Focus On: New Translators (Part 3 – Be a business)

Dear New(ish) Translators,

I delivered this talk as part of the MA in Translation at Queens’ University, Belfast, and decided to turn it into Part 3 of my Focus on: New Translators series, as a sort of an open letter. As you’ll see from most of my material, I’m big on openness in the translation industry. I think that new translators should start as they mean to go on, by putting practices in place that mean they’re running their business as a business, right from the start. So let’s get going.

I’ll start by telling you a bit about the way I work. I collaborate primarily with direct clients, with a few agencies thrown in for good measure. It’s been a conscious move for me over the past few years – not without its ups and down, of course – as I preferred to cut out the middle man, otherwise known as large-scale translation agencies. But first, I feel the need to point out….

Working with direct clients is more work.

You need to be prepared to handle much more of the translation process. It’s not necessarily about being available 24/7. In fact, I’ve found that many of my direct clients prefer you to get on with the work and just deliver, rather than fill them in every time you blow your nose. What I mean about handling more of the translation process is that the finished product needs to be just that – a finished product – when you deliver it. This can mean detailed research, in-depth knowledge of their business and industry, working on formatting, or using different software, and it will always, always involve several layers of checking, by third parties (i.e. colleagues.) Afterwards, it can also mean a bit more back and forth to get everything to their satisfaction.

Sound like a lot of work? It is.

But the rewards – not just financial, but also the reward of being a valued member of a team – outweigh any perceived “hassle”, in my opinion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because before you get to the stage of doing all that extra work for direct clients, you have to figure out what to charge them in the first place. I’m a big believer in openness in the translation industry, and so a while back I got some esteemed colleagues together and we held a live chat on translator rates. The sole aim of the chat was to have an open, honest and supportive session around how much and the way translators charge.  We shared actual numbers, proposals and invoices, so that colleagues could see how other people do it, and (we all) picked up some tips along the way. When it came to direct clients, one of the first tips we discussed was “Don’t charge agency rates to direct clients.” A few minutes ago, I talked about the extra work involved in working with direct clients, and that’s what you need to bear in mind. But don’t get me wrong,

Working with agencies is a terrific way to hone your translation skills.

As a bonus, it’s also a gentler introduction to working with clients. The agency will take care of finding them in the first place, preparing the document, liaising with the client on queries, reviewing and proofing the translation, delivery to the client (and any post-delivery issues), and then they’ll take care of invoicing and payment.

That’s a pretty good deal for you.

But it also means that you’re going to pay for that convenience, i.e. the agency will take their cut. This does not mean that all agencies pay translators poorly while they keep the lion’s share to themselves. There are hundreds of great agencies who value the translators with whom they collaborate, and pay them accordingly. I am not an agency basher; I started my career working with agencies, and I still work with a few super agencies now.

Be a business

Having said all this, my earlier point still stands: when it comes to working with direct clients, you need to allow for the extra administration, as well as all of the extra services you’ll be providing to them…such as the ones I outlined previously. You need to think of yourself as a business from the get-go, and, as a business, you are providing a service and adding value to your client’s offering, so you need to factor that value, plus the added admin on your side, into your fees. You’ll also discover that, when you work with direct clients, they’re mainly interested in 3 things:

  1. What do they get?
  2. How much is it going to cost?
  3. How long will it take?

Although, brevity is best when it comes to answering these questions, i.e. making that information patently clear in your quote, you do need to be prepared for them coming back to you and questioning it – either because they wish to negotiate (for some clients that’s just an automatic response, regardless of whether they think your price is too low or too high) or because they’d like to understand what they’re getting (see point 1 above) with your service.

Translation is a scary thing for many clients. It’s one of the only services they’ll contract where they have no idea, without a third-party review, if the quality is good, bad or Google Translate. Chris Durban, a (rock star) colleague who has written extensively for translators, wrote a brilliant essay on this subject – it’s here. So for this reason you might need to hand hold a bit during these early stages, provide examples or samples and walk them through some elements of the translation process.

So how do you calculate your rates in a non pulling them out of the clear blue sky way?

You work them out. In detail.

