How should interpreters set their fees?

February 19, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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.

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

§ 15 Responses to How should interpreters set their fees?

  • Betina Frisone says:

    Hear! Hear! Great advice, Tony. Not only consider the fees for services to be provided, but broaden the discussion (with advisors or at least on paper) to encompass the type of work you do or want to do, what you already have to offer, and what it takes to get or stay there.

    Good idea, too, to do this as a regular review every few years, as the market changes and our career paths evolve, wouldn’t you agree?

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    What a great post, Tony! Thank you!

    One of the tenets to keep in mind is that this is not the profession to choose to become rich.

    There are many things we have to know, do and purchase before we ever become working interpreters and translators.

    In addition to knowing our languages really well —a skill we’ve spent years in learning and honing— we must take several expensive language proficiency exams to prove not only to ourselves but to others that we in fact are knowledgeable in our languages. Very possibly we can be required to take courses as well as Continuing Education (CE) hours and pay annual fees. We must also update our electronics by having at least a computer and a cell phone with attributes almost as good as ours. Also let’s not forget that we must spend on a dictionary here or there because as we well know —that although expensive— there is no such thing as too many dictionaries, whether electronic or paper.

    All that costs money.

    Let’s not forget that our personal discipline and appearance have a marked bearing on our profession as well as our work ethic and our personality which in turn decide whether they’ll call us back or not because they either liked us or not, and because they liked our style of interpretation or translation. All these attributes generate income, so yes, people skills are paramount in this business because simply put, we are in the people business.

    In my particular case and when I perform work as a certified court interpreter, I go by the federally stipulated fees for contract interpreters, whether full day or half day rates.

    I personally look forward to Mondays.

    André Csihás, FCCI

  • Teri Szucs says:

    I also consider the value of our service, for example, in a deposition, we are the cheapest person in the room, were we to disappear, the depo would be cancelled and the cost would be in the $1000s.
    That is the leverage I feel we have to demand better than descent remuneration.

  • Ms Li Tin CHU says:

    Good post as always Tony! Thanks! The professional fees here in Taiwan set or asked by the fellow EN-CH interpreters are pathetic. Their motto is: “some peanuts are better than no peanuts”. So they keep working for peanuts, and their quality keeps falling shamelessly, because they are not happy with the peanuts they get. They are also greedy, wanting to grab all topics, claiming : we are knowledgeable and we are cheap!

    There is a Chinese saying: “quantity at low price makes a good profit”. I totally disagree with this. One has to learn to work smart and with dignity.

    For depositions, since there is no court certification here in Taiwan, so the “free market” principle is applied, again, asking for peanuts just to get the job. They would go as far as to fork out money for transportation and lodging from their own pocket, no justifiable extra requested, even giving away free hours even before the clients ask them. All these are part of their peanuts marketing strategy. I am shocked just now that the on-going rate offered by agencies for depositions is below the rate and work conditions (transportation, lodging, OT, etc.) I worked with back in 2006!! After checking with a couple of colleagues from the pathetic group, I realize that the on-going rate is offered thanks to their great beggar´s marketing strategy, so the clients are shamelessly asking for ever reducing rates and slavery conditions.

    I have realized that while there are many cheap clients, but the more pathetic group of people is not the clients/agencies, but among the colleagues. Sad.

    I firmly believe that a true professional interpreter is someone who keeps improving his/her language and techniques, besides the people skills. I believe that even if you are shy, but when you keep your high quality job rolling and your professional ethics, you still can build a good business in the long run.

    In the 20+ years I have been in this business, I have seen people who dug their own graves pathetically applying the strategy described above. It´s just a matter of time that you fall into the trap you set up for yourself, if you are not honest with your skills as a true professional and lack of dignity.

    Gracias Tony por un excelente blog lleno de buenos consejos! un abrazo desde Taiwan!
    Li Tin

  • Jesse says:

    Thank you Tony for this post, and for the comments, Betina, André, Teri and Ms. Li.

    I am not a court or legal interpreter and I only do conference interpreting about 20% of the time that I’m interpreting. I do not work for agencies.

    Tony put it well when he said we must charge the maximum the market will hold, providing one’s an awesome interpreter, a people person of course, with spot on presentation and posture, always ready to change words when clients want different vocabulary (even if it’s wrong! [But of course not in conference or legal interpreting]), and to admit when one has made a mistake or interpreted inaccurately.

    The interpreter is the star of the show, the crux of communication—the one in the driver’s seat. I love interpreting because I love being that important person, the one helping people communicate—the one with the cultural information and know-how.

    I charge the maximum I can, and I deliver, adjusting to clients’ special instructions, always showing up dressed professionally (usually a suit), and going with the flow when that’s needed.

    When I think about how much I charge, I think about the effort it takes me to do my job well. Besides all the education, glossaries, books, etc. I think about how I have to be rested, alert, always showing up at least 1/2 an hour early, being in a good mood, well fed, etc. and this is what we need to be paid the big bucks for. An interpreter is a super specialized kind of professional who must command a significant fee.

    As for fee or rate, to me they are one in the same. Perhaps from being paid a tarifa down here in Mexico, but really in English to me these words are signaling the same idea, i.e. fixed price paid for something and payment made to a professional person.

    Saludos desde Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, Jalisco.

  • […] Dear colleagues: 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: “f…  […]

  • […] 19/02/2015 How should interpreters set their fees? by Tony Rosado (The Professional Interpreter) […]

  • […] vs. rate. And the best explanation of why we should reflect on the use of rate can be found in this post. The author, lawyer and interpreter Tony Rosado, explains in simple terms: “I always say fees, […]

  • […] (“How should interpreters set their fees.” The Professional Interpreter blog. 2/19/2015 Today I will focus on what is behind an interpreter fee.A good interpretation looks easy, even […]

  • […] (“How should interpreters set their fees.” The Professional Interpreter blog. 2/19/2015 Today I will focus on what is behind an interpreter fee.A good interpretation looks easy, even […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

What’s this?

You are currently reading How should interpreters set their fees? at The Professional Interpreter.


%d bloggers like this: