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On Setting Rates

Translator Twitter always sees some kind of drama about rates. Low rates, unclear rates, unpaid rates…

Time is money. Really!
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This topic never seems to die down, which makes sense, because understanding rates is one of the great mysteries for beginning translators (and, probably, many other freelance fields). For the beginner, it can seem so deeply frustrating when more experienced translators don’t just tell them what a good rate is. I know I felt that way, and those first steps were so difficult that I was genuinely angry at times that no one would just TELL ME what I should charge.

It’s only now that I’m a couple of years into working full time as a freelancer, and successfully supporting my family doing so, that I understand why no one would. The answer is, as frustrating as it sounds, there is no standard. There is no clear baseline that people can share, because a decent rate is in many ways a personal thing. It is based on your own economic needs (cost of living, dependents, etc.), your speed of work, the kind of work you can do, the value you can add to your work, and a variety of other factors.

This is not to say that no one can offer guidance: They can (and I plan to)! Just that no one can offer much in the way of concrete numbers, with a few caveats.

So, how do we do it? We need to start with a few basic principles so that we understand why we’re doing what we’re going to do.

First: Translation is not low-paid work. It is a highly skilled job that serves real economic needs, worldwide. Even in common pairs, any rate that is near minimum wage is, frankly, unacceptable. It’s not economically defensible to pay work with these kind of required skills and talents less than a living wage. Have some pride in your work, and yourself!

Second: Freelancers should charge more than they first expect. Freelance work places a very large economic burden on the worker in terms of taxes, insurance, expenses, unpaid holidays, ad infinitum. A good rule of thumb that is batted around is that a freelancer can expect about the same “take home” pay from double the hourly rate of a full-time employee. So, if a freelancer is earning $100 an hour, that’s about the same real income as someone earning $50 an hour as a company employee.

Third: You are your only advocate. No one gives a rate in freelance translation: you charge it. You decide when to raise it. You decide what is fair for you. If a client is unwilling to pay the rate you charge, it’s up to you to decide if you will lower it, or find another client. This also means that:

Fourth: The burden is on you to understand your work flow. Is your work worth the rate you charge? If you lower your rate, will you earn more by getting more clients, or less because you’re underselling yourself? Are you working efficiently enough to earn enough money at a reasonable rate? Can you work faster/smarter/in a different field? All of this is on you. You’re an adult, and you made this decision to work on your own. All of this is part of that decision.

Fifth: You are more than just your work. Set your rates so that you can live a comfortable life. You shouldn’t be working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. You should be able to rest and enjoy life, not hate your work because you can’t stop doing it for a single day.

So, based on these principles, here is what I find a pretty good way to set your rate.

A: Decide how much money you need to live (per day, or week, or year, etc.). Then, add some more, because I really mean it with those principles. You want to have fun, you want to thrive. You want that middle class dream.

B: Figure out how fast you work, roughly. Naturally, this is going to fluctuate depending on job, field, weather, mood, etc. etc. But you should have a rough idea how much you can translate in an hour, all things considered. For Japanese to English, most people fall between 500 and 1,000 characters an hour.

Now, do the math. Based on the amount you decided in A, figure out an hourly rate, then use B to help set that per character rate. For example:

A= 700,000 yen a month. I work five days a week, 7 hours a day. That’s roughly 140 hours a month, yadda yadda yadda, so I’m looking for 5,000 yen an hour. (This is a conservative figure for a freelancer, as per the second principle above). Don’t forget the long term: I will need holidays, and sick days, and so on. I deserve those, as a human being.

B: if I can translate 500 characters an hour, I should charge 10 yen per character. You will find that this is not at all high for some fields (technical fields, financial fields, etc. will charge much more). But if you’re doing, say, games, it’s very high–largely because people expect faster output. Thus, if you can translate 1,000 an hour, 5 yen per character will get you that same hourly rate.

So, as you can see, it’s simple math but the variables are very wide.

This is also why experienced translators can say a given rate is too low, but not tell you what a baseline should be. It’s because there is a variable math to it, and looking a rate of, say, 1 yen per character gives no path to work out anything like a living wage. Working for such low rates could actually set that translator on a downward spiral, so that they use all their energy just keeping their head above water instead of having reserves they can use to grow and improve. It’s literally better to work at McDonald’s for minimum wage and use your spare time to gain skills so you can become a more successful translator, than work for nothing as a translator and dig yourself into a bottomless pit because you no longer have spare time.

Personally, I aim for 10,000 yen per hour, but so far really only average 8,000. I’m working on gradually raising rates and expanding clients to new, more lucrative fields, since I’m already working as fast as I think I reasonably can (average about 1,000 characters an hour) and I don’t want to work more hours (about 30 a week right now). Thus, my rates range from 7 (my absolute minimum for agency clients) to 12 (for direct clients), with special cases going as high as 18.

