Counting the hours

Counting the hours

I’m sure I’m not alone among translators in hating invoicing. And what I hate even more than invoicing is that day after I send all my bills out, because it’s then that the queries start. “The total’s not right in this one.” “The date’s wrong here.” “You’ve sent me an invoice with the wrong name on it.” Sometimes I’ve had all three of those in one day. And, after a particularly bad couple of months when I had to spend hours correcting all the mistakes I’d made, I decided that enough was enough and the ramshackle “system” based on Microsoft Excel I’d been using since forever would just have to go. What I needed was a proper system that would reduce my “input” – and the opportunity for making mistakes – to a minimum.

I asked for recommendations from other translators and found that those who used such systems were mostly divided between enthusiasts for the online system LSP Expert and those who preferred the software solution Translation Office 3000. As both offered free trial periods I decided to look at the two of them and, during a quiet period in September, I tried them out. I soon discovered that, for me, there was no contest: everything I tried to do with Translation Office 3000 seemed to be difficult and complicated. There was help, but I didn’t want to be looking things up every five minutes. LSP Expert, on the other hand, seemed extremely easy and straightforward to use. My questions about that weren’t about how to do basic things, they were more about the capabilities and possibilities of the system – and they were answered with the minimum of fuss via the online chat system.

My decision was all but made for me and, within a few days, I’d decided that the LSP system was worth the annual fee. Basically, it allows you to enter every job you do for every client and automatically generate invoices. Importantly for me, this can be done in different languages depending on the client. You can also customise details for different clients, depending on whether or not you have to charge them VAT, whether they have to withhold income tax for you and so on. What I like about it most of all is that it’s a very forgiving system. You’ve forgotten to enter a particular piece of data? Never mind, go back and do it now. You need to update a detail? No problem at all. So although I’m putting off using it for invoices until next year because the switch requires a change in the way I number my bills, I’ve already started logging all my jobs on it.


I’ve also been trying out one of its other features – an easy way of counting the time you spend on each job. For me, this has to be easy because I’m quite forgetful, which is one of the reasons why I’ve never timed myself before. But, with LSP Expert, true to the forgiving spirit of the system, if you accidentally leave the stopwatch running while you go off and have lunch you can simply edit the time later to correct it. One of the main points of doing this timing, of course, is that the system will instantly calculate your earnings per hour. This is a statistic which many people swear by but which I’ve never bothered to work out before. I always used to aim for a rough figure in earnings per day, but knowing what I earn per hour (including the time I spend setting up projects and adding jobs to invoices) turns out to be quite revealing.

So what I have learned? Firstly, that the hourly rate I was already using for some jobs is actually about right – it really is almost the same as I earn if I charge per word or a project price. Secondly, minimum charges are essential. Of course, I’d always believed this, but, a few years ago when negotiating increased rates for one particular client, I agreed to waive my minimum for them. Ever since then they’ve been sending me tiny jobs worth derisory sums. What I hadn’t realised was quite how derisory the hourly rate working on those jobs is – it sometimes works out at as little as half my average hourly earnings. I won’t be allowing that to continue in the New Year. This contrasts with another client for whom I do some a few short revisions every month, adding them together as one minimum charge. In this case, although I suspected that I might be underpricing these jobs, the hourly rate for them works out one of the best I manage to achieve.

Because once you start looking at what you earn per hour, all is not quite as it seemed before. And my most surprising finding of all is that I don’t earn any more doing translations on subjects I specialise in than doing other more general ones – and sometimes the figure is even less. How can this be? It would be reasonable to think, as some translators claim, that if you know more about a subject then you would work more quickly and would have to do less research, so your hourly earnings should be higher. But that’s not how it is, or at least not in my case. Struggling for an explanation, all I can think is that when we learn, although we do end up knowing more, we also find out that there a lot of things we don’t know but perhaps never cared about before. And that means we have to work harder on checking and looking things up. Also, because we care more about these jobs, we’re more determined to get things right. That means even more checking and more looking things up. This would actually make some kinds of sense – there are those who say that real knowledge isn’t about what you know, it’s about knowing what you don’t know.


