The phone rings: it is a client. A welcome event these days—and not a very frequent one for many of us. But, are you prepared to answer that call?
lients call because they need information, and we should be prepared to provide the information they require in a clear, precise, and concise way. You see, any hesitation will be perceived by the client as lack of confidence and lack of confidence is just like blood: once the client smells it, he will get ready for the kill and try to squeeze you for a discount.
if asked for a discount and decide do refuse it, do not engage in explaining the whys and wherefores of your refusal.
For instance, take the client who calls for a quote (as opposed to the client who calls and says how much he is willing to pay). Your quote should depend on the type of job: a PowerPoint presentation may cost more than a plain Word file with the same number of words. So that, before answering, you should make sure you know exactly what the client wants. Woe is the translator who says "LSD 12 per word"
only to learn that it is a PowerPoint presentation and the client does not have the electronic file but only an old, faint fax he will refax to you. No way you can say "sorry, in that case it will be LSD 12.01."
The client will claim, "But you did say twelve a word, didn't you? How much do you charge, anyway? Could we possibly have a firm quote on this job, please?"
(In case you don't know, "LSD" is the abbreviation for "Lower Slobovian Dinar").
Every Job has its Price
So, first of all, make sure you understand what the client wants and needs. Wants and needs are different concepts. The client may want "A," but your experience as a translator may indicate that he needs "B." Be prepared for some client education at this point.
But once you have agreed as to the nature of the job at hand, you have to quote a price. This, of course, requires that you have a firm resolve concerning what you will charge for your services. Most translators I know do not. They do establish a price schedule, but they start revising it down as soon as they are aware there is a client at the opposite end of the telephone line and can but stammer an answer.
This probably arises from two factors: (1) most of us are afraid to lose the job and (2) many of us find charging for translation work a bit embarrassing or find our fees somewhat excessive—although most of us claim we are underpaid.
A Tool of the Trade
Some translators are so embarrassed by any discussion of money matters that they would gladly surrender their right to make their own prices to some entity that would tell them what to charge and take the responsibility for that. Then they could say the official schedule is... and, if the bank balance fell to an unbearably low level, they could claim they could not help it: they were charging as much as the schedule permitted.
There are too many variables affecting price and the market is so segmented that it is impossible to set a schedule that could take care of all possibilities. And official schedules are notoriously easy to circumvent, as everybody knows.
But even if a perfect schedule could be created, pricing is an invaluable marketing tool, and I would not waive my freedom to set my own prices.
Fear of Starving
The fear of losing the job has its reasons; they are well known and very real. The embarrassment about charging for our work or being considered too much of a mercenary—and what is a free lance but a mercenary soldier?—is pure rubbish. There is no way you can "overcharge" an agency: agencies know the market and cannot be fooled.
There is no way you can overcharge a direct client either: they will ask for quotes from several other people, before making their decision. Of course, you can fool your neighbor into believing translators are paid ten dollars a word, provided the neighbor has not seen your car, but that is a different story.
The embarrassment may be linked to the fact that too many of us consider translation an art and ourselves as humanists and benefactors of humanity that should live the life of a mendicant friar for the general benefit of our brethren. C'mon, pal, be your age.
The Importance of Being Firm
But let's get back on track. You should decidedly gather information before quoting a price but do not use the information-gathering stage of the conversation to stall for time and postpone the hour of truth. As soon as you have established what you are expected to do and that you can do it, just state your price firmly and in simple words: that will be ____ per source word, payable in 30 days, net or whatever.
Do not interpolate an introduction like "well, you see, as to prices, recently we have had to add a cent or two to our fees, which we had kept at the same level for over five years, with all that inflation and whatnot and the price of bananas going up practically every week ..." This will usually be perceived as a clear invitation to answer with a "you are lucky, competition has forced us to slash our prices and we were hoping our suppliers would cooperate.... So, just state your price and add something like it is a tight deadline, but I can make it if you give me the green light now.
Discount all Requests for Discounts
Many a client will ask for a discount at this stage. Many of my colleagues will just quote a price a bit above what they are really prepared to accept in order to grant the discount and "make the client happy." I do not, because granting discounts to those who ask for them will penalize the nice people who don't ask for discounts and haggling in general both embarrasses and irritates me.
