Lately it seems that many freelancers are considering lowering their rates because of the worldwide economic downturn. In most cases, I think that lowering your rates is an unwise business decision that devalues not only your own work, but the work of other translators as well. In addition, I really believe, based on my own experience and that of other translators, that the market for high-quality translation services is still very strong. However, I’ve recently spoken with a couple of people who have lowered their rates and feel good about the decision, so I think it’s worth looking at the why/why not equation that’s at work.
First, before you make any rate-related decisions, force yourself to look at some objective data. Are you really experiencing more “work drought” periods than last year, or does it just feel that way because the economic news is so bad? How much money have you earned as compared to the same time last year? How do your existing rates compare to what other translators in your language combination charge (you can get some information about this from the ATA compensation survey or from online rates surveys)? Are your clients asking for rate cuts, or are you just assuming that your rates are too high? Do you have a track record of attracting clients at your current rates, or are your rates set too high for your level of experience or for your language combination?
Because I am really not in favor of lowering rates, let’s talk about the disadvantages of lowering your rates. Most importantly, I think that if you look for work that pays less than what you’re currently charging, you’re bound to find it. Then, you’ll be overloaded with low-paying work and you’ll be unable to take on higher-paying work when it inevitably comes in. In addition, you really want to avoid the low rate treadmill: when you charge low rates, you have to work more, which can harm the quality of your work and your enthusiasm for doing the work, but you quickly get into a situation where you really have no choice except to work very long hours because your rates are so low. If your rates are high (not ridiculously high, but high enough that you have a built-in safety margin), a few days without work isn’t a crisis, and can even be a welcome chance to catch up on your accounting, spruce up your website or update your online profiles. If you’re working for low pay, you can’t afford the luxury of even a day without work.
In addition, I just think it’s very hard to put a positive spin on telling your clients that you’re willing to work for less than you’ve been charging. No matter how you couch it, it’s hard to avoid sounding as if you’ve realized that your work is worth less than what you’ve been charging, and that’s just about the worst impression you can give to a client.
On the other hand, you have to eat, right? Especially if you’re single/the family breadwinner/have little or no savings cushion, there comes a point where low-paying work is better than no work. In addition, there are translators whose rates are optimistic given their level of experience, specializations and/or language combination. So, if you decide that you really have no choice other than to cut your rates, try to do it as pragmatically as possible. Rather than a generic “You’re right, I’m not worth it! Whatever you want to pay me is fine…” e-mail to your clients, think about how to cut your per-word rate but maintain as high an hourly rate as possible. If you have a client who sends you easy work (very little to look up, doesn’t require complex formatting, client is painless to work with, etc.), offer them the lower rate first. See if clients will take on some of the time-consuming aspects of your work (such as formatting or PDF conversions) so that you can concentrate on the translation.
So far, my work volume and rates are both higher than they were last year; I say this not to brag about my business, but to say that the bottom certainly hasn’t fallen out of the translation industry. At the same time, I think that if I were faced with a shortage of work at my current rates, I would rather work 20% less than charge 20% less, then use the extra time to market to higher-paying clients, work on some non-paying projects or just have more leisure time and enjoy it. Before you surrender and lower your rates, it’s also important to be honest with yourself about your marketing efforts. If you haven’t sent out a resumé in five years, that’s a better starting point than cutting your rates with your existing clients.