Translators are usually paid by the word in the United States, however in some situations they are paid by the hour. How to calculate a good hourly rate, and when to accept an hourly payment schedule instead of the usual word-rate system is often difficult to determine.
For at least two decades, freelance translators have typically been paid by the word in the United States. Work counts have typically been based on the translation and not the source document, though with some languages, including in particular Chinese and Japanese, word rates are based on English regardless of which languages the source language. This is simply because counting words in these languages is highly problematic. In Europe, translators are often paid by the line (especially for German because of its often long nouns) or by the page.
In some cases, however, the freelance translator will receive an offer for a job that is to be paid by the hour. This is most common when working with law firms since attorneys commonly think in terms of billable hours, and not the number of words in a particular text. Translators must therefore calculate how many words per hour they can reasonably translate and then create an hourly rate that reflects this level of productivity and income.
The problem occurs when clients, usually translation agencies but sometimes other organizations, attempts to use an hourly calculation as a way to save money. From the client’s perspective, an hourly payment schedule may see more reasonable, easier to manage, and at a comfortable hourly rate, ultimately cheaper.
From the translator’s perspective, any attempt to charge by the hour or in any other way that reduces the translator’s income is naturally resisted. Nobody wants to be paid less, and nobody willingly accepts payment system that automatically results in their being paid less. So the calculation mentioned above, by which a translator figures productivity and charges an hourly rate accordingly, becomes very important.
The calculation is simple if translators know their hourly productivity. Experienced translators can easily come up with a good estimate by looking at old jobs and figuring out how long they took to complete. The less experienced translator may have to ask a colleague for such information. For reference, many agencies and organizations assume a translator can produce approximately 300 to 400 words per hour, though this number of course varies depending on the individual translator and the nature of the text being translated.
The problem becomes stickier when the translator’s calculation, in other words the desired hourly rate, is significantly different from what the client wants to pay. Hourly rates of between $40 and $50 seem common these days in the industry, though there are many instances of lower and higher rates. It is up to the individual to decide whether a given job is worth the rate and to calculate accurately so that job is worthwhile what it is completed.
There is also here the potential for abuse, at least as seen from the client’s perspective. There are rumors of translators padding their productivity, claiming more hours worked than were actually worked. Clients are aware of this and of course want to avoid it, and therefore typically set a ceiling on the job: a maximum number of hours the translator may take (this practice is very common for editing and proofreading, and therefore should not be surprising for translators).
Translators by contrast can similarly charge a minimum for these jobs, so that even if the job does not take very long, they are nonetheless assured a reasonable amount of money for their efforts.
Ultimately, productivity is the greatest measure of one is worth in business, and therefore the payment system that recognizes and rewards productivity, as does work counts, is preferable from the translators’ perspective, and should be acceptable to clients.
In the case of clients that prefer an hourly rate, they should be aware that the amount of work the translator is doing does not change with the payment system, and therefore the payment should be the same. If it is not, then somebody has either overcharged or been underpaid. Attempts to save money this way are futile, and likely to alienate good translators.
Thus, translator should always make sure to negotiate a fair payment schedule ahead of time with any client, and then stick to it. Past experience of course should be used to negotiate for each new job, and client education may be necessary and useful. In my experience, the question of payment based on work counts versus hours worked is usually easily resolved with reasonable clients.