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I live in Beijing, and here's an example of a price guide I received for translation work:

  • English -> Chinese 99RMB / 1,000 words
  • Chinese -> English 129RMB / 1,000 words
  • Arabic -> Chinese 289RMB / 1,000 words
  • Chinese -> Arabic 319RMB / 1,000 words


My question is whether or not this is a good proxy for the market for interpretation. Would an interpreter in China be able to charge 2-3x of a daily price if they have Arabic as a working language? Or is there very little relationship between the relative prices for translation versus the relative prices for interpretation?

PS - I think those prices for English <--> Chinese translation are way too low!

asked 16 Jul '14, 00:21

MattConger's gravatar image


edited 17 Jul '14, 14:42

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

I assume this excellent question refers exclusively to the "private market", so excluding internal pricing in international organisations.

The short answer is hardly ever. Why?

Interpreters are recruited on objective and subjective criteria. The former include:

  • language combination
  • availability
  • home base (determining allowances and travel costs that all professional interpreters will claim in addition to the fee).

The list is longer as regards subjective criteria. Here are a few:

  • perceived quality,
    • of the target language (booth) or languages (if there is a retour)
    • of each passive-to-active language pair to be used at the event
  • experience,
  • professional ethics,
  • collegiality and demeanour,
  • poise under stress,
  • voice

How this comes to play depends a lot on the recruiter and the type of event.

If it's an occasional recruiter, such as a fellow interpreter who rarely deals with direct clients, you'll often find that they'll prefer to work with colleagues they know, even if that means cutting quite a few corners (for instance by recruiting a B who's a friend to man a booth on a market where high-quality As are readily available and would be a vastly superior option). There's no price negotiation in that kind of situation.

If it's a professional recruiter, the requirements specific to the event will dictate how the subjective criteria are weighted.

Do some language pairs command higher prices? Not really with a few exception. Do not forget that in Europe - that's well over 80% of the conference interpreting market - all interpreters on the same team are paid the same rate. An exception is the Japanese booth that's always managed to command higher fees, because it's a small, close-knit group of interpreters with a strong pecking order.

Apart from that, you may encounter a few interpreters who'll insist on higher fees overall, but that's mainly because they have a going rate that they won't undercut, not because of the intrinsic market value of some of their language pairs.

To the extent that there is premium pricing going on, it's based on opportunity alone: Say that you're one of 20 Polish interpreters on the market with a reliable retour into English and you're approached to work on a date on which you know that all other colleagues/competitors will be busy. You may try your luck and reject the base rate offered by the recruiter to everyone on the team. But even then, it's just an availability premium and not the reflection of a market value price for a specific booth or language pair.

It goes without saying that recruiters do not particularly like to spend extra time bargaining with interpreters individually, and they will remember to call someone else first next time.

The main difference with translation is probably that translation is a huge commodity market, and there's hardly any sanction for poor quality work. Interpreting is still a cottage industry that involves teamwork between all interpreters on the team, where you're only as good as your last job and overall quality as perceived by the client will be determined by the weakest link in the booth.

Of course, each interpreting market will have its going rate, even within the same country. In Belgium for instance, the "national" market (Dutch<>French) is not priced at the same level as the "international" market (also including French and possibly Dutch, in combination with any other non-national language), but that's mainly because the reference price is set by public buyers, and the volume of work is higher.

Hope this helps clarify what is essentially a very opaque market pricing situation, unless you're an insider that is.

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answered 16 Jul '14, 17:19

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

edited 17 Jul '14, 14:44

@Vincent Buck, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I am very much an outsider in this market, so it is helpful to get your perspective.

Indeed my question was aimed at the private market. Here in China for example, there appears to be a demand spike and a supply shortage for Russian-Chinese interpretation and translation. So I'm curious how pricing on the market responds to fluctuations like this for interpretation.

I'm genuinely surprised that certain language pairs don't command a premium. If I'm a student of interpretation (which I am not), wouldn't I select language pairs that have the highest prices? I should probably browse this forum for commentary on this issue, or open up a new question. Curious to get the thoughts of other readers on this topic of relative pricing between translation and interpretation!

(17 Jul '14, 22:21) MattConger

If I'm a student of interpretation (which I am not), wouldn't I select language pairs that have the highest prices?

That could only happen a) if students would be well informed about the languages to learn years in advance before starting their MA in interpreting; b) if the trends in demand wouldn't be subject to change; c) if students were doing it only for the money.

(18 Jul '14, 05:01) Gaspar ♦♦

@mattconger: I think additional questions on that theme would indeed be a good idea on the site.

I cannot speak for the Asia-Pacific market (although I'd be really surprised if the conference interpreting market were any different over there), but in Europe you recruit a team of interpreters with complementary AND overlapping language pairs, not individual language pairs.

Outside conference interpreting, I guess that interpreters are more likely to work alone, or be recruited for one/two language pairs only, so that pricing strategies may be more individualised.

But in team situations, how much is a rare language pair really of value? I may have to hire some English booth with passive Hungarian for, say, a 7-3 meeting (seven passive into 3 active languages). I must also make sure that Hungarian is covered in one of the two remaining booths. And then on D-day you realise that the Hungarians are not there, or do not speak, or only speak for a grand total of 10 minutes over 2 days, and the last 5 minutes they spoke English.

In effect, having that rare language pair got 2 interpreters the job (over the other interpreters with similar passive languages who were free on that day and not too far removed from the venue). That's where the premium is. Whether you get offered the job or not.

Is it worth extra money? Not at all. Most of the time, 95+% of the meeting will take place in languages covered by everybody on the team.

(18 Jul '14, 08:26) Vincent Buck

"in Europe you recruit a team of interpreters with complementary AND overlapping language pairs, not individual language pairs." That's for multi-lingual meetings. Maybe on the bi-active markets (2 languages only) the question applies more.

(18 Jul '14, 08:45) Andy

@andy: there's no relative pricing involved in a bilingual meeting. Everybody has the same two languages. Also, the volume of days with exotic language pairs in bilingual meetings is very small, and mostly diplomatic ( government rates apply ) and some liaison for business clients. Not an order of magnitude that affords relative pricing strategies.

(18 Jul '14, 09:26) Vincent Buck
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question asked: 16 Jul '14, 00:21

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