Translation pricing: you get what you pay for

Many a translator’s blood will have been boiling this morning when they clicked on a link to a truly fascinating discussion on “Translation pricing for today’s ‘prosperous’ translator” over on the global2local language solutions blog.

The two tweets that led me there read “RT @la_marmite: (Terrible) pricing advice for “prosperous” translators ow.ly/8IaJV => I say think Tiffany, not Wal-Mart!” and “Pricing advice for “prosperous” translators ow.ly/8IaJV => Perhaps the WORST advice I’ve read in a long time…no…EVER!”

The blog post is simply too detailed for me to respond to all the points here, but here are the highlights from what went through my mind as I read it.

First off, my blood wasn’t boiling. I would agree that “some translators are overpricing themselves above and beyond the market”. The solution? Stop paying them. And I don’t mean stop paying them more than they deserve. Stop giving them work.

I occasionally freelance for a company whose go-to translator is a francophone translating (badly) into English and she’s getting paid 30 cents a word for it. Would her translation be OK if she was getting paid 15 cents a word for it? 10? No! Poor work is poor work. Sky-high rates add insult to injury, but that doesn’t mean that people delivering timely, flawless translations don’t deserve rates of 20-30 cents for their work.

It seems to me that the profession of a freelance translator is unique in many ways. An electrician doesn’t come fresh out of school and start rewiring a university campus by himself. He does an apprenticeship, he works with a company, he develops and improves in an environment where he is corrected and can learn from his mistakes. Freelance translators routinely don’t do any of this. They graduate (sometimes not in translation) and are very much left to their own devices when it comes to setting rates and the like.

But in my opinion, they are not the problem. Clients who continue to pay them bottom-of-the-market rates for exceptionally poor work are the problem. Clients who often don’t know any better.

What never fails to strike me as unusual in the translation industry is the perception that anybody could do what translators do (and that translators are therefore overpaid) and the fact that the end client is usually ill-placed to judge the quality of the work. It is only natural that agencies want to pay the lowest rates they can get away with. But they should understand that top quality and low rates seldom go hand in hand.

You get what you pay for.

This climate of suspicion and lack of respect quickly turned me off the world of freelance translation. If every time my electrician came to wire me a light I implied that I could have done it just as well myself but that I didn’t have the time and that my niece who was studying physics at high school would be checking his work once he had gone, he might well stop coming back too.

Now I find myself in the world of literary translation, where for the moment I find there to be much more respect from both sides. Publishers tend to be better placed to judge the quality of a literary translation than a washing machine factory is to read through your translation of their operating instructions.

The second improvement is rates. The Canada Council for the Arts pays literary translators a (perfectly reasonable) flat rate per word, whether you’re translating your second book or your 200th.

And, finally, you’re not working without a tightrope. Any publisher is going to correct and improve your work before publishing it.

For now, these three things – respect, flat rates, and revision – make literary translation a much more rewarding experience, for me at least. I’m finding that they shift the focus away from rates and back to quality, where it belongs.