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How can one make a living making .04 per word for translations
Thread poster: alps
alps  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 15:19
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Sep 27, 2005

(First of all, I should explain that I’ve been a translator since 1997. I’ve been with ProZ for about 4 weeks or whereabouts. My top language pairings are English-Portuguese and Portuguese-English. That said, I’ve seen numerous ads and offers for other language pairings as well.)

Now, the puzzle: Oftentimes, I see people (or companies) requesting highly technical (medical, literature, scientific) translation work for .04-.08USD per word, sometimes for rush (or next-day) jobs. And I've also noticed that many translators offer their services for those same amounts.

I have two questions related to the above observation regarding the ProZ ads (whether offering or requesting translation services).

1) What sort of quality level would a client expect from a translator who charges next to nothing for his/her work? Say, 2,000 words - about a full day’s load - for .05USD per word, or a total of $100. Certainly, that’s very good money in Somalia or in Haiti - but in the US or in the EU?

2) How does the freelance translator in question make a living at .04 or .07USD per word - when most people only manage to translate about 2,000-2,500 words a day?

2,500 words per day at .04USD per word would represent US$100 a day, US$500 a week, or approximately a miserly US$2,000 a month for high-skilled work. (That is, *IF* you work full days, every day from Monday to Friday.) People serving burgers at McDonald's can make that much or more in some US cities.

Even at .07USD per word, one would make $175 per day, US$875 per week, and US$3,500 a month. That’s a barely manageable sum, considering that you’d have to pay full social security taxes, while also paying out of pocket for health or other social/work benefits that usually accompany full employment elsewhere. (And once again, you’d make those $3,500 *IF* you work full days, every day from Monday to Friday.)

(And by the way, call any US-based translation business for quotes, and you'll discover that they charge much, much, MUCH more than the paltry sum of .04USD or .08USD per word for their services - expect to hear 35cents-55cents per word instead. And usually those rates do NOT include editing/proof-reading. How come they’re doing good business?)

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George Runde
Local time: 18:19
Norwegian to English
+ ...
I agree with you Sep 28, 2005

I think some freelancers that have other income may pick up some of the jobs you are referring to. If your living is not dependent upon the money you make translating, an extra $100 is ok both in the US and EU, right?

I was asked by an agency in India the other day to provide info for potential jobs. The day after I sent them my information, they sent me a rush job, asking me to return it completed by the next day...this even after I had made it clear they were offering less than half of my minimum. Guess the rate? Exactly - 4 cents per word.

In the end, It's always going to take quality people to do a quality job. Most quality agencies realize this and don't try to have it both ways.

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Todd Field  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 16:19
Member (2003)
Portuguese to English
A result of simple supply and demand Sep 28, 2005

Excellent questions, André. It's an emotional issue for sure, since we are talking about our very livelihoods. It's also a common forum topic.

I believe both questions can be answered: "a result of simple supply and demand".

1) What sort of quality level would a client expect from a translator who charges next to nothing for his/her work?

Perhaps the exact level needed. Not all translations require a quality level suitable for publication.

To take our own language pair, a customer may pay $0.10 or $0.15 per word for a qualified, professional, highly-experienced native English linguist to translate os nossos colaboradores as "our staff" for a prominent Portuguese company's web site. The same customer may pay $0.05 per word for another translator to translate os nossos colaboradores as "our collaborators" for an internal company document, nothing that a sensible company would use to represent themselves, but intelligible enough for its intended purpose.

In summary, if a translation accomplishes what it needs to under quality expectations and business terms satisfying everyone involved, then one could say that supply and demand (i.e. supply of service from the freelancer to the customer) are arguably in balance.

2) How does the freelance translator in question make a living at $0.04 or $0.07 USD per word when most people only manage to translate about 2,000-2,500 words a day?

Again, supply and demand, I think. If the work setting, income and so on are appealing to someone with the right linguistic skills, then why not?

In many interior regions of the U.S., for example, $2,000 per month is an adequate level of income to support a decent lifestyle, especially when coupled with income and health benefits from a spouse with a steady job. And although arguably not ideal compensation for such a specialized skill as translating, it's much more than what you get at McDonald's.

Again to summarize: if a freelancer's unique professional and life goals are being met at $0.04-$0.07 per word, then supply and demand (i.e. supply of work from the customer to the freelancer) are arguably in balance.

So, if your freelance model is quality-driven and not price-driven, you don’t have to worry that our profession is going to "hell in a handbasket" when you see job offers far below your target rate. The Internet has brought different translation markets into very sudden contact, that's all. Simply shrug your shoulders and say "no worries... not my market!".

[Edited at 2005-09-28 02:05]

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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 16:19
English to Spanish
+ ...
Productivity Sep 28, 2005

Productivity is another answer. 2,500 words per day at .04USD per word represent US$100 a day, US$500 a week or US$2,000 a month. At .07USD per word, one would make $175 per day, US$875 per week, and US$3,500 a month.