To end with, here’s my stab at a baseline: In my opinion, there is no realistic way to support yourself as a translator and live a comfortable life at anything less than 5 yen per character. That should be an absolute minimum for full time work. Naturally, someone out there is disagreeing with me, and that’s fine. I’m just saying, the higher you get above that baseline, the better things will be for you.

Review – Revival

Revival

Revival by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


What a long, strange trip it has been. I have been reading Stephen King for probably 30 years. When I was in Jr. High I used to sneak away from my mom at Wal-Mart to buy paperbacks, and hide them in my pockets until I could get to the privacy of my room. My mother was not a fan, you could say.

I loved those books. I loved the goriness, the crafty little turns of phrase, and the depiction of rurality that I recognized (being from rural Kansas, I guess there’s not that much difference between little prairie towns and little New England towns). Over the years, I came to see what King himself called his “salami-making.” These were fine, creepy yarns, sometimes even gutwrenchingly sad (Oh, Henry…). But they weren’t “Litrachure.” King had no pretensions of deep exploration of the human condition, he wrote scary stories to read in the dark.

But now, as I approach middle age, I’m starting to question that truism. Because there are stories like Hearts in Atlantis, or The Body, or this one, Revival, that seem to transcend the rough-ground spiciness of, say, Christine. It might just be the decades of life that have come to inform the writer’s thinking. Or it might be the decades of life that have come to inform this reader. But somehow, I think King is tapping into a deeper vein these days.

Revival is at the same time a memoir of a life not wholly unlike Kings, a love letter to the origins of a certain brand of horror, and a look at what makes the first so good, and the last so bad.

For roughly the first half of the book, we read the story of Jamie’s life as something not entirely unusual. There are the purely human pains of tragedy and disillusionment. There are also the more mundane growing pains of rough big brothers, feeling your way through first love, and addiction. There is little that could be called supernatural or ominous, apart from what Jamie himself alludes to in hindsight.

This is a slow burn. It builds a living character, a life of complexity and reality that other writers would rush through. But King does not rush here. He takes his time, because this weaving is what makes the latter half punch so hard.

In the latter half, the ominous shadow of Charles Daniel Jacobs (Charlie Daniels and the Devil in Georgia, huh?) grows heavy, and the threads of the weave begin to darken with the taint of Lovecraft, Derleth, and Machen (three names mentioned right at the top of the book…). For this book is as pure an expression of cosmic horror as any you’ll find. Jacobs, the reverend of Jamie’s youth, is desperate to tap into the powers that run the world behind the world, no matter the cost…

And the cost is great. Because this ending gathers up those threads of youth woven so slowly in the beginning of the book and brings them back to the end to come full circle. The joys of youth become the pain of age, now tainted with darkness from beyond the veil.

It’s masterful.

And yet, there is still some salami here. Because King does what other cosmic horrors often avoided: he made the implicit explicit. He describes in detail what lays behind the veil, and in so doing removes much of its more lingering power. There is still dread here, but I can’t help but think its was blunted by that choice.

I still think that this is one of the best expressions of King’s strength, his characters, and leverages that strength to make a genuinely unsettling horror story. Revival is maybe the best of King, and a transcendence of the limits he placed on himself so long ago.



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Review – The Summer Tree

The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry #1)

The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is the first book in the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, a “portal fantasy” about five Toronto University students taken to a magical fantasy realm. There they are sweet up in a war of dark and light, cavort with gods and goddesses, and plumb both the depths and heights of life and loss.

Guy Gavriel Kay established his name as a fantasy author with this series, and it possesses all the Hallmark if great Kay fantasy. It plumbs real world history and mythology to root the vivid word he builds in it, this time the Celtic myths of Wales, and revels in the artistry of language and creation that have rise to those ancient stories.

We also see the deep humanity that always information his writing,v as characters are moved more by admiration, joy, and empathy than the usual fantasy motivators of fate, rage, or vengeance. Thought there is some of that, too.

Perhaps the only misstep for me is the rather clumsy “portal” element. This book never really shows why Loren needed to take five people from Earth back to Fionavar, and I’m honestly kind of bemused at how smoothly and quickly the Canadian kids side into their roles in this utterly alien world.

But Kay’s writing is as masterful add it is today, and the world as enthralling as any in fantasy, so I’ll forgive that minor stumbling block.



