The cost of a specialist translation can vary quite considerably depending on the translation provider. This is, of course, due to the fact that each freelancer sets their own rates—in the case of translators, there is no fee regulation, not even more or less official guidelines. In addition, the rate always depends on the type of text, file format, language, and urgency. In the end, every translator, just like any other freelancer, must come up with an hourly rate that they can live on.
The hourly rate
The hourly rate of a freelancer is not comparable to the hourly wage of an employee. An employee (at least in Germany) usually receives sick pay and paid vacation; furthermore, the employer pays half of the contributions to health and pension insurance. In addition, an employee is socially insured and receives ALG 1 in case of unemployment—freelancers do not have all this, as we are responsible for everything ourselves. We also must pay for our own work materials, training and, last but not least, the rent for an office along with electricity and heating costs. We also don’t get paid for every hour we work; we spend a lot of unpaid hours per month on customer acquisition, preparing offers, invoicing, bookkeeping, etc.
All these costs are, however, also incurred by an employee in traditional employment, but the employer will foot these costs instead. In this respect, an hour of work of an employee costs significantly more than what they receive monthly on their account—but these costs are borne by the employer.
What is a reasonable hourly rate for a freelance translator?
A reasonable hourly rate for a freelance translator is likely to be at least 70 euros—plus the statutory VAT. For comparison: According to the JVEG (Justizvergütungs- und ‑entschädigungsgesetz), the hourly rate for an interpreter is 85 euros and for an expert 120 euros. (Good) web designers charge around 70-80 euros per hour. So does my car repair shop. Therefore, anything between 70 and 120 euros should be a perfectly normal and reasonable hourly rate for a freelance translator.
Line and word rates
Line and word rates can vary even if the hourly rate remains the same. Basically, a translator needs to estimate how long they will need for the text at hand, multiply the estimated hours by their hourly rate, and divide the total by the number of lines or words; this is how the line or word price is calculated. Some texts are quite simple and can be translated quickly, while other texts require time-consuming research or equally time-consuming creativity—marketing texts are a good example. This is why line prices sometimes fluctuate so much. The hourly rate and thus the translator’s earnings, however, will be the same.
Translations from German are usually calculated by lines because German words can vary greatly in length—the calculation by lines is fairer. As a rule, one assumes 55 characters including spaces per line, as in the case of the JVEG mentioned above. The BDÜ (Bundesverband der Dolmetscher und Übersetzer, the largest professional association for interpreters and translators in Germany) conducts a fee survey every few years in which translators are asked to state their average rates per hour, line, and word. Unfortunately, I only have the results of this fee survey from 2014; assuming an inflation rate of around 2% per year, the current average price per line for translations from German into English would be 1.80 euros. The JVEG also assumes a line price of 1.80 euros, so this fits quite well.
Translations from English are usually charged by the word. Here, according to the aforementioned fee survey by the BDÜ, the average word price plus inflation rate is around 0.18 euros.
- A reasonable hourly rate for a freelance translator is 70-120 euros.
- An average rate per line for a translation from German into a “frequent” language (English, French, Spanish …) is around 1.80 euros.
- An average word rate from English into a “frequent” language (German, French, Spanish …) is around 0.18 euros.
Other price factors
The above word and line rates are only average values. The actual word or line rate charged by a freelance translator may vary both upward and downward. This depends on the following factors:
- Language pair: Translations to or from languages for which there are not as many translators tend to be more expensive. This is where the principle of supply and demand kicks in. Conversely, translations from or into languages spoken in countries where the cost of living is quite low tend to be cheaper. At least if the translator lives in one of these countries.
- Difficulty: As mentioned earlier, some texts can be translated faster than others, and the more lines/words that can be translated per hour, the lower the word/line rate can be. However, the reverse is also true: The fewer lines/words per hour that can be translated, the higher the word/line rate can be.
- Specialization: The translation of some texts requires a specialization that not everyone has. For example, an article on biochemistry to be published in a relevant journal cannot be translated by everyone who has a command of the two languages required. Another example is patent translations. Such highly specialized translators are rare and therefore expensive—word rates of 0.40 euros and line rates of 4.00 euros are not uncommon.
- Time frame: If a text needs to be finished very quickly, translators usually charge extra for working after hours and on weekends—just like any emergency pharmacy does, any locksmith, etc.
Factors that do not influence the word or line rate:
- Length of the text: All right, for very short texts there is usually a minimum order value, which may result in an above-average line price. What I mean, however, are large orders. It is often assumed that the rate per line or word decreases with a large amount of text. This is not the case! A freelance translator still has to earn their hourly rate, and they cannot translate more words or lines per hour just because there are more words or lines in total. The argument that you don’t have to acquire new jobs during the time you are working on a large order doesn’t hold water either, because these orders would then be at the normal rate—so I would earn less if I gave discounts on large orders instead of simply working on several smaller orders at the normal rate.
The average word and line rates listed here are for translation costs only. Any professional translator working for direct clients will have their translation proofread by a colleague or a proofreader. If they work for a translation agency, the agency is responsible for this quality management and will send the translation to a proofreader—for direct clients, the freelance translator is responsible for this. My translations to direct clients are always proofread or corrected by a second person. For translation editing, a freelance translator usually charges half of the line price he charges for a translation; these costs are included in my word or line rate.