Now, if you double those figures, 5,000 words per day at .04USD, you go up to $4,000 a month, and At .07USD per word, $7,000 a month.

Of course, you cannot always expect to be working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. At times it may be only a few hours several days a week or then maybe a month of marathon sessions, 70 or 80 hours a week. You can never tell.

Also, a much better rate and still not too high is US 0.10 per word. Working at those rates on a fairly steady basis can produce a farily good income even for countries such as the USA. Now you're talking US$10,000 a month; actually $10,833.25 multiplying by 4.3333 because a month has more than 4 weeks.

That will buy a lot of beans anywhere.

But the key is productivity, and it is not just volume, it is volume with top quality. In addition to that, you need to keep reasonably busy, which means you need a good flow of work, not always easy to get. But if you have productivity (volume + quality) it becomes easier in time.

It can be done, but it requires a lot of hard work.

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Monika Coulson  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:19
Member (2001)
English to Albanian
+ ...
Poll results Sep 28, 2005

Several days ago 457 members voted on their income and the results were as follows:

What's your average annual income derived from translation?

Less than 15K EUR 30.6%
30-45K EUR 14.4%
Don't want to tell 12.9%
45K-60K EUR 8.5%
60-80K EUR 5.9%
15-30K EUR 4.1%
More than 80K EUR 3.5%

No comment...

[Edited at 2005-09-28 03:55]

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LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:19
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Subcontracting Sep 28, 2005

At least some of these job offers are from other freelancers posing as agencies.

They accept jobs from an agency at a higher rate (.08/.09/.10 cents) for which they may or may not be qualified to translate and then subcontract them out to other translators on at .04/.05 a word. This also explains all the tight deadlines.

Some of them promise you more work in the future at a higher rate, but this is a lie.

In the Internet world, it can sometimes be hard to tell whether you are dealing with a genuine company or a college student earning extra money out of their dorm room.

In addition, some people offer translation services outside of their native language and their translations are not worth much more than .05 a word anyway.

[Edited at 2005-09-28 17:58]

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Sharon Sun  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:19
English to Chinese
Nod and agree Sep 28, 2005

You are definitely right. The translator should be treated better, especially for high quality ones. However, due to severe competition, it turns out to be a poor scenario, we are robbing our own money. That's too bad!!!

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Dina Abdo  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:19
Member (2005)
+ ...
Agencies and Freelancers! Sep 28, 2005

Well, Andre; your questions I believe are some of many most of us as freelancers considered from time to time. Allow me to pay your attention to some points:

1. Value of USD isn't the same every where. 100$=450NIS here in Palestine for example. The best salary you gain as a governmental employee in Gaza is 500$ (if right less than a minister). Do you know what does that mean? It means that the rate of 0.05 can make a great income for so many people in here, and in so many other places around the world.

2. Clients hardly think of seeking the term "freelancer" in search engines. Use Google fight to compare it with the search results of "agency" to know what I'm talking about. That term "freelancer" is a business term we use in our business as translators. I can't really imagine a common everyday man who doesn't speak English but needs a translation from English into another language seeking for "freelance translator". Maybe free, company, agency or just translator; but not FREELANCER!

3. Agencies as entities are far more trusted when it comes to clients. If I'm a client looking for a translator, I'll seek for a translation agency instead of searching for a translator who I'll never be sure if he/she is going to provide me the quality I need on the deadline I demand. Agencies, on the other hand, can never disappear. I can always contact them back for complaints, knowing how far they may go to protect their reputation. A freelancer may just disappear as all the ways I can get to him/her should be an e-mail or a telephone number at best.I experienced that myself (I didn't disappear, but got loaded with a project and required an assisting translator who disappeared later causing me a doubled effort to get the project done before deadline ... which I did by the way).

4. Many of those problems were already solved: Platinum memberships on for example offered clients a trust line; why would a translator cost him/herself a membership fee if not comitted to his/her work ... you know? Still, those matters are clear to us as translators, not as common everyday clients.

5. Business requires lower rates sometimes. Agencies and teams may offer incredibly decreased rates on seeking contracted services with heavy clients. If two equal teams are offering different rates for LG CO. let's say, then why would you expect a corporation to go after the higher rate?! That cheaper group of translators will get that contract from the other competitor, and a year later; after proving how good they can be, they can just raise their rates which will remain less (but little less actually) than the older contractor rate. Still, it's them and the client are the wonners.

6. New translators are getting into the market everyday. They need to start marketing themselves before getting into actual business. This marketing thing can take years if one is working on his/her own (I'm sure you can figure it out as a freelancer). What can be better than low rates and even free parts of large projects to market yourself?

You better stop thinking about those question Andre ... this is life ... and business ... unfortunately we can almost do nothing about it.

