Working time not paid by translation agencies

I would like to talk about a delicate issue that may involve criticism of some translation companies. In general, I don’t like criticizing translation agencies as they are usually part of our clients and, as such, they provide us with work and payments. In any case, I’m increasingly noting some practices in them with which I feel uncomfortable. Maybe is because they are new practices to me and I’m not fully accustomed to them yet. But let me tell you about it.

As translator, I usually charge clients on a translated word basis, not on an hour worked basis. If I were requested to work on an hour worked basis, I don’t know how I would come up with that figure. Maybe I would make it match the number of words that I, on average, can translate in an hour, multiplied by the usual rate per translated word. I don’t know, this is just an idea.

This is because, as I said, I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable lately when working for some agencies and for which I charge on a translated word basis. Why is that? Working continually with a translation company is simply great as if you do a good job they will usually assign you more work, and this is the ideal scenario. But it is also true that this also means jumping from one project to another, from one client to another; and those projects or clients have little or no relationship between them. Each may require its own terminology, and even its own style. There were cases where clients provided me with lots of different documents to be read before starting the translation. And reading all that documentation took a long time, time for which I’m not paid, as I charge clients on a translated word basis.

There is also another situation, similar to the one above, with which I also feel a bit uncomfortable. Some of the translation agencies are increasingly using sophisticated revision tools in the translations. As soon as you send a translation to the corresponding Project Manager, this one uses this tool to compare the source text and the target translated text, and to detect differences between both texts. The use of this kind of tools is also being required to translators as a step previous to the delivery, and I must admit that they are sometimes useful, as they help you detect mistakes, but it is also true that they detect differences that are not finally mistakes, and which lead you to spend a long time in the revision. And again, this revision time is not paid for, as in my case and as I stated before, I charge clients on a translated word basis.

On the occasion of this article I would like to ask you about this issue. Am I the only one who feels a bit uncomfortable about this situation? How could this be solved? Would working on an hour worked basis be much better for this type of situations? I’d really like to know how you cope with this.

Rubén Pedro López

Traductor Freelance: Ing > Esp > Ing Freelance Translator: Eng > Spa > Eng


  1. Dear Rubén:

    As competition is very fierce, both among translators and among translation intermediaries, charging more or less money depends on your relative position of force. For example, if your language pair and/or your specialization fields are hard to find, you can charge what you want, including invoicing hours spent on non-translation tasks – as long as you warn your client before you both strike the deal, of course.

    The situation you describe is not specific to translation intermediaries: it also happens with direct clients. For example, I once had to work for 50 hours for free in a short time because I was paid per translated word, the direct client was using a little-known CAT tool and did not bother explaining well or completely how to convert the different files (the bilingual file + the termbase & TM extractions for the specific project). I thought I would invest so much free time into a large direct customer, then lost the customer, so invested 50 hours for nothing… Obviously the direct customer took advantage of the fact that, although an hourly wage had been fixed, we had not agreed that such a task would be paid. I finally managed to have them at least the last 2.5 hours, but that’s all. So it is up to us to state clearly, in advance, that any abnormally long non-translation task will be charged by the hour, any commenced hour counting as a full hour – specifying that this is just to prevent abuses. You should include this in your terms & conditions and ALWAYS send these at the beginning of a relationship with ANY new client (direct client or intermediary). If they run away, you lose a bad customer, so… 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Isabelle!
      What I think I’ll do, now that I know more about this kind of practices, is to talk about it before hand with my clients, try to make them understand that some situations are simply unreasonable, and see if we can come to terms.
      If not, well, the market is full of potential customers, and I am becoming increasingly tired of accepting unacceptable conditions. It’s time to start saying NO to some of those proposals. Thanks again, Isabelle.

  2. Obviously, 50 hours of unpaid work is not a good thing, and one hopes that this does not happen to a translator very often. I think that the problems that arise in using CAT tools frequently cause this kind of disaster. Whoever sold the translators’ community on the idea that these tools would save lots of time and make translators rich really pulled the wool over our eyes.

    However, I think that almost all jobs involve some time that is not necessarily reflected in per-word rates. The best solution I know of is to keep accurate records of the times you spend on each job and the amount you receive for each job, and then adjusting your rates so that they give you, on average, what you consider an adequate amount per hour. Good luck trying to get those rates!

    In general, just try to get the highest rates you can. It’s a constant struggle.

  3. From my experience, it’s only with direct customers that you can ask the rate you want. They have absolutely no idea how much a translation should cost, except for the few experiences they might already have had. It does not mean you’ll become a millionaire with them either, but there is much more room for manoeuver with a direct client than with an intermediary.

    When you work with an intermediary, it’s the intermediary who gets rich.

    When you work with direct customers, you have some hope of being able to raise a family, buy a car, go on vacation, get the medical attention you need, and save for retirement.

    With intermediaries you almost always end up working at a loss – especially if you count all those unpaid hours…

    And with a direct customer, it’s an opportunity to finally invoice per hour (like lawyers and some accountants do, although they don’t work on the customer’s premises, like translators), or at least to give them an idea of the amount of hours the particular job will take, so that they realise how much they should pay you. You should always talk about you TIME with direct customers. Most intermediaries don’t care, I fear – unless they are a small agency and they are very eager to keep good (and rare) translators (I mean, translators with rare language pairs and/or rare specialisation fields).

    Translators have been invoicing their words for the last 10 years, more or less, i.e. since non-translators conceived torture tools called “CAT tools” aimed at extorting huge rebates, all to the advantage of the intermediary.

    Before that – but not so long ago, thus – ALL translators in the world had been invoicing LINES (of 60 or 55 or 55 characters and spaces, according to the country’s habit)!!!

