Samuel Murray, Translator - English into Afrikaans | Article index


For a short while I was a member of the Fair Rates Net group. They asked me to write a pilot document for the scientific determination of a fair rate. They have determined a fair rate through voting of members, but my results showed that even their high rate was not nearly as high as it should be.

This document is a first draft. The ZAR:EUR conversion rate was taken to be 10:1.


What is a fair rate? A fair rate is one that is not excessively high for the client and not excessively low for the translator.

What is excessive? What is excessive does not depend so much on your or your client's domicile, but rather on your (and possibly your client's) world view.

The problem is that we have no objective factor against which to measure whether a rate is excessive in itself. Therefore, let's take the pragmatic approach and determine what is excessive by looking at what is necessary (what is necessary to survive, in other words).


According my world view, on the one hand clients should not abuse the fact that skilled experts in poorer countries often require less to maintain survival, and on the other hand those skilled persons should not abuse the fact that wealthy clients from abroad are often able to pay more than what local potential clients may afford. If the former is permitted, it will result in exploitation (that is, exploitation of local translators by alien clients), and the poor will remain poor. If the latter is permitted, it will result in virtual brain drain from those countries (or, exploitation of local clients by local translators, if you prefer), and the poor will remain poor.

In order to combat exploitation, I think therefore that a translator should measure the fairness of his rate in terms of a scenario in which he is a local translator in the client's country. This method will, in my opinion, prevent the occurance of exploitation in either direction. Hence, for example, if a translator from Chile works for a client from the United Kingdom, he should determine his rate as if he were a translator living in the United Kingdom (as well as the other way around, which is often not said).

Two questions to think about

1. How does one deal with the fact that the conditions in a country may change? Do we recalculate a rate every so often in terms of inflation for example, as well as the other variables taken into account?

After all, some countries are economically stable and others are not. Simply adjusting the rate once a year for inflation is probably simplest, and it may suffice for stable countries. In the case of unstable countries, however, the inflation rate may not adequately reflect the change in that which is necessary for survival.

2. Do we set rates for every country, or for small groups of countries (such as "Scandinavia", "Former East Block", "Middle East"), or for continents, or for large regions (such as "Third World", "New World", "First World")?

Setting rates per sizable region would make the system a lot simpler, as long as one can agree on the division. Even neighbouring countries cannot always be grouped together -- for example, South Africa is relatively very rich compared to its neighbours Namibia and Botswana, and Mexico is relatively very poor compared to its neighbour the United States.

We don't need to answer these two questions now -- they can be answered at the very end of the process of determining what is fair and what is not.

Now we need to calculate what is a fair rate for clients and what is a fair rate for translators -- for the difference between the two represents the fair variation which makes competitiveness possible.

Fairness in terms of clients

I don't know how to determine whether a rate is fair to a client. I do know that the rate must not exploit the client. In other words, the client must get a fair price for the product.

One possible solution is to measure how much the producer of a publication such as a newspaper spends on each step of the production process, and then calculate an hourly rate for each of those and then compare it with the hourly rate for translation. The steps might include branding, canvassing, copywriting, translation, editing, graphic design, proofreading, full-page make-up, page planning, printing, and distribution. Instead of using the hourly rate for each of these steps as a guideline, one may use the total amount spent and calculate the translator's hourly portion of it.

One could calculate this for every region, or one could assume that although the prices will differ from one region to the next, the proportions would probably be the same.

Fairness in terms of translators

The translator gets a fair deal if he is able to survive.

Let me qualify that by saying that according to my world view a survival remuneration includes sufficient money for a little capital growth. In other words, after all the professional bills have been paid, the translator should be left with sufficient money not only for essentials like food, housing and medicine, but also for non-essentials like leisure, education or savings. A fair salary should be calculated into the translator's business costs, in other words.

In a perfect world translators will always have work and would never need to spend time and money on marketing themselves. They would never need to spend time and money on futher education and on networking either. However, in the present world translators don't spend 8/8 hours a day doing something profitable (i.e. translating).

I assume that established translators probably spend more time translating than newbie translators do. This means that newbie translators need to spend more time and money on marketing, for example. The paradox of this is that established translators probably need to charge less to break even than newbie translators do. Almost anyone would agree that this is unfair.

While it is possible that a newbie translator would have sufficient work, it is more likely that an established translator would have insufficient work. For the purpose of this document I therefore think we should assume that established and newbie translators need to charge the same minimum rate.

I think the only way to establish how much time per day/week/month is spent on actual translation and how much time would have to be spend on marketing, networking and further education, is a survey among translators.

