Low translation rates: why working for peanuts is BAD for you
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Low translation rates: why working for peanuts is BAD for you

I often come across great posts written by fellow translators on the subject of low translation rates. Here’s a couple of more recent examples for you. The first one is a story shared by Marie Bortnov, a Nl>En medical translator. The second one was published last week by Dmitry Kornyukhov, also known as the Best Russian Translator, on his blog. These two posts made me think of my own reasons to start breaking out of the bulk translations market earlier this year and in this post I want to share them with you.


I won’t write about the obvious fact that when translators charge below a certain level, they are doing a big disservice to the industry as a whole and to the clients as well (these two ideas deserve separate posts). I will focus on how low rates affect me (and probably you!) as a professional.


The main reason why my rates are not where I want them to be is because I have never thought about them as being low (which they definitely are) until recently. Firstly, even 0.06 USD per word is 5 times more than the maximum rate I have ever been offered by a Russian translation agency (and usually they pay even less).


Secondly, it’s very easy to settle if you live in a country where the cost of living is relatively low, do not have to buy a place to live in and get the salary in euros, so even when the prices are going up like they are doing now in Russia, it doesn’t really affect you. I mean if you can get twice the average wage in your country while working far less than you would if you had a regular 9 to 5 job, there are not many things left to wish for, right? Wrong!


The problem with low rates is not just that you have to work more to make a living. After all, work is not only about money. It’s also about getting satisfaction from what you do, establishing yourself as a professional and doing things you love and can be proud of (well, at least it’s something I’m striving to achieve).


Let’s have a closer look at all these aspects, shall we? Let me tell you a personal story that perfectly demonstrates what I’m talking about.


A couple of months ago I got a letter from an agency client saying that the end client was not happy with a certain part of my translation. To be more exact, they thought that it ‘wasn’t very creative’ and suggested I use the attached file as a reference of what they were looking for.


I was surprised to get such feedback, since I had translated this part of the text as a (paid) test translation and the end client had been perfectly happy with my work (or so I had been told).


My amazement went up a notch when I opened the reference file. It was a word for word translation of the English copy. It sounded stiff and not engaging. It was obvious that the text had been translated from another language, and we all know, that it’s not good, especially for a marketing copy.


It turned out that the reference file had been translated by another team of translators working for this same agency. The client ordered two tests for two types of translation: a standard translation with proofreading and a ‘creative’ one.


I don’t know why the client chose the ‘creative’ version, which was objectively worse than my ‘standard’ translation, but my guess is that they didn’t have a qualified Russian speaker on their team and just decided to pick聽the more expensive option, believing that it had to be of better quality.


Also I’m not sure why the PM gave the translation to me, and not to the person who did the ‘creative’ translation, which would have been a logical and fair thing to do.


Anyway, there I was sitting in front of my laptop with an email from the agency PM asking me to replace my carefully crafted translation with something that was considered to be ‘more creative’.


I did my best to explain to the PM why using the ‘creative’ translation would be damaging for the end customer’s brand. I even asked them to arrange a call with the client, but they didn’t. This is sad, but not surprising: how can you let the client find out that the more expensive version they bought from you is worse than the cheaper one? In the end I had to give up.


Of course, this is not something that I come across on a regular basis, but this incident made me wonder: could something like this happen in the premium translation market? Probably not. It certainly wouldn’t happen, if I had put enough effort into finding direct clients. It’s not easy, it takes time, it’s not being paid for directly, so there’s no way I could do it while charging low rates.


Does this kind of work bring me satisfaction? It certainly doesn’t. I mean, it’s copying and pasting of something I don’t even consider to be good. I like creative work. That’s why I specialize in marketing translations in the first place. I find joy in trying to convey not only the meaning, but also the style and feel of the text. I can be proud of the quality of translations that I provide, but what good does that bring to the client, if they don’t use it?


Do such projects improve my position as a professional in my field? Not at all! I couldn’t persuade the PM to put me in touch with the client, although I’m sure that if I could talk with them, I would have been able to convince them to change their mind and use my translation. In fact, I’m not even sure that the PM forwarded my emails describing my concerns to the client, for the reason I mentioned above.


The feeling of helplessness (and that’s exactly how I felt at the end of our back and forth with the PM) is not the best helper in building confidence, you know. I want to provide value. I don’t want my work to be discarded just because someone doesn’t understand what a good copy looks like or doesn’t care enough about providing the best result.


I’m glad that this story happened after I started on my marketing journey. It proved that I’m doing the right thing and moving in the right direction. I’ve been talking to a colleague on Twitter the other day and she said, that she’s been feeling overwhelmed with all the things she had to do to find clients. I feel that way quite often, but I don’t want that to stop me from developing the new skills that I need to have a more fulfilling and interesting business. And I hope you won’t let that stop you either.



Image courtesy of Diego Meneghetti.


  • Marie Brotnov

    15.09.2015 at 20:48 Reply

    Hi Elena, thank you for the nice mention, and for an excellent post on why low rates help no one except the middleman. It’s odd but true that the lower your rate, the stranger and more unreasonable the demands. I think part of it is the human tendency to feel that you get what you pay for. If your rates are high, what you communicate is that you know what you’re doing and that they can trust you to do your job. It’s a growing process for most of us and I’m glad you’ve joined the battle 馃檪

    • Elena

      16.09.2015 at 12:23 Reply

      Hi Marie, thank you for coming by! I’m happy to be part of the translators community. This alone is a great motivation to develop the networking skills. 馃檪

      The fact that the less you charge, the more demands you have to satisfy is not surprising, when you come to think of it. Whether we want it or not, the perceived level of our expertise is in part determined by our rates. Like you say, people believe that they get what they pay for.

      If they pay little, they expect to get a laborer, who is supposed to obey all instructions and do what they are told. If they pay more, they probably want to get an expert and a partner whom they can trust with their project and don’t have to control every step of the way.

  • Dmitry Kornyukhov

    21.09.2015 at 19:59 Reply

    Hi Lena,
    Great post and thank you so much for sharing your story. Been there, done that, as they say. The problem that many freelance translators face these days is the lack of motivation and support from fellow translators. Especially in Russia where everyone treats each other as a competitor which I think is absolutely ridiculous.
    Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep moving in the direction that you feel is right for you. Because it’s worth it.

    • Elena

      22.09.2015 at 00:38 Reply

      Hi Dmitry, thanks for dropping by and for the kind words! I also think that we’d be much better off if we viewed other translators as colleagues, who can help, and people we can learn a lot from, rather than competitors. It’s great that there are translators who understand that.

  • Margarita Sivetss

    26.09.2015 at 19:41 Reply

    Elena, thank you for a great article, motivating indeed! I would add that some translators are reluctant to higher their rates because they are not sure if they are good enough. On the other hand, reality shows that the better a translator gets, the more doubts he or she has about his or her work. And amateurs think their translations are flawless. Anyway, increasing the rates is the right thing to do, i’m with you 100% on that point!

    • Elena

      27.09.2015 at 00:49 Reply

      Yes, it’s absolutely true! The better we get, the better we understand our limitations.

      Thanks for the support. 馃檪

  • Anthony Green

    27.09.2015 at 16:48 Reply

    One measurement of my pricing that I have found useful for raising my prices is that if nearly everyone accepts my price then it’s probably too low.

    • Elena

      27.09.2015 at 16:59 Reply

      Sounds like a good way to see when you can raise the rates. Thanks for sharing, Anthony!

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