Of Low and High Charging Translators, Undercutting, and Local Variables
The global village is an illusion, all the more so for all the elements of truth it contains. The market is more fragmented than one may be inclined to think. Due to this illusion of a global village, created by instant (real-time) communication all across the globe, we may neglect the fact that each of us live in a different economy, with a different local balance.
The rivers and hills
In the translation world, markets in whch one can consistently charge more than 0.06 p.s.w. (per source word) are islands and caves and high hills. If you and a neighbour live on the same island or hill, or in the same cave, it makes it natural that both of you share the same experience and roughly the same perspective, as then do your neighbour's neighbours and so on within a couple of miles radius. This confirmation around you produces reinforcement and in the end it makes your experience appear to you as the most natural, default state of things, one which either really is or should be the same everywhere else in the world. But then there are the lowlands and the vast plains and fields of corn, and the rivers, and forests and meadows, and the low hills where the perspective is similar to but not quite the same as that seen from a real mountain. The landscape is not uniform.
I spent much of my Friday two weeks ago researching the competition for webdesign clues. This is because I like to see at which stage they are, and occasionally they hire a smart designer that comes up with something new and inspiration. But I still did look at the Pricing tab whenever one was available. Their rates fell anywhere from just under €0.03 p.s.w. to just under €0.04 p.s.w. (where EUR 1 = PLN 4.23). I'm not talking about rookie translators or rates charged from agencies. The search string I used was 'Polish sworn translator', a qualification which requires a master's degree and a notoriously difficult bidirectional exam, and the prices were inteded for direct clients. My own Polish clients pay noticeably above that range, but how far can you really go above what everybody else seems to be charging? Especially if those who charge so little are also qualified translators?
The high earners
On the other side of our illustrative Polish spectrum there are certainly some translators who can get away with charging more than I do. Those are usually — but not always — significantly experienced colleagues with strong portfolios and good connections, meaning a considerable group of stable relationships with direct clients and higher-paying agencies. Then, there are supposedly some high-paid specialists who score in the range of €0.14 p.s.w. before any rush fees — this in a country where the average wage in the business sector is €799 per month and falling. At a rate of €0.14 p.s.w., an entire gross salary of €799 could buy you 5700 words of translation, which means that having paid all your taxes and bills, buying food and so on, you'd be lucky to afford 2000 words. The minimum wage — in a month's scale — could buy you 2850 words if you didn't have to pay tax and bills, probably meaning less than a half of the number in real life. At that point needing your CV in a different language is a very painful event in your life.
Local variables are relevant
As I hope you have seen by now, there are local variables at play here. Those local variables are what makes the different corners of our global village really different. Anybody can register an account on Proz.com — though there are certainly places in the world where the membership fee is a fortune — or TranslatorsCafé, anybody with some basic computer skills can start a website and write a blog like this one (or better). Gifted and driven individuals can do so much more, write inspiring copy and have magnificent search rankings due to SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). But to get inside the fertile enclaves of good rates — which may be barren wastes to someone else — one needs to have clients willing to pay those rates. This necessarily requires access to such clients, and the clients must actually exist in the translator's languages and fields of expertise. The existence of such such clients, and their level of affluence, depends on economic factors, while access to them also depends on relevant cultural issues, for example appetite for outsourcing, willingness to trust freelancers rather than large provides, openness of businesses to solicitation or their energy and ingenuity and diligence in procuring the best services they can, the social perception and standing of translators, and some more.
Translators with lower variables
The working bees and zombie workers of our so called 'translation industry' — those being, for example, people who charge below €0.03 in Poland and perhaps €0.06 in the more affluent western countries — not only lack such privileged access to clients (not considering here whether that's their own fault or not), they may also lack the more glamorous and well-selling qualifications that their more prosperous colleagues have, or the imagination, or drive, to sell them well. Finally, they may lack a certain basic level of business skills or awareness of what's going on in the industry (e.g. due to isolation), or something which we could refer to as being quick on one's feet. Especially the latter failure perhaps results from some sort of passivity which a downtrodden translator could theoretically break free of, but that is — naturally — easier said then done. More so among people exhibiting certain particular personality traits, or types, which are further affected by their native or host culture, education, beliefs and so on. There's a reason why most people are not entrepreneurs, just like there is a reason why most people are not managers, even among the most qualified specialists. Not everybody is a leader, innovator or organiser. There is a reason why business coaches are necessary, why agents and middlemen are in demand. Not all people can handle — mentally, emotionally, intellectually, physically — either some general aspects of business acumen such as organisation, planning, marketing, or some particular challenges that they face; of those who actually can, still not all eventually find it in themselves to do so.
Translators who, in abstract numbers, charge a fraction of what other translators are paid are not necessarily undercutting anybody. Neither are translators who charge higher rates, in abstract numbers, necessarily better off economically than someone who charges less in a market with smaller prices. Even where there actually is some undercutting, then it's still not necessarily done on purpose but often the result of those lower-charging translators not doing their utmost to improve their business and marketing skills and performance. Are all translators who charge in the region of €0.10 p.s.w. in the most developed countries really doing their utmost in this regard? Comparing rates taken as abstract numbers makes no sense. After the inclusion of factors such as spending power, costs of living, prices, wages and so on, it may turn out that somebody somewhere in the world who charges, let's say, half the rates, is effectively making twice the money. Conversely, those high rates earned in higher paying but more expensive economies don't look as attractive when you look at the cost of living there.
Ending on a twist
I hesitated whether to include this last paragraph, but after leaving it out intially I felt I was depriving some of my potential readers of a useful piece of knowledge, a tip which could perhaps change their professional life for the better, at least for beinners. Without further ado, if you have a nagging suspicion that your rates may be low due to your not having the business or marketing skills to take them higher (or to find better-paying clients), there are books and trainings which can help you address that weakness, as well as counsellorsand coaches and marketers and specialised web designers and graphical designers and other people who can help. Such assistance usually costs money, but it is a job just as yours, which is why it's professional assistance. If resources are scarce perhaps at least you have some free time to read about things and try them out. There are many free resources out there online, such as Marta Stelmaszak's presentation from TraduEmprende or the Latitudes Blog, free website content management systems such as Wordpress, Drupal and Joomla to build a professional-looking website in, with free or low-cost themes that are customisable and in any case better overall than most of the websites our colleagues are currently sporting. Most translators could and should put more effort in their online professional image, making it easier for them to convince clients of the value they provide, making it better for us all in the greater scheme of things. They can't find you if you aren't visible, and it's hard to believe someone who doesn't look credible. If you increase your rates successfully, not only will you earn more, you will make life easier for your colleagues.