Of course, if there is a cheaper way to deal with the job, it is my duty to bring it to the client's attention. That is both ethics and good business strategy, in the long run, because it helps build customer trust and loyalty.
A Discount by any other Name...
One of my projects for the future is a long article on the typology of discounts. The pretexts clients find for asking for discounts have always fascinated me. There is the first-job discount, but there also the frequent-customer discount, which in my eyes seem to contradict each other; there is the big-job discount, as if our pay should be inversely proportional to the quantity of work we do; there is the steady-job discount, as if we should grant the client a discount for running the risk of losing all other clients for their sake, there is the discount for possible future jobs which is actually a discount for nothing at all, because the future jobs won't materialize; there is the we-have-been-forced-to-grant-the-final-client-a-discount discount, as if we were responsible for the fact that they were too incompetent to strike a good deal with their client; there is the we-are-in-a-crisis discount, as if they paid us a bonus when they did not; and there is the academic discount¸ asked for by those guys who believe we should invest in their education so that they can climb up the academic ladder.
Accept a low-paying job if you must, but remember that none of the above is a reason to grant a discount, although they may make up good pretexts for begging for one. There is no reason you should give a discount to absolutely anybody in this world. And, please, if asked for a discount and decide do refuse it, do not engage in explaining the whys and wherefores of your refusal. Just say sorry, I cannot accept the job at that rate. Explanations beget explanations and you will find yourself involved in an endless metaphysical discussion of meaningless issues that have no bearing upon anything of remote interest or importance to you—or anybody else for that matter.
Clients who ask for discounts are not interested in your circumstances: they are exclusively interested in getting a discount. The contents of the conversation do not matter and the client is not paying any attention to what is said: it is just empty blabber, usually a mere repetition of standard formulas that have lost their meaning. The sooner the conversation ends, the sooner you can do something useful.
The newest argument employed by discount-beggers is used against third-world translators: too high for ____ (fill in with the name of your country of residence). To this, I have an answer that has worked well for me and I would like to share with all of you: I don't work here; I just live here. All my clients are abroad. A long discussion on the comparative prices of computers and cars in different countries may be of deep interest to economists, but has no effect on the general issue, viz., the client wants a discount.
In other cases, my answer is just a polite, firm, unwavering sorry, no, possibly followed by an equally firm and pointed the fee I quoted is the fee I am paid by all of my clients and they do not complain.
The Client who Quotes a Fee
Many clients will quote a fee instead of asking for one. Some translators feel insulted, but I do not. In fact, given the present situation of the market, some clients ask for a fee as a means of intimidation, which, I think, is a lot worse. Some of the fees offered are extremely low; others are on the level.
There are three possible replies to an offer, after you are given the specs required for proper evaluation: (1) yes, of course; (2) I'm sorry but I cannot possibly make the deadline; and (3) my lowest possible fee for this sort of job is X.
Some of our colleagues claim that a client who quotes a fee that is too low deserves to be insulted and even proudly brag about their vitriolic vituperations of such clients. Now, my mom taught me I should be polite at all times. I do lose my temper every once in a while, but I am not proud of my outbreaks of verbal violence and do not think they are anything to boast of. Insulting the client may help release steam, but will not earn us better pay: as a business strategy, it is useless and probably counterproductive.
If you Offer Peanuts...
And equally useless is the hackneyed strategy of saying if you offer peanuts, you will attract monkeys. The sentence may be true, but it is very inelegant and so is its more polished variant my fees are commensurate with the quality of my work. Both reflect lack of respect for our colleagues who charge less than us, for whatever reason—and, before using it, you might want to consider the possibility that some other people may charge more than you do.
In addition, it is an unpaid comment on work we have not seen. On occasion, I have been asked to evaluate tests done by other translators. In those cases I have always submitted reasoned reports on my findings, plus an invoice. But I consider it both unethical and against good business practice to give a free, unsupported and unasked-for opinion on a translation that is still to be made by someone I do not even know.