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Review – Shadow Magic

Shadow Magic (Lyra, #1)

Shadow Magic by Patricia C. Wrede

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Shadow Magic is about as traditional a fantasy as you can get. Dark beings, thought vanquished long ago, reawaken and the kingdoms of men, Shee (ahem…), Wyrds, and more must find ancient artifacts and the chosen one to wield them before all is lost.

It’s not all that original but there is something comforting in that. The characters are clearly drawn and pleasant, and the writing is smooth as glass. There is not a lot of surprise here, but quite a lot of warmth and fun.

I liked it. It isn’t going to change the world, but it doesn’t need to.



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Review – 邪神決闘伝

邪神決闘伝

邪神決闘伝 by Hideyuki Kikuchi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This self-described Cthulhu Western is a very traditional western hammered into a very traditional Cthulhu mythos mold to make something uniquely fun. The writer wears his tastes on his sleeve, writing a western based deeply in the Hollywood 1950s movie tradition: famous gunslingers, nefarious train companies running honest farmers off their land, and deadly natives. Add to that Deep Ones, Cthulhu magic, and seemingly deathless villains, and you get quite an adventure.

This does mean, of course, that many of the more nuanced views that have started to shape the American view of the west, particularly recognition of the terrible treatment of Native Americans and Black people, are absent. The Native Americans in this story are enemies, if ones on perhaps more equal terms with the protagonists than was common in the old western tradition, and the only black characters are nameless servants.

One rather interesting element is the addition of the Japanese character Shinobi, and the recurring equation of his Japanese-ness with the Native Americans by malevolent white characters–it adds a wrinkle to the treatment of race in this one that is worth thinking about.

Overall, there is little original ground tread here, but the author makes no bones about it: This is a product of his love of old western movies, and his interest in Lovecraft’s malevolent world building. If you go into it looking for that, you won’t be disappointed.



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Review – Lord of Emperors

Lord of Emperors (The Sarantine Mosaic, #2)

Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Guy Gavriel Kay might write the must fundamentally human fantasy there is. His stories are steeped in all the love, loss, ambition, and confusion that fills even the most mundane life, yet writ large on lives that echo through the history of this faux-Europe he draws with such deft strokes.

Lord of Emperors finishes the Sarantine Mosaic duology with all the inevitability of history, with triumph and defeat and pain and joy. It is not an easy end, nor one without tears, but it is a grand ending and one I could not stop reading.

One of the most compelling parts of any Kay book, and this one is no different, is how he cuts to the heart of those who do extraordinary things to find why and how they can accomplish such. The genius racer, the great artist, the emperor: all are still simply human, mortal and fallible, but some part of them transcends those limits, and this is what Kay so deftly examines.

In Lord of Emperors, we are shown the kind of will and drive that allows a man, a racer, to ignore near mortal injury and even his own chance at winning to create a perfect race for his team. The artist, Crispin, faced with a loss nearly as great as when plague took his family from him, can do nothing but what he has done, and creates. The emperor… Well, I will not spoil that.

Every book of Kay’s I reads becomes another favorite. This is no exception.



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Review – The Shapes of Midnight

The Shapes of Midnight

The Shapes of Midnight by Joseph Payne Brennan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Shapes of Midnight by Joseph Payne Brennan

I went into this book blind. I did not know who the author was, or when the book was written, only that the cover looked interesting and it was in one of my favorite genres (the horror anthology). I am very glad that I did, because it was like some kind of mirror into my own reading history.

In the afterword, there is a quote from Stephen King that calls Brennan “one of the most effective writers in the horror genre” and I have to agree. Not because of the actual chills in the stories (honestly, I didn’t find that many) but because of the obvious influence he had on the genre, particularly Stephen King himself.

Reading the book, unaware of the history behind it, I felt myself thinking “This would have been perfect for Weird Tales.” more than once. I was, of course, 100% right. Brennan wrote hundreds of stories for that classic magazine.
I also found myself thinking, “This guy loved him some Stephen King.” It turns out I had it backwards!

These stories are nothing all that unique to the experienced reader of horror, and the “twists” in them are not twists at all, today. But this is because Brennan literally created many of them.

Of the stories in this collection, I found I liked The Pavillion best. A story of murder, guilt, and revenge(?) from beyond the grave, I found myself imagining it shot for shot in some early 80s horror anthology movie (Creepshow, of course).

Disappearance is another proto-King story. Indeed, I can see direct influences of several King stories here–the taciturn farmer with a secret, the missing family member, the grisly discovery. They all seem buried deep in our horror conscience now, thanks to stories like this.

As horror, honestly, there probably isn’t much here for the modern fan, but as a glimpse into the roots of the genre this is a very interesting (and still quite fun!) read.

I’d like to thank the publisher for the review copy!



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