Changing the Conversation on Pricing

by Michael Schubert

What’s in a word? Precious little. We all know that we don’t translate words, or even sentences and paragraphs: We translate content, in all its context. (Worte and not Wörter, for those of you who know German.) And yet, most of us bill our services by the word. Why? And what message does this send?

The why is simple: It’s the easiest way to assess the volume of the task and provide a price in advance. And the message? To our clients, it says we are selling a commodity — the very message that, elsewhere, we keep trying to contradict. To ourselves, the message is that the faster we can translate, the more money we will earn. It incentivizes speed, not quality.

Moving away from word rates toward hourly or project-based fees better reflects how we actually work — and how we want our work to be perceived.


When I entered the profession, I worked mostly for language service providers (LSPs) and charged by the word. As I moved upmarket, this model became unsustainable for me: Since my word rate had risen to become higher than most, LSPs saved the tricky or sensitive jobs for me, leaving me feeling underpaid. Or they peppered me with smaller jobs that, even with a minimum fee, led to death by a thousand cuts. And then came the dreaded conversation about scaled word rates based on TM analyses (more on that below), which is what really drove me away from that model. Word rates also discourage, or make it difficult to bill for, value-added services: documenting errors or ambiguities in the source text, consulting with the client about the objective and target audience of the text, suggesting adaptations (“transcreation”), and so forth.

I began phasing out word prices in favor of hourly and project-based fees in 2010 and have not used word rates at all for many years now. LSPs generally ask for a word rate, since this is the dominant model and allows them to more easily compare translators by price. My response is always that I cannot offer a one-size-fits-all rate for future jobs sight unseen, and this argument resonates with LSPs that truly care about quality and have this same conversation with their end clients. Hourly and project-based pricing changes how clients think about our services, underscores that a 500-word internal company memo is not the same as 500 words of website content, and opens the door to offering and billing for value-added services, which helps us move upmarket.

Direct clients

As we approach and begin working with direct clients, we need to think carefully about how we present ourselves. Are we like the paper clip vendor who deals in unit prices, discounts by volume, and works with some low-level vendor manager? Or are we more like the consultant who provides professional services and interacts with department heads and senior management?

Word pricing mischaracterizes the nature of our work and leaves us talking about pennies. And that defines us as vendors of a commodity with a low unit price.

The businesses I work for don’t think in terms of word count, anyway. My clients never say, “Can you translate 2,000 words by Thursday?” They say, “We have a white paper we’d like you to translate.” And from there, I ask them about target audience and deadline, not budget. Only after I’ve seen the text and talked with them about the project do I offer a price quote. By then, I’ve amply demonstrated that I care about their baby. This is how we change the conversation from unit pricing to value.


I would (and do) argue vehemently that translation environment tools do not, on balance, make us faster — they yield smarter and more sustainable workflows, improve internal consistency, and give us more versatility and efficiency in working with complex file formats. Proficiency with state-of-the-art translation tools should never be a trap door to lower prices. It is, in fact, a rationale for higher prices. (Please reread this paragraph three times. I’ll wait.)

So instead of trying to hide my use of TEnT tools from my clients for fear of opening up the dreaded conversation on scaled word rates, I make sure my clients know that I use state-of-the-art translation technology to organize their bilingual content and harmonize their corporate style over a relationship that will last years, even decades.

Last word

We know that translation is not a commodity, and we need to demonstrate that in how we frame the conversation around our services with clients. Word count may be the metric of choice in the language services sector, but we translators are the largest group in this sector and have it in our power to steer the dialog away from individual words and toward content — away from quantity and toward quality.

This article first appeared in Jost Zetzsche’s Tool Box Journal for people in the world of translation and is reprinted here with permission.

Michael Schubert is an ATA-certified German-to-English translator based in San Francisco providing premium translation services with a focus on corporate communications, information technology, and finance.

The Importance of a Good Headshot for Professional Translators and Interpreters

Language is the only barrier to communication in many situations world-wide. However, it is the job of linguists to bridge this gap. In a sense, translators and interpreters can unite the world! What a powerful profession!

Their importance is exactly why it is imperative that professional interpreters and translators let their name — and their skills — be known. Whereas translators and interpreters can work in government offices, courthouses, and other locations, many translators work from home, in call centers, or within various large firms found in global arenas. In many of these positions (and others), these persons are found behind a computer.

The work-life of translators often offers no assistance for booking new projects. After all, being stuck behind a computer means that personal interaction with new people is a rare occurrence. Perhaps that is why so many are turning to social media or personal online websites. Perfecting an online presence can be brutal, but it is necessary for today’s market. And there is no exception for the professional translator and interpreter alike.

So, if you are a translator or an interpreter and you are looking to get your name known in the industry and grow your business, what is the first thing you need?

That’s right—a good headshot! → continue reading


Kermit Clum provided valuable money saving financial tips to seminar attendees.

Kermit Clum provided valuable money saving financial tips to seminar attendees.

Translators and interpreters got a crash course in small business management and an in-depth tutorial on financial and tax planning for the independent contractor from Kermit Clum.

On  February  23  in  downtown  San Francisco, Kermit  Clum  led  NCTA members  through  a  three-hour  seminar entitled, The Dos and Don’ts of Running a Small Business. Kermit is a CPA and owner of Key Financial  Solutions  in  Redwood City, California.   Over the course of the seminar,  he  addressed  bookkeeping and accounting challenges facing the freelance translator and independent contractor. → continue reading


In September, Courtney Searls-Ridge helped NCTA members get an edge on their contract negotiation skills.

Excellent language skills are essential for freelance translators and interpreters. To be successful, however, good business skills are also necessary. In addition to marketing and negotiation, linguists are required to understand contracts and accurately assess their content, and this dimension is becoming more complex and challenging.

On September 28, 2013, Courtney Searls-Ridge presented a workshop in San Francisco organized by the NCTA to help new and established translators and interpreters develop this aspect of their business. As a former agency owner and current teacher of ethics and business practices for translators and interpreters, Courtney is intimate with the concerns of freelancers as well as T&I agencies. → continue reading


Andrew Crawford led a group of entrepreneurs in a workshop on building their business and their client base.


I attended Andrew Crawford’s workshop, Techniques for Successful Selling: a new approach to selling to direct clients, on September 28, 2012. Early on, Crawford directed us to define our positioning statement. “First you are brief, telling your client what you do; then you are compelling, describing how you do it; and then you throw the hook, why it has value to your client.” Sounds easy, non? → continue reading


Michael Schubert provided guidance to a group of language-minded individuals just getting started in translation.

tl_35-1_web_page20_image12On Saturday, January 26, a dozen or so curious, bilingual (at least) individuals gathered at the San Francisco State University Downtown Campus, seeking guidance and insight in determining how to use their foreign language fluency to find employment in the field of translation. Guidance and insight was provided by Michael Schubert, who led the three and a half hour NCTA sponsored presentation, Getting Started in Translation. Based on his presentation and, more importantly, his impromptu responses to questions raised by the participants, it did not take long for me to realize that Michael was definitely an expert, and that the seminar was on track to meet my expectations. Michael’s interactive style with participants of diverse backgrounds, interests, and motivations led to a very engaging, informative, and entertaining seminar. → continue reading