Freelancing in the Language Industry: Setting your Rate

Whether you are new to the industry as a whole or simply new to an area, one of the most challenging tasks is setting your rate(s). Most of us can agree that if your rate is too high, no one will hire you, and if it is too low, not only will you be taken advantage of, but you will be doing the industry a disservice. So, what rate should you set? The answer to this question, like many others in our industry, is that it depends on the context—both literally and figuratively. Here are several questions you should ask yourself or others before setting your rates:

1. What service are you providing?

Whether you are a translator, editor, proofreader, community interpreter, medical interpreter, legal interpreter, conference interpreter, sign language interpreter, or offer any other language service, the specific service provided will affect how much you can and should charge. Your working language(s) will also have an effect on your rates.

2. What is the level of technicality?

Regardless of the service you provide, the level of technicality or specialization will affect how much clients are willing to pay. Take for example simultaneous interpreting or a document translation, the budget for a high-stakes event or document that is about a very specialized topic, let’s say pharmaceuticals, will be greater than that for a low-stakes general informational document or community event.

3. What is your level of experience and reputation?

Some agencies, companies, or organizations like to use the people they trust. For this reason, some language professionals who are well known for their quality, customer service, punctuality, and other positive attributes, are sought out for “special” projects or assignments. It is important to note, however, that understanding the market for the specific service and level of technicality is key to ensuring your rate is not too high that it is unaffordable for your clients, which takes us to the next questions.

4. What are the market maximums and minimums?

You should join local professional organizations and talk to the members or its board and ask for guidance. At a minimum, it may be a good resource to understand how the service is priced in the area (i.e. per word or page, hour or day, etc.). Another great source of information are job postings for staff positions including salary ranges. If they are not available for your specific language combination or service, looking at other similar services can help. Finally, conduct a general web search for qualification requirements and standards in your area. Sometime, along this type of information, you can find information about pay ranges. For example, in the United States, the National Center for State Courts published information related to certification requirements and pay rates (where available) for many of the states that use their exam. Finally, conduct a general research based on the level of technicality by looking at minimum and maximum salary ranges for the specific industry (i.e. healthcare, legal, mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, etc.).

5. What is the supply and demand for the area?

One way to assess demand is looking through job postings. Search for postings that are for specific language combinations or specialization, and look for repetition. One posing for a Japanese linguist with legal experience does not dictate demand. You should also look at demographic information in the area. If you are 1 of 2 interpreters within a 20 mile radius that can provide a much needed service, you may be able to charge rates closer to or at the maximum for the specific service you are providing.

6. How much can you afford to accept?

If you are an interpreter, you may take into account whether you will be able to accept multiple assignments in one day. Are assignments available in a centralized area where you can go from one assignment to the next? Are you required to pay for any specialized equipment (i.e. a land-line)? If you are a translator, you may consider whether or not you are able to leverage technology to increase the number of words you can translate in an hour. Do you have to purchase any specialized software or computer programs?

Bottom-line, the “fair” rate depends on a number of factors, and should only be set after a lot of research and careful consideration. If you are having trouble adding up the numbers or have additional advice for a colleague who may be trying to price their service at a fair rate, please comment below.

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