The work of a freelance translator is fairly specific but also full of diversity. Any sort of text can be worked on by this professional, and this is what I consider to be one of the great advantages and motivators of this craft: getting to know an enormous variety of new things simply by working in our field. It is rewarding and it helps us grow personally and professionally.

However, this work is also marked by a certain amount of instability. There may be peaks in our workload when we need to work long hours at certain periods but very little work at other times. Seeing as this is a situation that particularly applies to professionals at the beginning of their career, is this a reason to take on any work that comes our way, no matter what the content, price or deadline is? I don’t believe so.

As translation professionals we have the right to set boundaries, to a certain extent. Undoubtedly, the boundary most often talked about is price. This is a debate that has been going on for a long time in the translation community: “How much should I charge? If I charge too much, will I be left with no work This discussion could go on forever, but there are other kinds of boundaries.

The debate I’d like to open up in this article generally concerns various sorts of limits that freelance translators can negotiate with their clients. Have you ever been in the situation of translating content that raises ethical issues, for example? Well, before you decide whether or not to take on a project, it may be worth considering some of the following constraints.


1 – Ethical constraints

Suppose you receive a political or religious text to translate airing convictions that are strongly opposed to your own beliefs, or whose dissemination, in your opinion, is detrimental to the society you are part of (for instance, an essay on the dangers of immigration and multiculturalism). You must remember that it is perfectly acceptable to refuse to translate it, but it is not enough to simply say so – it is advisable to politely inform your client of your reasons, thank him for sending you the work and emphasize that you hope to have the opportunity to work together again on future projects. An unsubstantiated refusal can be detrimental, because it increases the chances that the client will stop relying on you. By explaining your reasons, particularly if the client is a translation company, you are actually “scoring points” with the project manager because of your honesty and integrity.


2 – Timeline and word count constraints

Keeping in mind that freelance translators cannot always do all the work they receive, it is necessary to learn to say “no”. It can be frustrating to have no work at all for days on end and then get a large amount of work and have to refuse some of it; but remember that it is not because you say “no” once or twice that you will be removed from the company’s database Work out how many hours a day you are willing to work on a regular basis and know that sometimes you will have to go over that limit because of the additional workload. However, don’t make overtime a habit, because it will impact the quality of your translations.

Nonetheless, keep in mind that outright refusal is not always the solution. Imagine you could negotiate a different delivery time/date with your client: it doesn’t hurt to ask. As a project manager, I’ve had the experience of receiving work from a client and passing it on to external resources I trusted, who told me they couldn’t deliver on the deadline specified but could do so the next day. I just had to get in touch with my client, explain the situation and the client accepted; in the end, the translator I preferred got the job.


3 – Restrictions concerning fields/scientific areas

This scenario mainly applies to technical translation. Have you ever had to read an instruction manual so badly translated that the only solution was to just read the original version? Imagine that this work was done by a translator who thought she could accept the job but who actually did not have the qualifications to do it. If you decline to do a translation, it means losing that job; but a bad translation can mean losing all future jobs from that client. Meticulously read all the files and instructions and carefully weigh the pros and cons. If you want to find out more about the field, consider the possibility of training (online or in-person).


4 – Price constraints

Although it is not the main focus of this article, it is inevitable to touch on this point. A lot has been written about which prices are acceptable or not, an issue that is related to various aspects such as experience, how “rare” a language pair is, the scientific field, among many others. Regarding this, I would just like to mention two main ideas that I find very relevant:

4.1 – Charging minimum fees or rush rates

Imagine you receive a translation of 10 words, all of which require a large amount of research, consulting with experts and several other complications It is important to establish beforehand with your client that there is a minimum fee involved, particularly when you are told that a small job is on its way but you have no information about its content. If you only do this after telling the client that the normal rate per word applies, you run the risk of your client feeling cheated. The minimum fee should be the equivalent of what you would charge for translating 250 to 300 words in the same language pair.

Also establish a rate for rush jobs. Consider the time and volume factors. For example, a 1500-word translation within four hours qualifies for this rate. The amount varies and it is up to each person to determine it, but it is common to add 25% to the standard rate. This article offers some other thoughts on the subject.

4.2 – Defining prices in terms of time:

It cannot be repeated often enough that “time is money”. When we translate, we offer a service that takes up our time. We could be spending this time with friends and family, travelling or learning a new language, among many other things. Think about this: what is a fair rate for an hour’s work? And how many words on average do you translate per hour? And how many words on average do you translate per hour? This calculation should include all the money (and time, of course) you have invested on your training, on your work tools (computer, CAT tools, printer…) and on the services you use to carry out your work. Don’t leave out “extra” tasks like your personal accounting. Calculate how much you really earn for each hour of work at your current rate and decide whether you should change it. Then, I suggest you try and reconcile your rate with market prices.


5 – Technical constraints

This topic applies not only to CAT tools but also to the sort of work we are asked to do. We may be translators but we don’t just do translation and proofreading. Throughout your career, companies will ask you to perform tasks like QA, transcription, testing and many others. If you do not feel comfortable doing these kinds of things, it is better to be honest and explain why you can’t accept them However, here is a suggestion: consider the possibility of taking on these less common jobs or even investing in training to learn how to do them. For instance, a lot of companies offer beta testing jobs paid by the hour, a market niche not yet fully explored and which is potentially very lucrative. The same applies to CAT tools you may not be familiar with: there is a first time for everything and it doesn’t do any harm to acquire more knowledge. If you often get requests for translation in a tool you have never used, there’s no time like the present to start.
One of the character traits most valued by project managers is honesty. It may have never occurred to you, but it often happens that a project manager sends a job proposal to a translator without having read through the text to be translated. Most probably, in the hustle and bustle of a busy day, the project manager may have received the file from the client and just skimmed through it because she didn’t have enough time to assess all these issues. If you contact your client and explain in a substantiated manner why you don’t feel comfortable accepting the job, the project manager will most probably appreciate your sincerity, understand why you declined and keep you as a contact for future projects.


In your experience as a translator have you ever come across any of these situations Did you find a way of working around them, or did you simply decline the job? Is there another aspect not mentioned in this article that you consider it important to address? Share your experience with us!