I use a fantastic rates calculator from Luke Spear. It comes with his (also fantastic) book The Translation Sales Handbook, which is now free to download. Luke’s calculator takes you through the basics of what you need to consider when working out what to charge, with cells to fill in for all your basic expenses, both for personal and business costs (including ones that we often forget.) Importantly, it also allows for re-investment and growth within your business, which helps you view your business as a business right from the start….rather than just an on-the-side thing that you happen to earn money from. Because, I can assure you, HMRC, your landlord and your utilities provider all view your work as “real” work….if people pay you money, you’re in business. So think that way from Day 1. Importantly, Luke’s tool also provides you with several different scenarios, for example, a mix of agency and direct clients, 100% agency work or 100% direct clients. Finally, it breaks it down so you can charge the way you feel suits you – per hour, per word, per line….there are several options.

If you don’t want to use a calculator, you can always work this information out yourself. Get your bank statements out, check through all your outgoings and create a rundown of your expenses. Here are a few ideas on your expenses, for both personal and business:

  • TAX
  • CPD

In Part 1 of the New Translators series, I touched on the topic of working out how much you need to earn, so I thought I’d outline it in detail for you here in 7 simple steps.

  1. Add all of the above figures together (and probably add in some more which are relevant to your own situation) – this will give you your expenses per month.
  2. Multiply these out over the course of a year.
  3. Work out how much you’ll be working during a given year. Be realistic about this. Yes, you’ll probably pull some all-nighters over the course of your career, but saying that you’re going to work 16 hour days, 6 days a week, isn’t just unsustainable, it’s unrealistic. Also factor in the fact that, at the beginning, you may be balancing your freelance work with studies or other part time work.
  4. Now you need to allow for holiday time and sick days – again, be realistic about these.
  5. Minus the number of days for holiday and sick days from the number of working days you came up with in Step 3. The figure from this is your number of working days per year.
  6. Divide your overall expenses for the year (Step 1) by the number of working days (Step 5.) This is your daily rate.
  7. Divide your daily rate by the number of hours you’ll work in a day (usually 7-5 to 8 hours, if you’re full time.) What you end up with is your hourly rate.

Here’s an infographic, to walk you through it:


When you cut through all of the chatter about how we charge, whether it’s per word, character, line, hour, day, project….you still need to come back to this figure, as although we may deal in words, they are not a tangible thing. What you can rely on though, is working things out on a time-spent basis. You need these units to be able to correspond them to the expenses you have.

This brings me on to my final point. How on earth do you figure out how long something takes you? Again. Tracking. Track everything you do. Figure out how long it takes you to translate a certain number of words. Break a translation down. How long did it take you to do the rough draft, then the polished version, then the final review and proof? (If you want some more detail on this, check out the Let’s Talk Rates chat where Caroline takes us through how she tracks her work.) At the beginning of your career this is hard to figure out. In all likelihood, you’ll be handling different text types and subject matters, so translations will vary, but my advice is still the same. Track it all. I use Toggl, it’s an online tool to track your productivity, and was recommended to me by my colleague, and fellow panellist on the Let’s Talk Rates chat, Victoria Patience.

I use Toggl to keep a handle on how long things take me, not just for being able to provide clients with accurate estimations on a delivery schedule, but also because I work on a retainer basis with some clients, so I “give them” a number of days of my time per month, which they pay me upfront for, i.e. they retain my services. I need to be sure that this is in both of our best interests, for example, that I’m not doing 4 days’ work for them when they’re only paying me for 3, or vice versa. Using a tool like Toggl (which is free) ensures that I’m always aware of how much time I’m allocating to each project. You don’t have to use a tool, you can just keep track of it yourself with a spreadsheet and the timer on your phone. You don’t need high-tech solutions. Just make sure that you’re tracking each task, the type of task it is, the client and how much you charged them….that way you can figure out how much you’re actually earning on each job….and whether your pricing is about right or way off base. This, in combination with working out how much you need to earn, will mean that you can feel confident when providing quotes to clients, because you’ve done all your back-end calculations, and, most importantly, you can stand by them.

This brings me to the end of my letter on rates, clients and time management for new(ish) translators. You’ll notice that I don’t tell you to only work with direct clients, nor do I tell you to use fancy high-tech solutions when a print out of your bank statements and a notepad will do. Often, our problems aren’t solved by throwing money at them, sometimes, advice from peers will do the job of 10 expensive programmes. With that in mind, here are some other posts you might find useful!

As ever, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. How do you calculate your rates? Do you have any tools for time management? If you’d like to receive the blog posts to your inbox each week, sign up to be a subscriber here.

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  • Hadie says:

    Thanks, Jo.
    Your posts are very valuable for me as a beginner, trying to become translator.
    Merry Christmas and a great new year.

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