The Translation Business: Setting Rates–Worth Versus Price

One of the questions that new translators–whether they’re students or professionals looking to make a career change–ask most often is, “What should I charge for my translations?”

The answer to this question is complicated.  It depends on a number of variables: length of the text, the text type/specialization, whether the translator is charging by the word/page/hour–the list goes on.

The debate rages especially fiercely between translators who believe they have to take every job that comes along regardless of how low-paying it is and translators who urge others to set their rates higher (within reason).  I won’t go into detail about the arguments here, but those translators who are on the side of holding out for reasonable pay often urge their colleagues, “Charge what you’re worth!”

But is this actually a good way to think about what we charge?

Over at The Freelancery, Walt Kania makes a compelling argument that it isn’t.  In a post entitled “Charge what you’re worth?  Please, no,” he argues that the term “worth” has too many emotional associations and therefore should not be used when we talk about setting our rates.

First of all, it’s far too easy to substitute “self-worth” in there.  If we do that, what happens when a client tells us that we’re charging too much?  If we base our self-worth on how much we charge, when we lower our rates, our self-worth is liable to fall with them.

Second, who is it deciding what a translation is worth, anyway?  According to Kania, it’s the client, not the translator:

We don’t get to decide what our stuff is worth.  Sorry, but we don’t.  The client decides that.  What we get to decide is our price.  There’s a huge difference.

Kania argues that we should think of setting our rates in terms of the price we charge for our work, not how much our work is worth.  Price, he says, is “just arithmetic”–there’s no question of (self-)worth involved in sheer numbers, which don’t have emotional associations.

Kania presents a very different perspective on freelancing from the advice we usually hear.  What do you think about his argument?  Should translators charge what they’re worth or should we charge a price?  Does the terminology we use even matter?


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