    If we go back to invoicing LINES (and many still do in Germany, and even in Belgium, and probably in other countries!), there will be no discussion as to whether some words should be paid less than other words under such or such PRETEXT. Because “CAT tool analogies” are just PRETEXTS, since those tools make us LOSE A CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT OF TIME.

    And if they increase QUALITY, as SDL and the like have the guts to pretend, then they should ALL THE MORE ENTAIL A SURCHARGE, and not a rebate!

    So this per-word invoicing and those CAT tools have all been invented by exploiters, many of them probably psychopaths, who know absolutely NOTHING about translation (and do not want to know, are not interesting – except for the money it brings them) – just like most of those collaborative online platforms you also find nowadays: those systems are even more crazy (you often have to translate sentences AT RANDOM!) and even more obviously created by crazy non-translators.

    Finally, let’s remember that http://www.proz.com was created by an amateur technical translator who only had 2 years of experience!

    This gives you an idea of the brainwashing end-customers undergo since most of the “translation industry” is in the hands of… non-translators!!! (To me, an engineer who only does technical translations (like Proz’s creator) is not really a translator, since he tends to do word-for-word translations and would be totally unable to translate more literary texts (if only marketing content)).

    • Hi Isabelle, you are just right. Intermediaries, namely translation agencies, are most of the times a nuisance and, as you say, they get rich while we get poor. I bet that most of those with which I work charge their clients three times what they pay me, and I do most of the job, and regarding revisions/editing, with the kind of tools I mention in the entry, they have little to do, but complain to me every time they find the slightest error. However, finding a direct customer that can provide continuous work is not easy, but it must be our goal. Thanks for you sharp, well-reasoned comment. Stay in touch.

      • Dear Rubén,

        You wrote: ” finding a direct customer that can provide continuous work is not easy”. Indeed, but some large customers do provide a continuous flow of work.

        Like large banks, large companies and public institutions like ministries (and the judiciary) in bilingual countries, i.e. where there is more than just 1 official language.

        You should thus check those countries (official languages are indicated in their Wikipedia page, in the information box at the beginning of the page), according to your languages. There are probably more such countries than you think!

        It takes a bit of research, but then filling endless registration forms and doing translation tests for free for intermediaries also takes time – without counting trying to understand endless “NDAs” in a foreign legal language! -, sometimes to get no work at all, so… 😉

        And don’t forget to tweet your blog posts (even twice, preferably with appropriate hashtags) in order to get more traffic to your website, which will then get higher in Google results over time! 🙂

        It’s a global strategy, using a blog+website + Twitter.

        You can also publish your blog posts in LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook – and your readers will if you have the appropriate buttons under each post.

  4. Errata (again – sorry):

    – “You should always talk about you*r* [not “you”] TIME with direct customers. ”

    – “LINES (of 60 or 55 or *50* [not “55” again] characters and spaces, according to the country’s habit)”.

  5. Hi, Isabelle. I’m talking from my scarce experience, but I agree with you on the CAT tools question and I will add that you also have to invest a lot of time and money on those, including learning how to use them. You have to possess and learn not just one of them but, at least, two or three, the most commonly used, as the agencies want you to use specific ones. But I have one question. Why do you say that per-line charging is better than per-word? In my country, translators still charge per page, which I think is very unfair. A page might have 300 words or 600, depending on its format, so a per-word invoicing is much more precise AND fair. Per-line is better than per-page, but I still think that per-word is the most convenient and fairest for us translators.

    • Dear Andrea,

      In response to your message about per line rates vs per word rates:

      a) Per word rates have been invented by CAT tool producers, not by translators;

      b) When you invoice per word, the next question in the customer’s mind is: why should I pay the same for all words?

      A seasoned translator like Steve Vitek (blog: https://patenttranslator.wordpress.com/author/patenttranslator/ – highly recommended !) once blogged about a lawyer who was wondering whether he should pay the same price for articles, conjunctions, prepositions, etc – you know, all those short linking words in a sentence!… So even end-customers might want to pay less for some words, thinking they have less meaning, that they are not as hard to translate as nouns, verbs and adjectives…

      c) Intermediaries (and now some large end-customers who found out there are lots of repetitions in their texts for translation) use CAT tools combined with per word rates. They use total (100%) or partial (all the way down to 70% or even 55%) analogies with previously translated segments (i.e. sentences, more or less) as a PRETEXT to EXTORT HUGE sums of money from freelance translators. Words in repeated segments are paid all the way down to only 20-25% of the translator’s basic rate!!! Whereas CAT tools make us LOSE TIME!!!

      If a translator invoices per line (the number of characters, with or without spaces, should be defined in advance) or per page (the number of characters, with or without spaces, or the number of words should be defined in advance), intermediaries and end-customers cannot try to use pretexts to pay less for such or such part of your valuable work!

      According to the habits of the translation profession in each country (or at each translator’s choice since there is no law about this), lines usually vary between 50 and 60 characters and spaces per line.

      Comparison within a country’s translation suppliers is easier when they all use the same unit value, but sometimes it’s an advantage to make comparison harder for customers… 😉

      For example in Belgium lines were always made of 60 chararcters and spaces, but I know a very successful translator who only invoices lines of 55 characters and spaces.

      The Belgian judiciary pays its freelance translators per page and it has defined the size of a page in a law (“arrêté royal”).

      The EU institutions also pay their freelance translators per page. They have defined the size of a page as being so many characters without spaces…

      There is no law about how translators should charge their services.

      And what you charge should always reflect the amount of TIME that you spend on the task. And the value of your time is a consequence of your training, experience, tools, and relative position of power towards the customer:

      if you have a full working agenda and if this is a new customer: try a higher rate!

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