“What’s Your Rate?”

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If you’re a freelancer like me, you’ve probably been asked the above question too many times to count. Of course, it’s an important one and you need to have a good answer. You also have to be sure of your answer, confident that you believe this is a fair price to charge for your services.

But how do we get the answer in the first place?

This article, which follows up on my previous one about starting out as a freelance translator, is based on my more than 10 years of experience in this business turning Japanese documents into English ones, but I hope freelancers in other professions will find this information helpful, too.

A critical part of running your own business is knowing how much to charge for your services. If you happened to work in-house for a translation agency before jumping ship, then you probably have a good idea of what the market is like. The rest of you, however, may not be in the same boat and you feel clueless about how much to charge your new customers.

I was in the latter group, which means I had no idea how much to ask for. But since I was freelancing on the side when I began—the financially safer way to start out—I just took whatever I was offered. Naturally, the pay was terrible. The first agency I worked for gave me US$0.05 per English word. I was also still pretty slow at translating at that time, so I wonder how close to minimum wage I was pulling in. On the flip side, though, their quality standards were just as low as their compensation, so they were easy to work with.

And this is actually a good thing when you start out. The experience is more valuable than the pay. Observe how things work, learn, get better, then show off your improved skills when you provide sample translations to better-paying customers.

Because of course you don’t want to work for peanuts forever. Fortunately, if you’re a native English speaker translating from Japanese to English, demand for your service far outstrips supply. That means as you gain experience, you should receive better offers and you can feel confident approaching potential customers while suggesting rates that are higher than your current ones.

But what do you do when you have too much work on your plate? I’ll tell you. Contact your customers who pay the least, and tell them that you’re raising your rate to whatever your better customers are paying. Most of the time they will reject your offer, but that’s okay because you’re busy with more lucrative projects. And if they agree and you still have too much work, then at least you’re earning more money. That’s a good problem to have! Now it’s time to keep a lookout for even better opportunities.

This may seem like a heartless approach, but this is business.

Rule #1: Your customers are not your friends.

They could be very nice and if you met them under other circumstances then you might have become the best of buds, but in this reality, that is not the case. If you think of your customers as friends, your relationship could cloud your judgement, leading to bad business decisions. Be polite, be professional, but do not give the impression that you think of a customer as your friend.

Another thing to consider is how many customers to keep. What’s a good number to have? It depends on how much work each gives you. Maybe you’ll have a lot of customers each accounting for a small fraction of your total workload, or maybe you’ll have a few who each send you a significant chunk, or perhaps even a mix of both. However it works out, remember:

Rule #2: Never let one customer account for half of your income or more.

The reason why is that when it comes time to raise rates, you’ll naturally be reluctant to do so with a customer who accounts for at least half of your income. This is a trap that will keep you stuck at your current rate. Despite the temptation of a potentially steady income, in the long term, it is not in your interest to rely so heavily on one customer. If you really want that sort of security, seek out an in-house position where at least you can hold out hope of getting a raise or promotion every now and then. But if you’re intent on freelancing, then you need to maintain at least three customers at any given time to prevent any one of them from having an out-sized influence on your economic well-being.

In my case, I typically have 10 or so customers who have sent me work in the past six months, with some ordering a lot and others not so much. The downside is that when my busy season comes around (typically October through March), I can’t handle everyone’s requests. On the other hand, these circumstances provide me an opportunity to make a special offer: I’ll make extra time to work on evenings and weekends, but in exchange for an additional fee. Some customers are willing to shell out for this. I even have one customer—who is an absolute joy to work with, by the way—who values my services so much that they pay this premium rate for every project to ensure my availability year-round. In the final calculus, having so many customers works to my advantage.

After your first round of rate hikes, do another when you feel overloaded, and another, and keep repeating. Think of the process as walking up a staircase, with each step upward representing a higher rate. To ascend to the next step, you have to leave the lower step behind.

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Caption: “And she’s buying a stairway to…higher-income-for-the-same-amount-of-work-as-a-reward-for-experience-and-quality”

Over time, you will earn more money while doing the same amount of labor, though presumably of a higher level of quality as you build up the experience to justify those higher rates.

For what it’s worth, my rates fall under two tiers. My standard rate is 10 yen per Japanese character, while priority scheduling for evening and weekend availability is 12 yen. As of this writing, I’m only taking new customers who will pay 12 so I can hopefully bring all my incoming projects up to this level. There don’t seem to be many potential customers interested in this offer, but that’s okay because I’m pretty happy with the way things are set right now.

This brings me to another matter: I’ve found that many freelancers don’t want to disclose their rates to each other. I can’t understand why, not when we’re in a seller’s market. In this world where so many occupations involve getting screwed over by the corporations that will hire you, a native-English-speaking Japanese-to-English translator is one of the few positions you can be in where you have the upper hand. Take advantage of it! And that goes for any occupation where labor has the advantage, whether you freelance or not.

Getting back to translators’ reluctance to discuss rates… If I tell you my rate and you make less than me, then what you should do is not think about how to undercut me (which you can’t because you don’t know which agencies I work for anyway), but instead consider how you can get better-paying customers.

And if it turns out you already make more than me, then pat yourself on the back. Nice job!

Of course, not all translation projects involve piece work. Instead of charging by the character, word, page or whatever, a customer may ask you to propose an hourly rate. So how do you come up with one?

First, ask yourself a question: What is the value of the volume you can typically produce in an hour? The answer to that question is your hourly rate. But what if it seems high and the customer doesn’t want to pay it? That certainly happens with me. I translate about 1,000 characters an hour, which comes out to an hourly rate of between 10,000 and 12,000 yen, depending on the rate I’m applying.

Nobody I know wants to pay that much for an hourly rate! But then, which of us freelancers wants to charge less than we normally earn? You have three options:

Just be careful with that third option, because you don’t want it becoming a regular thing that takes away from your time to handle higher-paying piece work.

Well, that pretty much wraps up my thoughts on how to answer the question, “What’s your rate?” I hope this information provides you with some of the basic knowledge you’ll need to kick off your career as a freelance Japanese-to-English translator, freelance something else or whatever. Good luck!

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