Negotiation — A Learnable Skill
When it comes to talking prices with clients, many translators lack confidence. Nina Sattler-Hovdar, who specializes in marketing, PR, finance, and contract translations from English, Norwegian, and Danish to German, is well known as an ardent champion of proper remuneration for freelance translators. In this article, she offers some tips for success in price negotiations.
First, let’s get one thing straight: If you’re a freelance translator, negotiation is not a skill that you can learn, but one that you must learn. Only a very few people are natural born negotiators.
Unlike other professions, we translators have a head start when it comes to negotiating: the ability to see things not only from our own perspective, but also from that of others (the author and the target audience). What does the author want to say, why are they saying it, what is their motivation, what is the subtext, and how do we formulate it in such a way as to convey the author’s intent to the target audience?
This capacity for empathy is essential to effective negotiation. The best negotiators are those that can consider the matter from the client’s perspective. So, when I receive an inquiry, I don’t get angry about the (prospective) client’s outrageous expectations, but instead simply assume that they don’t know any better. Maybe they have never had to deal with translations, or this particular kind of translations, before.
If I start from this assumption, I am already being much more professional in my approach. It’s up to me to advise the client, and to explain what’s doable and sensible, and what isn’t. I’m the pro here.
Imagine that a company’s purchasing manager calls you and says, “I need a translation. Could you tell me how much you would charge?” Needless to say, you don’t address the cost question right away, because you want to advise the client and explain what is realistic and what isn’t. Price alone should not be the deciding factor. So, instead of mentioning your price range, it’s better to ask targeted questions (see box at end) before ending the call by saying, “If you’d like to send me the text, I can provide you with a detailed estimate of the time and cost involved.”
In this way, you have bought yourself time to come up with a considered response (in writing) that reflects the client’s requirements and the effort you expect to put in.
In your response, you should:
- Show that you know what you’re talking about. You’re the pro here!
- Specify the estimated time commitment.
- Use examples to illustrate the effort involved.
- Position yourself as a problem solver.
- Make sure you don’t come across as emotional, arrogant, or irritated.
- Be prepared to turn down a job if the terms are not right. Refuse politely, citing the effort involved. This may sound harsh, but is essential to your reputation. If you state your terms up front and then agree to dump your price, your credibility will be shattered for ever. Occasional exceptions are possible, if you offer a logical justification: a trial offer, for instance, or a reduced price because the job matters a lot to you and/or you can work on it at your own pace, depending on your personal priorities.
The following checklist provides a basic structure for your response:
- Demonstrate willingness to help solve a problem
- Quantify the costs
- Call to action: request a reply
I will now illustrate this approach using two examples.
Example 1: Response to a request from an agency for a “free test translation” of a marketing text for a prospective new client:
Thank you for your inquiry. [THANK]
However, I do not provide creative translations (which involve multiple stages of reworking in addition to the basic translation) free of charge. This type of work is very time-consuming. It takes time to carry out research, collect ideas, polish over and over again, read through multiple times with a critical eye, and then polish and sharpen one more time, in order to create a culturally appropriate target-language text that really grabs its audience. After all, the objective here is to sell something, and preferably as much as possible! [JUSTIFY]
Nevertheless, I would be happy to help you win this client. [SOLVE PROBLEM] I estimate that the job would take three hours and am willing to take it on for a fee of $XXX. [QUANTIFY COSTS]
Please let me know as soon as possible if this offer is acceptable, so that I can schedule the job. [CALL TO ACTION]
Example 2: Request to translate a “very simple” company newsletter:
We are looking for someone to translate the attached text. As you will see, it is very simple. How much would it cost, and how soon could the translation be ready?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you for your inquiry. [THANK]
The text may appear simple, but the best apparently simple texts usually involve a great deal of work — an entire process, in fact. Basically, what I would need to do here is translate the text first, and then rework the style and adapt it to the target culture in multiple steps. (I use a 10-step quality assurance checklist, which I would be happy to share with you if you are interested.) [JUSTIFY]
On the basis of the documents you sent, I estimate that creating an English text that grabs its audience as effectively as the German version would take between X and Y hours, at a rate of $ZZ per hour. [SOLVE PROBLEM, QUANTIFY COSTS]
Please let me know as soon as possible if you would like me to schedule this job. I look forward to a productive working relationship. [CALL TO ACTION]
I hope these suggestions and templates will help you approach potential negotiations with greater confidence. But do practice a little first. A professional public speaker once told me that you need to rehearse a good speech aloud at least five times, as if you’re addressing an audience. So keep practicing until you’re really comfortable with your “performance.”
Always presume the client is innocent. It’s entirely up to you what you make of an inquiry. Good luck!
Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into any price negotiations on the phone. Instead, provide advice to the caller through targeted questions:
- What kind of text is it?
- What is it going to be used for?
- Who is the target audience?
- How soon do you need the translation?
- End the call with: “If you’d like to send me the text, I can provide you with a detailed estimate of the time and cost involved.”
In case a caller insists you give them at least a ballpark price, practice your response — or pin up a script next to the phone.
Your response might go something like this:
“On principle, I don’t quote prices over the phone, since it’s very hard to compare prices in our profession. There are just so many different factors involved. What seems like a cheaper offer might end up costing you more, if you have to redo everything, or your customers are put off, or you miss an important deadline.
“So what I suggest is that you send me the document, in strictest confidence of course, along with a covering note specifying the purpose of the translation, the target audience, and the date you need it by. Then I can send you a tailor-made quote. Would that work for you?”
If the client still insists on a price:
“Well, my hourly rate is $XX, but how much I can do in an hour depends on the text.”
By this point, a serious client will be willing to send you the text. If not, remember my earlier advice:
Be prepared to turn down a job if the terms are not right.
About the author: Nina Sattler-Hovdar translates from English, Norwegian and Danish into German, specializing in marketing, advertising, finance, contracts & agreements. After graduating with a master’s degree in translation and interpretation, she worked as a conference interpreter in central Europe. She then moved on to work as a marketing research executive and strategic planning consultant in the Americas for several years, followed by four years in Frankfurt, Germany, as a translator mostly for advertising agencies and banks. She now lives and works in Salzburg, Austria, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the translator: Tom Ellett has been in business since 1996 as a freelance translator from Swedish, Norwegian, and German to English. He specializes in marketing and creative texts, working with end-clients and translation agencies in Europe and North America. Born and educated in the UK, he now lives in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. You can find him online at albascan.com.