And one of the things I don’t know is the significance of all this. There are lots of reasons to specialise other than money, including greater job satisfaction and greater likelihood of finding work in the future, and I’m certainly not going to advocate not giving it up. All I’m saying is, despite the fact that you should be able to charge higher rates in your specialist areas, don’t see it as an easy route to earning more because it isn’t. This fits in with a general tendency I’ve found in myself to work more slowly as I become a better translator, part of what I talked about in a post called the Quality Conundrum, and it’s certainly something I’m going to have to watch.

So which jobs are most profitable? From what I’ve been able to work out, they are neither too long or too short – somewhere between about 1,000 and 3,000 words seems to be the optimum length. And they are moderately dull. The kind of job you can go through without having to think too much about it and that doesn’t require too many linguistic flourishes – where the first word you think of will probably do.

This is certainly going to provide food for thought as we come to the end of the year. Should I really be going out looking for slightly boring jobs to boost my profitability, or at least taking ones I might have thought about rejecting as too dull? Is there any way of speeding up my specialist translations? Should I even be thinking about specialising in something that doesn’t particularly interest me? Or maybe in the end it’s better just to enjoy my work and leave the money to look after itself. I’d be interested to read your thoughts in the comments.


  1. We use Protemos as a translation management system in my LSP. Unlike TO3000, it is an online system, and its freelance version is free. A half of an hour is enough to familiarize with it. It doesn’t have a time tracker functionality, but we have never had problems with invoicing.

    • Thanks, Vladislav. No-one recommended that system to me when I asked about it, otherwise I might have tried it.

  2. I could do a better job of tracking my hours, but I can confirm that the general translations I do as a break from the more specialist ones don’t necessarily hurt my bottom line. Just this afternoon, a slightly boring job cropped up that doesn’t need me, specifically: any translator at all in my language pair could do it, and I won’t feel special or unique when I do it. But I will make my rate and be happy, and my client will have their needs met and be happy. There is a place for clients like that: I like not having to switch my brain on to make the first quarter of my income, and they like not having to switch their brains on to get some bread-and-butter tasks out of the way.

    • That’s an interesting point, Sarah. People rarely talk about this, maybe because these jobs are simply rather boring.

  3. Excellent and thought-provoking post, Simon! If you like so far, you’ll simply love it when you start using it for invoicing (I have no affiliation).

    Just like you, I’ve been using to track my hours. This has helped me to streamline my business the last few years and make more money in fewer hours. After 3.5 years, I have some valuable data to study, and I found that the higher the word rate, the lower the hourly rate. This is because my best paying clients are direct clients and I polish the translations over and over before delivering them. I love to get a "standard" (“boring”) translation from an agency and find that I’m able to translate it really fast, reaching a good hourly rate. However, I don’t want to rely on those jobs as most LSP’s are moving in the same direction (you know what I’m talking about). That’s why I continue to specialize in work that is more demanding and result in a lower, but acceptable, hourly rate. As long as a direct client pays a project price/word rate that reflects the value of my services, I prefer those jobs because I feel that I’m building for the future (by sharpening my skills, learning how to work with direct clients, hopefully getting recommendations, etc.). Even though the hourly rate may be lower because I aim for perfection… 😉 With agencies, it’s the opposite – I know I’m going to lose them somewhere down the road. This means that I rarely accept agency work within my specializations, I try to grab the “boring but lucrative” jobs.

    Also, I let go of some of my best paying agencies, as they tended to send me only very demanding projects. While this is flattering, I don’t want to be blinded by the word rate if it means that I’m making a really low hourly rate for an agency. This is a waste of time. On the other hand, I decided to prioritize an agency that pays a lower, but decent, word rate, because they send me easy work, which equals a better hourly rate.

    Another feature I’ve been playing around with this last week is labels. I already labelled clients (“nice”, “late payers”, etc.), but I’ve now labelled them according to how I acquired them. “Networking”, “recommendations”, “ATA directory”, etc. I can then use these filters to see where most of my income stems from, how this has changed over the years and much more. For example, I found that even though a great part of my yearly income comes from clients who found me in the ATA directory, these clients actually found me during my first year there. I still get regular requests from new clients, but for the last two years they didn’t make up for the membership fee. This came as a surprise and I’ll definitely be monitoring this in the future, as I feel that this is the only tangible benefit I got from my membership.

    Sorry about the long comment – I find this subject really interesting and your post provided lots of food for thought. 😊

    • Thanks, Linda, for a really interesting comment. I can see there are a lot of things I still have to look into.


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