Why Some Professional Translators Occasionally Work At Low Rates, And Why I Don’t

I used to be very surprised to see very capable and apparently successful translators occasionally accept working at rates most of us would consider very low, if not ridiculous. After talking to such professionals, I came to realize that it was mostly down to personal values and work approach.

Here, I will be talking about full-time professional translators, not students, part-timers, those who translate as a hobby and so on. Let’s also forget about cost of living considerations this time. The question here is: Why would one work for (much) less than what they normally consider a reasonable rate?

Working for less than usual can make sense in two situations:

– Translators in a relatively early phase of their career: Starting out as a freelancer is not easy. Nothing new here of course, but it’s important to remember how things were like in the early days. Sporadic projects, clients asking for references/experience you couldn’t get precisely because of such demands, invoices piling up…

You could spend your whole days working on promoting your services, but it can soon become horribly repetitive tiring. Accepting to work at a relatively low rates under these circumstances can help you keep your head up, gain experience and pay bills. It will take most freelancers at least 2 years to start being financially comfortable, which is why you will sometimes see professionals with some degree of experience and a decent client base accept poorly paid jobs.

– Work philosophy: If you have strict work hours, you may adopt the “something is better than nothing” philosophy. Let’s say you work 40 hours a week, no less, no more. You choose to allocate 10 hours to marketing/learning/administrative tasks, which leaves 30 hours/week for translation. Of course, you will want to use these 30 hours for well-paid work whenever possible. However, since you’ve decided you would spend 30 hours in front of your computer anyway, non-working time is wasted time (and money).  Translators who go by this philosophy will do their best to fill their schedules with projects at their regular rates, and fill the gaps with the next best thing.

If your goal is to make as much money as possible, this method works fairly well. Even if you mostly refuse work from companies offering very low rates, they will keep coming back since cheap translators delivering good work are rare. Whether such a way of dealing with translators makes sense for such companies on the long run is, of course, a different story.

In the end, it comes down to what you want most: more money or more time for yourself.

At some point in my career, I decided that I would rather spend more of my time doing the things I love and stop working under what I set as a minimum rate. I have a certain amount of time dedicated to marketing and accounting tasks every week. What if I complete them and my translation projects by noon on a weekday? Great! That’s an afternoon I can spend in family or for my hobbies.

I don’t work at low rates because I value my personal time, but I understand some people have different goals or a different philosophy. What matters is that you know what is more important for you. If you do, you will never need to hesitate again when someone offers to fill the remaining time on your schedule for a job under your standard rates.