I can't think of another way to determine the time spent on each of these. One could assume a certain amount of time for further education, and bring the current price of it into account. One could also calculate how much an assumed marketing campaign might cost and possibly how much time it should take. But all these calculations will have to be based on assumptions.

There is in principle nothing wrong with assumptions, but even a small variation in one of the factors could have a sizable effect on the calculated outcome. One could make assumptions until such time as a proper survey can be undertaken.

Therefore, let's calculate all the expenses, using a case study.

Case study

Since I'm South African, I'll do the case study from a South African perspective, and since my language combination is English-Afrikaans, I'll assume that too.

Translator X has just finished four years of translation training. In South Africa tertiary study is not free. We can assume that he managed to pay for room and board by doing student jobs during those four years, but his tuition fees are still outstanding. Tuition = EUR 5 000.

He buys equipment for his trade. This includes a new entry-level computer, software and reference works, and fax machine. Computer = EUR 700. MS Windows, MS Office and Wordfast = EUR 1 000. Basic dictionaries and spell checkers = EUR 300. Fax machine EUR 150.

His total debt at the start of his career is therefore EUR 7 150. He wants to repay his debt at 15% interest over 5 years, therefore he will have to pay EUR 210 per month for his initial tuition and equipment.

Stationary = EUR 70 per month, internet access = EUR 5 per month, phone line rental and usage = EUR 75 per month (local calls are not free in South Africa). These costs exclude the cost of marketing. Hence the running costs are EUR 150 per month.

He prints brochures and business cards (EUR 100) and mails them (EUR 50) and does company visits. His marketing drive costs him EUR 150 per month.

Translator X joins the local translators' institute = EUR 50 per year. He wants to complete a fifth year of study part time over two years = EUR 2 000 for two years. He wants to attend translator workshops = EUR 150 per year. He wants to buy two dictionaries or reference works per month = EUR 50 per month. His total futher education bill is therefore EUR 1 800 per year, or EUR 150 per month.

He asks around and discovers that a fair beginner's salary for his type of work is nett EUR 300 per month. This amount includes food, clothing and leisure, but excludes transport and housing.

Since our translator will be working from home, his transport bill will be low. He could buy a small used car = EUR 1 000 = EUR 30 per month (interest rate 20%, 5 year loan), plus EUR 100 per month on fuel and maintenance and EUR 10 for insurance. Or, he could buy a year-old car = EUR 5 000 = R160 per month (interest rate 20%, 5 year loan), plus EUR 50 per month on fuel and maintenance and EUR 50 for insurance.

Unless our translator can get a private loan for buying a house (since the bank will turn him down for not having a salary), he'll have to rent. Rental of cottage with two rooms (one to sleep in and one to work in) = EUR 150 per month. If he bought a small house, his bond payment would have been EUR 360 per month (interest rate 15%, 10 year bond) or EUR 290 per month (15 year bond) or EUR 260 per month (20 year bond).

Finally, translator X needs to have medical insurance and a pension fund = EUR 230 per month.


TOTAL = EUR 1 990 per month.

Translator X must make EUR 1 990 per month to break even. He could reduce this to EUR 1 515 if he decides to rent a cottage and to have no further education except for buying one book per month.

Our translator will spend 1/5 days of the week studying, and probably another 1/5 days of the week doing marketing. If he decides to accept only work for which he does not need to leave his house to do research, he can translate 7/8 hours per day. This means that he spends 84 hours per month translating.

At EUR 1990 per month and 84 hours per month, his income should total no less than EUR 25 per hour. Now all we need to do is calculate his translation speed, assuming he accepts only general work which requires minimal research.

If he is superfast and translates 1 000 words per hour, his fair minimum rate would be EUR 0.025 per word. At 500 words per hour his rate is EUR 0.05 per word, and at 250 words per hour his rate is EUR 0.10 per word.

Keep in mind that our translator always asks a proofreader to check his work, and pays him 30%. This means that his total fair minimum rate would be EUR 0.15 per word. If he chose the lesser income stated above, his rate would be EUR 0.11 per word.


I wonder how "market-related" or "competitive" a rate of ZAR 1.50 (or ZAR 1.10) would be in South Africa. I have never seen any rate higher than ZAR 0.60 per word, and the average is around ZAR 0.35 per word.

In terms of what is written at the beginning of this document, this calculated rate would be the fair minimum rate a South African client would have to pay for a translator, regardless of where in the world the translator lives.

I wonder how much a client from, say, the United Kingdom, France or the United States would have to pay -- to do that we have to repeat the case study for a translator living in the United Kingdom, France or the United States -- and I daresay it will be far more than EUR 0.15 per word.