Every now and then I come across posts by translators (and even agencies) stating that they charge more for “difficult” source texts. Based on my discussions with - and reactions from - these translators, this practice seems to be wide-spread.
I, however, find this practice unjustifiable.
For the purpose of this article, “difficult” means “needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand” (Google Dictionary, emphasis added) and “challenging” means “demanding” (requiring less effort).
It should be noted that because of corporate ideology, “challenging” has replaced “difficult”; however, we—the language professionals—should use the words in their actual sense. Therefore, while “challenging” means “demanding”, but not necessarily harder, “difficult” implies “considerable lack of skill to do or understand something” (see the definition above). If a project needs more effort of a technical nature, as is the case with what I call “challenging projects”, then a higher rate is justifiable.
Examples of challenging projects:
- complex formatting (as is often the case with certificates);
- presence of numerous relatively rare official names of organizations or institutions (which must be researched and used in their official form);
- barely legible handwriting, etc.
It is OK to charge more for challenging projects because you will spend more time on them regardless of how experienced or qualified you are.
Taking into account the aforementioned definitions of “difficult” and “challenging”, there are at least three reasons why “difficult” source texts not only do not entitle you—the translator or agency—to raise your rates but might be indicative of your:
1. Artificially inflated rates. If you—the translator or agency—have to spend so much time researching so many terms (which you should know given that you accepted the project), then the only way you can justify your expected hourly income is to raise your rates.
2. Disrespect for highly qualified professionals. Charging more because you have to learn (on the job) a large number of terms in a field you know nothing or very little about is logically flawed. Based on this logic, a newbie should—paradoxically—be paid more because it usually takes them longer to do a job that a qualified professional would do more quickly.
New terms are encountered in almost every translation project, but a qualified professional generally spends less time on research because they know most of the terms already.
3. Low integrity standards. If a text is “difficult”, then you either lack the experience or are not qualified enough to accept it. If you are a newbie in a certain field, there is absolutely nothing wrong with rejecting projects related to that field. (I have acquired a few clients merely by rejecting medical translation projects, which I never accept. By rejecting the projects I proved to my clients that I am indeed driven by quality rather than profit.)
By accepting a translation project that is “difficult” (note: not to be confused with “challenging” as defined above), you will do a substandard job which, depending on the field, could have serious negative consequences.
Think about this: would you go to a surgeon who says, “This surgery is easy for my experienced colleagues but too difficult for me. However, I will learn on the job”? Would you entrust that surgeon with your life or well-being?
Recommendations for translators:
- If a text is so complicated that your current level of knowledge makes it impossible for you to ‘feel’ when it’s time to ask for help (this being a characteristic of professionals), then you should either:
- reject the project as soon as you can (the client will thank you; if they don’t, you wouldn’t want to work with them anyway); or
- let the client know that your translation should be checked by a more experienced professional.
- Never be afraid to learn. Ask your client to send you a final version of your translation so that you learn from your mistakes and improve in your new field. Not many clients will respond to your request, but those who will are the ones you will want to work with in the long-term.
Recommendations for translation agencies:
- Try to avoid translators who charge you for “difficult” texts, or at least make sure their work is checked. As demonstrated above, there is no such thing as a “difficult” text/project but either a “challenging project” or “newbie translator”.
- Accept their revised rates in case of formatting or other ”challenging projects” as defined above. Doing so will show your translator that you care about them. In return, your translator will be more inclined to help you when you need them the most (and you never know when you’ll need your translator’s help).
- Respect translators who refuse work which falls outside their expertise. By rejecting your project, they are saving you from headaches. They are doing you a huge favor.
- Support those who are honest about their limitations. These are the kind of people you will love to work with.
Happy translating and networking!
M.Sc. Jonis Buzi
English Albanian translator