Working on the cheap

Working on the cheap

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Are discounts ever worth giving?

There are few issues that provoke greater divergences of opinion among translators than whether or not to give discounts. This was brought home to me last week when a customer offered me a large and interesting looking editing job at what amounted to just over half my normal rate. I explained that this was far too low, but the customer insisted, saying “As it’s such a big job, I’m sure you could make an exception.” I firmly refused, setting out my reasons. These basically amounted to the fact that, as I’m usually busy, it makes absolutely no sense for me to work below my normal rate. If I do, I end up working cheap and having to turn away better paid work. There’s also a psychological element that I didn’t explain, but is nonetheless true. If I work a price I perceive to be too cheap, the resentment I’ll feel means I won’t do my best work. I know this very well because I was foolish enough to do it once or twice early in my career, but I don’t believe it’s professional to take on a job knowing you’re not going to do it well and some time ago I swore I wouldn’t be doing it any more.

It was after posting a potted version of this story as a Facebook status that I was reminded of how much this issue divides translators. Some colleagues absolutely agreed with me that discounts were never a good idea. One, for example, said: “There are no economies of scale, we do not sell apples, but a professional service. Moreover, if you accept a very big job, you will have less time for the other “top” clients”, while another even went as far as to suggest that I should impose a surcharge for having to make myself unavailable to other customers for so long.


But others were only surprised at the amount I was being asked to reduce the price. One said she did have rates for 20,000 words and upwards, although the discount she offered was nowhere near 50%. She said this was recognition of the fact that, if she took on a big job, it would reduce the work she would have to do on marketing and looking for other clients.

Why is there such a difference in attitude? I think it basically comes down to the type of client people generally have. In my case I was dealing with an agency and in those cases I would never give a discount as I’m usually working at the lowest rates I find acceptable anyway. That means any reduction would open me to the risk of losing money if I had to reject work at my normal rate. If, on the other hand, it was a direct client, perhaps I could afford to offer some sort of reduction, if I was interested enough in the job, because I would have a small margin to play with above my minimum. I think it’s significant that most of those I’ve seen on forums recently saying they were happy or that it was essential to offer discounts have been  people who are generally used to working with direct clients. I’m fairly sure they would be much less willing to offer them if they were working at or close to the minimum they wanted to earn.


As I’ve indicated, I don’t completely rule out offering discounts. So what are the circumstances when I might consider it?

1. As I’ve pointed out, with a direct client I might reduce my rate if asked to do so, but never below what I would charge an agency and always indicating that a discount is involved. The factors I would take into account would be how much I wanted to do that particular job and whether there was a real possibility that I might be able to win future work at the rate I really wanted to achieve. For this reason I would always invoice the job at the desired rate and then deduct the discount, just to ensure the client didn’t get the wrong idea.

2. If I spot that there’s something about a text that is going to make it quicker and easier to translate than might be expected at first glance, I might also give a discount if asked because, again, I would have the margin to be able to do so.

3. If I’ve deliberately quoted a high price in the first place for some reason, perhaps because I suspect the client is the kind who’s likely to ask for a discount, I might agree to one.

4. I might also give a kind of discount when I’ve just increased my rates. This would happen if I took a job at the beginning of the year at my old rate to ensure I was going to have work to do if I thought work might be a little slack for a while. I would, however, clearly mark it on the invoice as a discounted job so that the client was under no illusions that the next one was going to be charged at the new rate. This is probably the only way I would ever offer discounts to agencies.


Bulk, though, can never be the reason for reducing rates. Although by using CAT tools we can sometimes find savings in terms of repetitions or make use of previous work by using translation memories, the translation process is not a “bulk” procedure because it does not involve industrial production. Put simply, if you’re manufacturing something, each part will normally be cheaper to make if you’re producing 10,000 than 100, because the investment in tooling, the production line and so on is spread over more parts. But as a translator, what I’m really selling is my time. Normally, 10,000 words really will take 100 times as long to translate as 100, so if I reduce my rate simply because I have more words to deal with, I’m going to lose out. Nor have I got words lying around that I need to “sell”, unlike an industrial company that produces stock it has to get rid of it, particularly in areas like the food industry, where it will be worthless after a certain date.

That’s why clients who think in terms of “bulk discounts” either need to be educated or avoided. With some, education does work. But it has to be said that any customer who goes into a business relationship asking for discounts is perhaps not a very desirable one to have. Pennypinchers are hardly likely to see real value in a particular translator’s services and, as such, are highly likely to look for another one if they think they can save a little money. It’s another reason why, in my view, discounts should be used very sparingly, if at all.




  1. Nick

    Hi, this is a good post. Surprised no one has commented on it before now. It goes to the heart of a puzzle I have been thinking about for some time and now face in the form of a 100k word translation.

    I think that rates should increase for larger pieces of work, not only for the reasons you cite but also because of greater complexity and room for error.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Nick. That is certainly an argument, although it’s a hard one to sell to clients fixated on per-word rates.


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