How should interpreters set their fees?
February 19, 2015 § 14 Comments
Not long ago I heard a colleague ask another interpreter how she should set her fees as a freelancer in order to remain competitive and make a living. Basically, the answer was: “figure out your expenses (office, equipment, dictionaries, utilities, etc.) and then make sure you set a fee that covers all that plus an extra amount for you to make a decent living.” I heard that answer, and although at first it seemed to make a lot of sense, upon reflecting on the concept I knew it was wrong, or at best incomplete.
You see, when I decided to be an interpreter I was motivated by two equally important issues: My love for language of course, but also my indomitable desire to have a great and comfortable life. I never thought about making a “decent” living. I wanted to make as much money as I could, and I have devoted the rest of my life to better myself and broaden my horizons in order to make this happen.
It is true that when setting a fee, and please pay attention to the semantics: I always say fees and never rates, because we are professionals, just like a physician or a lawyer, and professionals charge a fee for their services, not a rate or a fare. As I was saying, when figuring out our fee schedule it is absolutely necessary to factor in all our fixed business expenses, and as interpreters this should include your personal appearance: clothing, grooming and so on, advertising expenses: conventional and social media, travel expenses, professional insurance, and other similar expenditures that we all know are necessary to get the good assignments, the important clients.
This however, is just the tip of the iceberg of what we need to consider when quoting a fee. We are in a profession where we provide professional services that are personal; in other words, unlike the engineer who can be working on two different projects at the same time, we can only do an assignment at a time. Once in the booth we cannot make any money somewhere else. This means that we have to consider a reality of our work: we sell our time one client at a time, and that time is precious; it includes not just the hours we spend in the booth or the meeting room doing a rendition, it also encompasses the time it takes us to get to the assignment, sometimes up to two days if the job is half way across the world.
Well then, after factoring in all these elements, we have to factor in the time and cost invested in formal education, and not just interpreting and other related disciplines; we also need to consider other professional education such as medical school, law school, engineering, chemistry, biology and so forth. Then, we must add the time we spend in preparation for the assignment, research study, glossary development, meeting with colleagues, speakers, agencies, technicians and others, and the time we devote to improve our skill by staying informed of what is going on in the world, learning history, technology, science, arts, and all other subjects that directly or indirectly contribute to the formation of that well-rounded individual that an interpreter needs to be to provide a first class service. I am not saying that you have to keep time records for every one of these things and then invoice them to the client. What I am saying is that you must allocate an economic value to that time and effort and include it as part of your fee. “My professional work for two days of interpreting costs “X” plus “0.1 percent for all the years of constant, and ongoing studying and learning”
Next, you need to decide what should be your compensation for the lifestyle that your profession requires you to have. This is particularly important for those interpreters who already are at the top of the profession and for the ones who are devoting their entire life to get there. This may not be that relevant for some interpreters, but I know that most elite interpreters in the world did not get there by accident. They had to work (and still do) very hard to reach that status, and very often it means that they need to have a lifestyle that most people would not want to have. I am talking of all those evening events, those assignments on a holiday, the ones that keep us away from home for weeks and even months at a time, the jobs that represent a danger to our lives and physical integrity like conflict zones, epidemics, and others where the interpreter rushes into the bad situation to do his job at the same time that most regular people are leaving the place. It is no coincidence that so many interpreters at this level have no family, they are single or divorced, they have no children, and the majority of their friends are other interpreters who have embraced the same life. Of course those who devote most of their lives to their profession do it because they love it, because that is the life they chose for themselves, but regardless of this motivation, the fact that you are doing things most people would not, has to be factored in when setting a fee.
Now that you have taken into account all of these fixed expenses and personal conditions as part of the fee, you must move on to the next phase: You must consider the market where you will be providing these services. Most experienced interpreters who work in many countries know that they cannot expect the same pay everywhere. There are economic realities that will set limits to a particular region. We need to be aware of this factor. Our goal needs to be to command the highest possible fee that a particular market can pay us. If you get this fee you cannot complain, even if it is lower that the fee for the same service somewhere else in the planet. You are making top money for that part of the world. Of course, we cannot forget the original goal: to have an income that will let us live a comfortable life. For this reason, we need to plan our assignments very carefully. You will not afford the Ferrari if you do all your work in a lower-fee region of the world, but you can mix the events so that at the end it evens up. For those colleagues who do not practice this kind of interpreting, the ones who do all of their work in the same location, they will have to make a choice at some point during their careers and stay where they are, or move to another region where fees are higher.
Finally, you need to address the needs of your “regular” “preferred” “top of the list” clients who give you a lot of work. In that case I would suggest offering “extras” as part of the service, but never lowering the fees. There are many other ways you can save money to your client without impacting the interpreters’ fees. They are untouchable. We will probably discuss those other “cuts” on a different post at a later time.
My friends, there are many ways to set your professional fees and we are all unique. I expect that most of you will do it differently. I am aware that not all elements mentioned above need to be considered by every interpreter; I also know that there could be many that I left out. All I am doing is bringing to your attention all the things you need to consider when setting your fee schedule, so that by going beyond office rent, utilities, computers and dictionaries, you consider other elements you bring to the table and are essential to provide this professional service that we call interpreting. I now invite you to share with all of us your ideas about the elements that you believe need to be factored in when setting your fee schedule.