I think the only thing we can do is going on with our good work hoping that it would prove us to be the ones who worth it ... but until then ...

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Peter Bouillon  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:19
Member (2005)
French to German
+ ...
Higher than highest, of course! Sep 28, 2005

Note, by the way, the following threads where low paying agencies have been discussed recently:

Andre Soares wrote:
1) What sort of quality level would a client expect from a translator who charges next to nothing for his/her work?

You can be quite sure that a lot of those clients will be most exacting and that they will insist on the highest return imaginable. And afterwards, they will try to get away with delaying, cutting or refusing the pay.

This is only to be expected, after all: They've already shown evidence (through the fees they offer) that they lack any sense for what is reasonable or just. Pricing will not be the only area where this will come to bear.

If you do take up jobs in the very low price bracket, I advise that you post calculate your return per hour after the job is completely done. Take into account any and every activity you had to do. The result will probably be an eye-opener. You lose by a much higher percentage than might be expected from dividing the bargain rate by your normal rate.


[Edited at 2005-09-28 09:47]

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Ivana de Sousa Santos  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:19
French to Portuguese
+ ...
That's the rates we usually practise in Portugal, not in the USA Sep 28, 2005

Dear André,

As a Portuguese citizen, I can say that 0.04-0.08 € per word are the rates we usually practise here in Portugal and these are the rates we are usually offered by agencies in and out of Portugal. So, it's not a case of unfair competition with our collegues in the USA or in the UK.

Can we make a living with those rates? Yes, if we have a considerable amount of work during a month, but it's not with a 0.04€ per word rate that we can do it. I usually decline this rate, unless there is a considerable amount of words to translate and I only do it for my regular clients.

You should consider the answer to your question from this point of view.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:19
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Forget not about the part-timers Sep 28, 2005

Andre Soares wrote:
2) How does the freelance translator in question make a living at .04 or .07USD per word - when most people only manage to translate about 2,000-2,500 words a day?

Not all freelancers are full-timers. Some people use translation to *supplement* their income, and they undercut the full-timers by unwittingly charging a rate which is very low.

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John Walsh  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:19
Member (2004)
Italian to English
. Sep 28, 2005

most people only manage to translate about 2,000-2,500 words a day?

I hope most freelancers can produce more than that in a day. My daily output is about 5,000 words, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on deadlines (and how much I feel like working).

People serving burgers at McDonald's can make that much or more in some US cities.

I don't mean to sound nasty but...go make burgers if the extra money would make you happier. I love translating. And the more experience I gain the faster I the more I earn, all for doing something I love.
I think a school teacher should earn more than a football player. Too bad the job market has a different opinion.

(call any US-based translation business for quotes, and you'll discover that they charge much, much, MUCH more than the paltry sum of .04USD or .08USD per word for their services - expect to hear 35cents-55cents per word instead.)

If you go to 7/11 and buy a coke for a buck do you think it costs them a dollar to make it? It probably costs them about 2 cents.
Freelancers just need to build up their direct client base or open their own agencies....that's when it's their turn to become slave drivers.

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Els Thant, M.A., B.Tr.
Local time: 17:19
Spanish to Dutch
+ ...
It's a free market... Sep 28, 2005

I agree with both Todd and Henry, who talk about 2 key issues:

1. Balance between supply and demand

In my case, this means I apply rates according to the market I work for. I have clients in both Ecuador and Belgium. Obviously, rates and quality standards are very different in these countries. This means I might charge a local Ecuadorian client half of the rate I charge a Belgian client. But this also means my Ecuadorian client might sometimes receive a translation that is not of the same quality as the ones I make for a Belgian client. When I first started translating for local clients, it was difficult for me to accept this, but I've learnt not to deliver a "top quality translation" (thoroughly proofread, thanks to a reasonable deadline) when my Ecuadorian client simply does not expect this quality (and certainly is not willing to pay for it)!
If I can earn twice as much working for Belgian clients, why do I translate for Ecuadorian clients? Because I live in Ecuador and wish to have a minimum of local clients in order to have a local income. Because for my language pairs, there is a demand/market - although it may be a small one - for quality translators here. And because I am one of the very few people who are able to translate into Dutch.
People like me, working in a country where the cost of living is lower than in the US or Europe, might charge lower rates, but not necessarily (always) provide poor quality translations...

2. Productivity and a good work flow

When I first started working as a fulltime freelancer, one of the most difficult things was to assure a more or less continuous work flow. And that's why it is important not to desperately perform any job, at any rate. Maybe you should accept that, in the beginning, you will not earn as much money as you wish, but I would advise you to use the time you are not translating to carefully select the people you want to work for. It will allow you to gradually increase your productivity and to assure a continuous work flow.

Anyway, it's a free market... And as a free-lancer, you are free to choose at what rates you want to work, when you want to work, where you want to work, with whom you want to work!

I wish you all the best!


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