When I first started in translation and was about to write my first invoice, I asked a colleague and friend to check if I had forgotten to put anything on the invoice. He gave me his template as an example and there I saw that he had a checkbox for a “Minimum fee”, which in his case was 35 euros. That was in 2000. Maybe it’s worth repeating: thirty-five euros in the year two thousand. That was back when translation rates were actually higher than today, in many countries. When I saw that, I didn’t ask any questions, I assumed it was the norm. So I included that in my invoice as well, and I’ve had a minimum fee ever since.
How do you determine the minimum fee? Even if the job is 30 words, you still have to read the client’s instructions, save the file, translate the file -perhaps import it in a CAT tool, translate it, proofread it (sometimes you have to read it multiple times, e.g. if it’s a marketing text), clean it up, check the final layout- and send it off. That takes time. It can take half an hour or even one hour. [To translate Gilette’s “The best a man can get” in Greek may have easily taken several hours, although it’s only 6 words, because the translator would have had to make sure the Greek equivalent is short and catchy and meaningful and equivalent to the original.] Then of course you have to prepare an invoice. I don’t know about you but it takes me a while to prepare an invoice and make sure everything is accurate. My minimum fee is equivalent to my hourly rate. I know people who charge less (25 euros). When I outsource work, translators charge me a minimum fee of 30 euros and I pay it gladly, no questions asked. I find it more than fair. Of course there are exceptions: When a good client asks me how to say something in X language and I see that it will only take me 10 seconds to translate it, I do it for free. Again, in exceptional cases and for good clients only. If I do not know the person I don’t offer a free translation even if it’s one word.
How to break it to your clients: I think the easiest thing to do is tell them straight out: “I’d be happy to do this job. I’ll charge my minimum fee which is X, is that OK with you?” If they say anything, you could answer that you’ll be applying a minimum fee starting in 2013. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you know it’s the norm in the industry, they surely know it already.
I have some direct clients but they never assign me small jobs, so I’ve never had to charge them a minimum fee; I’ve only had to apply this fee for agencies. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but in my 13 years as a translator, no agency has ever complained about my minimum fee -for having one or for it being as much as it is. I assume it’s because they expect it.
Keep in mind that once you’ve set your minimum rate and informed your clients, it will be hard to increase it next year, you’ll probably face some resistance, so don’t start too low.