Lesson 95: How to negotiate fees for translation projects?

Lesson 95: How to negotiate fees for translation projects?

In the previous article, I tried to convince you that negotiation should be a part of each new project coming in, but I also explained that negotiation is not about bargaining or getting the most out of the client. Just to reiterate, negotiation means arriving at a win-win situation for both parties.

Right, but it still may sound daunting and complicated. How do we actually negotiate fees for translation projects? Let’s look at a very straightforward negotiation process and see how it applies to negotiating for translation project. It’s an easy 6-step process that you can implement in your business almost straight away. What I’d encourage you to do would be to test it first with some new clients or new requests to make yourself more comfortable with using it – you have nothing to lose after all.

1. Have clear goals

Before we even approach any negotiation exercise, and in fact before we even begin to think about accepting a project, we need to be clear on our goals and expectations. It may sound trivial in the beginning, but the more you think about it, the more you’ll see that very often, when we get a project request, we don’t tend to assess it against our business (or even personal) goals. Money and our income is of course a primary goal, but it’s also important to consider the project in terms of your time and availability, specialisation and whether it furthers your career development, or even simply whether it’s interesting enough for you.

The most important question at this stage is: how much money in exchange for your work you’d feel comfortable with?

2. Do the research

Ok, ok, I am a research freak and I do believe business is largely about knowing stuff on the other party. This is especially true in negotiation. If you manage to find out as many details about your potential client as possible, you’re increasing the likelihood of making an attractive offer, but also presenting convincing arguments. Before you reply to a client’s request, start as simple as taking a look at their website, LinkedIn profile, do some sniffing online, try to build an image of them as a potential client. The more information you have, the easier it is for you to gauge the value of this particular translation to the client.

The most important question at this stage is: what does the client want the most?

3. Figure out the trades

Perhaps the only negotiation you’ve done in your translation business looks like that:

Client: We can pay £0.07 per word for this project.
Translator: I was thinking more along the lines of £0.09 per word.
Client: Oh no, we can only pay £0.07 per word.
Translator: Ok.

I’m also guilty of having done similar things in the past. But you know what? At least we tried. But it took me some time to realise, and I want to share it with you now, that in order to negotiate effectively and professionally, we need to know our *trades*. In other words, we need to know what we can remove from our offer if we want to accept a lower price.

Let me give you an example from my business.

Me: Based on what we discussed, the estimated price of the project is £800.
Client: This is a bit steep for us for this project, I’m afraid.
Me: Ok, so let’s look at how we could make it acceptable for both of us. I included preparing a glossary for your future reference and I assumed you’ll need me to do a final proof before this goes to print. I strongly recommend the final proofing and it will take me around 3 hours to do it, but we can remove the glossary and terminology element, and then I can offer it for £700.

As you can see now, trades are the elements we use to justify an increase or decrease of the price. Here are some trades that I’ve used in the past: shorter/longer deadline, additional services, discount for up-front payment, bundled services, etc. Are there any other trades coming to your mind?

The most important question at this stage is: what can you trade in exchange for a lower price?

4. Present your offer

It’s very important to actually present what you’re offering to do and for how much. The whole aspect of presentation here plays an important role. Draft an official quote or estimate with your and the client’s details, letterhead, particulars of services and final price. Don’t just put it all in an email, because it looks much easier to change it. Attach a separate, non-editable PDF document and ask the client for approval.

The most important question at this stage is: how to present an offer?

5. Argue your stance

But of course life is not all roses and it is likely that the client will come back to you and try to negotiate your fee. Here’s where the majority of us fail; we simply accept the client’s counter-offer. You know what I’m going to say now – let’s not. Start by using your trades, but also make a clear argument for your offer. Explain why it costs so much (more than competitors?), what’s involved, how much time it takes, how the client is going to benefit from your translation. Here’s another example of what I’ve done:

Client: This is too much for us, we received other quotes that were significantly lower.
Me: But you told me you wanted to use this brochure to attract clients from the UK. I live in here and I’m very familiar with the business culture, I also have extensive education in marketing. It’s rather unlikely that a translator without this background will produce a piece of marketing that will help you reach your sales targets.

A simple and irrefutable argument that works. And if I figured it out for myself, you’ll find your own arguments in no time.

The most important question at this stage is: what are you going to tell your client to convince them to your offer?

6. Seek agreement

As I mentioned in the beginning, negotiation is not about you winning and them losing, but about arriving at a solution that’s acceptable to both parties. It helps to spell it out in your exchange with a potential client to reassure them that you’re working on an offer good for them, too. There’s nothing wrong in saying: “I really want to work on this project with you, but I have to make sure it’s profitable for me as well. Let’s discuss how to make it work.” Using trades and arguments, but also understanding the client and genuinely willing to help, you’re likely to arrive at an acceptable solution.

The most important question at this stage is: what’s the offer acceptable to both parties?


  1. Edgar Lopez , on Jul 18, 2014 at 09:27 Reply

    Very well outlined. I particularly agree with step 2, Research. In my experience, knowing who I deal with is to my advantage as I can assess how flexible my negotiations can and will be. I also agreed with and enjoyed step 5, Argue your Stance. A translator must value his/her services and the client may sometimes forget about quality. Letting the client know that when they pay more, they get more but if they prefer to pay less, it is strategic to let them know what they can expect is a negotiation strategy that indicates to me your experience and professionalism. Thanks a lot Marta.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Nov 6, 2014 at 19:54 Reply

      Thank you! As you know, I’m quite particular about this step myself, with step 1 a close second, as it provides a framework for all negotiation.

  2. Claire Sjaarda , on Jul 18, 2014 at 10:18 Reply

    I could not agree more: the negotiation process goes both ways and the outcome needs to satisfy both parties. The translator should not lose sight of his/her objectives be it in terms of career progression or profit margin. I like the idea of sending a non-editable PDF document outlining the offer or counter-offer to the client.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Nov 6, 2014 at 19:57 Reply

      Thank you, Claire! I find that the non-editable document increases the chances of client agreeing to the provided offer without further negotiations.

  3. Tholani Alli , on Aug 12, 2014 at 08:49 Reply

    Very clear and concise article; I certainly feel that a lot of junior translators (with less than 10 years experience) like myself need to be exposed to more information like this. Points 3 and 5 respectively; sometimes the desperation for a job is channelled through to the prospective employer and this may result in the translator being slightly taken advantage of without his or her knowledge. Also; as I have seen – qualified translators that speak and translate from languages that are less common or more difficult to find, should be aware that they can add a surplus value to their charging fees – but this comes with experience and point 6 of course. Good Read!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Nov 6, 2014 at 19:58 Reply

      Thank you, Tholani, this is why I started out this blog in the first place!

  4. Marianna , on Dec 7, 2014 at 22:51 Reply

    Great advice, Marta (as usual)!

  5. Frank , on Jul 21, 2015 at 22:08 Reply

    Thanks for all the advice, I learned most of the things you mentioned the hard way. Now I offer the same advice to my students and colleagues that want to work with me. I am going to add this article to my resources.

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