Volume discounts on large translation projects

eggs1A reader sent me an email asking me several questions, including the following:

Do all translators give volume discounts for big projects?

I can see several reasons why a translator might be tempted to offer a discount on her work. First of all, the security of having work for a few months can be a real incentive when work has been patchy or your client base isn’t as secure as you’d like. Second, there is so much competition out there that price and "special offers", like a volume discount, can mean that a client will chose you rather than the other translators who are competing for the same job. Third, once you’ve been translating the same project for a few weeks, you’re bound to become quicker and more efficient: words come easily, terminology becomes second nature and your productivity increases, leading to more money being earned in one day, which cancels the lower rate.
These are all valid reasons, but having said all this, I never give volume discounts, mainly because I see it as a slippery slope. First a volume discount, then what? A 2 for 1 offer? Free translation in September? Volume discount makes complete sense in the manufacturing sector, because of economies of scale. You’ve invested in machinery and materials, so the more you produce, the cheaper each extra unit becomes, and you’re able to pass on these savings on to your customers if you so wish. This is not the case when you translate. Although you do become quicker as you gain expertise and knowledge in one particular field, this is due to your capacity to internalise new knowledge and skills, and this gain of productivity is very limited. To guarantee quality translations, you still have to edit, proofread your own work and generally spend a certain amount of time on it. Besides, other problems crop up with a large translation project: keeping the translation consistent over hundreds of thousands of words is a real challenge and might cancel out any improvement in your productivity.
Second, although clients may ask for a discount on large projects because they think they are very desirable, there are lots of risks attached to taking on a job which consumes all my attention: not only there is a real danger I might lose regular and valued customers by not being able to take on any of their projects for an extended period of time, but I also wouldn’t have time to acquire new ones. At the end of the large project, there is a real danger that I might find myself very quiet indeed. Also, from a day-to-day point of view, it’s not the most satisfying way to work for me, as it can be monotonous. One of the things I love about my job is its variety, chatting with different clients, grappling with varied types of documents, always being on the go. I did take on a large project last year (190,000 words at my normal rate) and enjoyed the challenge very much, but it was mainly because the deadlines were quite flexible, which allowed me to organise my workload so I could carry on working for my other clients.
So to sum up, volume discounts just don’t work for me. Working for less doesn’t make sense when the benefits aren’t clear-cut at all and the security that comes with a long-term project, besides being illusory, isn’t enough to convince me to lower my rates. I’d rather keep looking after my regular clients while expanding my client base, on my terms. To me, this is a much better long-term strategy.

By | 2016-10-18T15:49:45+00:00 August 1st, 2007|Freelance Translation|8 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Olli August 1, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    I totally agree with you. If you call a plumber, he is not going to give you discounts if you tell him to repair two pipes instead of one, or the same if you buy two cokes (then the second should be for free). I think the only case when we should give discounts is in a project with very repetitive sections (which are translated the same way). Anyway, that is work that should be taken into consideration

  2. Emmanuelle August 3, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    Well we do need to develop clients’ education then, because they seem to think, large = easy + guaranteed work for translator => cheap rate.
    One more misconception to add to the list http://denkschema.antville.org/stories/1120005/

  3. Audrey August 6, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Totally agree with you, Céline. Your point is beautifully demonstrated and I love the photo that illustrates it : cheaper by the dozen?

  4. travis August 7, 2007 at 5:51 am

    As you say, translating isn’t a mass produced item. It requires fresh attention for each new paragraph. There isn’t any cloning principle at work. It’s understandable that clients assume a large order gets them a discount. This is how much of industry operates. I think though, that they could easily understand how a large manufacturer increases output to meet the public’s demand, and then is able to lower their prices thereby stimulating a new cycle of demand. But a freelance translator has an organic limit to the amount of workload he or she is able to manage.
    Great explanations of cela and ceci. I had never learned those points. In addition, it really satisfied the consumer in me after that 2 for 1 special.

  5. Enigmatic Mermaid August 10, 2007 at 11:39 pm

    Big translation project, big headache, in my humble opinion. For me the ideal length is 20,000 to 30,000 words, solo. I hate the smallies too, you know those 700 to 1,500 words they ask you to fit in, what a pest. You don’t make any money out of them and they always seem to take an incredibly long time, considering how small they are.

  6. céline August 13, 2007 at 8:21 am

    I quite like the smallies – they can be refreshing when I’m working on a bigger project that takes up all my mental space for a few days. A bit like a "trou normand" in the middle of a very big, rich meal.
    Can you tell I’ve just been to a French wedding?

  7. John Kinory August 31, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    I like 100 words (which is where I feel fully justified in charging my standard min. fee, which I don’t like doing for 10 words), I like 1000 words (fits in neatly between longer jobs), I like 50,000 words (nice juicy project) and I like 150,000 words (have done 3 books around that figure – I feel I have really achieved something once the project is completed). It’s all work, and variety is one of the satisfying aspects of being self-employed.
    Agree re client education and no volume discounts; we don’t make cans, we don’t have tooling costs, what we sell is our time and expertise. But I will agree to negotiate a flat fee on a large project if the client is serious: it’s a commercial world.
    I have heard of one case where a client wanted a discount because the text was technically difficult. The argument was this: the translator acquired new expertise while doing research for the translation, so should offer the client some of the benefit of this.

  8. Stephen Gobin September 2, 2007 at 11:38 am

    Money and the lack of it always generates a lot of interest as we would soon expire living on stale bread and brackish water alone.
    When I first started out on freelance translation I didn’t offer discounts as such but my rates were low enough that they might as well have been considered as a kind of discount. What’s more, this strategy simply didn’t work. It didn’t generate an endless stream of work; the workflow was mostly haphazard. It was a foolish move to undervalue my services and the translation agencies I worked for at such low rates did not profess any undying loyalty to me either.
    The lesson was brought home to me more fully when I got talking with other self-employed people working in the complementary health sector (osteopathy, counselling, acupuncture, etc.). They told me that there should be no awarkwardness or hesitation in stating one’s fees or charging for missed appointments. A patient (and similarly a client commissioning a translation) is paying for expertise and it is irrelevant whether the patient is rich and can easily afford treatment or poorer with six children and who would risk bringing not only him/herself down but his/her family too if s/he could not work for want of appropriate treatment.
    Translation, I feel, is a bit of a mystery profession to many people, so educating clients is important. Education aside, I am convinced that because communication in all its guises is a fundamental human attribute and one that is taken so much for granted that for many people the act of communicating is seen as something so natural that it doesn’t require any specific skill, expertise or knowledge. Language just happens, it’s there, all around us.

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