An opportunity for Client Education?
Many colleagues would not agree with me on the above. They claim I am missing chances of educating the client. I am all for client education. But you educate the client on things the client does not know. And clients, agencies more than any other of them, know exactly what they are doing and looking for. They do not need education concerning translators' fees. In addition, it is my considered opinion that a plain no has plenty of educational value.
You can educate the direct client who sends you a pdf file into understanding that had they sent you a Word file you would be able to charge less and provide a better job. However, you cannot educate the PM who asks you to do a translation for a price that is far below your fee schedule: the guy either cannot or will not pay more.
Measure for measure
Perhaps we should now touch on the matter of quantification. Too much blood has been needessly shed on the matter of work quantification. My motto is: the client's unit is my unit. If my client pays by the source word, that is OK by me. If he wants to pay by the target word, that is equally fine. If he pays by the character, that is swell. If he pays by the character, minus spaces, that is absolutely tops. I couldn't care less. I just adjust my fees accordingly. That has required a few sorties into the reign of higher math, which is Terra Ignota for me, but my travails have been well rewarded.
Brazilian translators are traditionally paid by the lauda, a unit that has more definitions than it contains words. Many Brazilian translators cling to their laudas as if they would drown without them and hold on to their particular lauda definitions as if they were articles of the True Faith. And pity the client who asks for a lauda that is considered unreasonably big.
When the client asks for a quote, I just ask whether it is a quote by the word, lauda, character, line, bagful or whatever and whether the price should be based on the target or source texts. If the client is Brazilian and says they want a per-lauda quote, I ask what is their definition of lauda. If they have no definition, I will define it as one thousand characters, including spaces, and make sure the client understands what I say.
Not that I consider that definition in any way superior to the others: any definition will do, provided it is made clear to both parties. If the client claims my lauda is too small, I will ask what they consider a reasonably sized lauda and quote accordingly.
If the guy does not want to pay for the spaces, no sweat, he does not have to. But the fee is upped 20%, and so on. Conversely, if the client quotes a fee, before accepting or rejecting the job, I make sure I understand how the work is quantified so that I can adjust my response accordingly. If the fee is too low or if the prospective client finds my fee too high, there is no deal. But that has nothing to do with the unit of measurement itself. I will not reject a good real estate deal just because I measure areas in hectares and the other guy wants them measured in acres.
And the $54,000 Question is...
Of course, there are two $54,000 questions, not just one: how much to charge and how to make it to the "highest-earners" club. One thing at a time and I am afraid there is no simple answer to either.
From this and my other writings you may already have surmised that I do not think prices are in anyway related to costs. Some people are capable of earning higher margins than others and, in addition, it is not easy to determine the costs incurred by an independent translator, because it is often impossible to segregate office from home. But that is another story, and not a very important one.
You can charge as much as the market will bear, and there is nothing wrong with it: supply and demand also works in your favor, on occasion. However, the correct price for you is not always the highest the market will bear. The correct price is the one that will maximize your income and that may be a little less than the maximum you can charge.
The exact amount will vary a lot, because the market is highly segmented. In other words, there is no such a thing as a "translation market": there is a myriad of translation markets and the best fee for the guy who translates films into Urdu is not necessarily the best fee for the guy who translates patents into English. We would be able to position ourselves better if we knew what the next guy is charging, but this type of information is often difficult to acquire and, when available, is often unreliable. So that you will have to do a lot of guessing, based on your current workflow.
Maximizing your income
Finally, we have the question of how to be admitted the high-earners' club. Climbing the professional ladder is an unending task: no matter how many steps you have below you, there are twice as many above.
Professional advance requires a two-pronged approach: you must both invest heavily in the profession and market your services as actively as you can. You may also have to make some difficult choices. For instance, there is no such a thing as a well-paid translator of philosophy books. This may be very frustrating to many of us and, at a certain point of my life, frustrated me too, because of my love for the history of music, which is not exactly a cornucopia of translatorial income. No more. I have come to the conclusion that I want to be a translator, and a well paid one, regardless of the subject to be translated.
This, perhaps, is the first step to climb in the professional ladder. .