same amount of total income. If the market moves in this direction, our job will then be to explain why these rates vary among translators. The answer is productivity; and productivity is a function of training, knowledge and experience.

This transition will not be easy, but if the industry does switch to an hourly model, each one of us needs to be prepared to justify and defend an hourly rate based on our individual productivity.