Time to Spare

The simplest and surest way to know with certainty if you are getting paid what you think your time is worth is to track how much time you spend on translation and translation-related tasks.

Technology progresses, deadlines grow shorter, volumes swell and prices fluctuate. Failure to track time leaves you at the mercy of these changes, but elementary record keeping can help you navigate them to your advantage.

It’s easy to fixate on per-unit rates and volumes as the most useful expressions of the value of translation work. However, the per-unit rate multiplied by the volume of units is simply the number on the price tag. It’s a great number for clients, but it’s not very instructive for translators. There is a cost to producing translation, and the largest part of that cost is not overhead or materials measured in money, it’s your time measured in hours of your life!

If you know how much time you spend on translation and translation-related tasks, you are in a better position to evaluate each potential job than if you only focus on the per-unit rate, volume, and deadline. You can ignore the positive and negative emotional effects of rates, volumes, and deadlines and deftly field requests in a variety of units if you have the data you need to determine if the reward for the work is worth your time.

High rates and lax deadlines feel great, but the work may take longer to complete if it is more difficult and client expectations are higher (neither of which is necessarily a bad thing). Low rates and tight deadlines don’t feel good at first blush, but take a closer look. If technology or your familiarity with the subject matter allows you to crush significantly more characters per hour than normal at a slight enough discount, then it’s a good deal. Presence or lack of competition, relationship with the client, and other factors abound, but viewing work in terms of money per unit of your time gives you a more personally relevant perspective.

Time data is also useful for reflecting on your work. If you track time, you can identify which jobs produce the most money per unit of your time, quantify the effects of changing your workstation or upgrading technology, and discover trends that lead you toward certain types of work or clients and away from others. Data produces these revelations more reliably than intuition.

It takes some work to get into the habit of tracking time and keeping other data, but the work and the math are quite simple. I use scratch paper, and clock in and out of each task by writing down the start and finish times. At the end of each day, I enter the times into a homemade spreadsheet, and at the end of each month and year I review the various statistics I’ve rigged it up to calculate. It takes less than 60 seconds a day, and just a few minutes at the end of the month, and that effort brings me a wealth of data that informs the decisions I make about my work.

It is not enough to count only the time spent translating. Emailing, quoting, alignment and document preparation, self-editing, invoicing, sales, networking, studying, and volunteering are all related to translation. Translators also need breaks (recall that salaried employees are paid for breaks). Boiling translation time down to time in front of the monitor actually translating results in gaudy hourly rates that feed the ego but don’t illustrate the true cost of translation. If a job takes four hours on paper but six hours of a translator’s life, only the translator suffers by believing and acting as though the job cost four.

Time tracked is extremely valuable data for a freelance translation business. I encourage all freelance translators to get into the habit of tracking time and keeping data on themselves.