Free Words: On Ethics in Payment

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: I like getting paid for my work. Not only am I a business and a self-respecting professional, I also have bills to pay. And I never want to slide back to where I was when I first started freelancing on the side, when I could be conned into translating a 150-page book for $30 or doing work entirely for free (both true stories!).

But as much as I like money, sometimes I have to remind myself that more money isn’t necessarily the end all and be all. I’ve long since learned to ignore the twinge of disappointment when I have to turn down a project because it’s well outside my specialization. I just have to remind myself that I know I can’t provide a translation worth the money, and the twinge dies down.

Now consider this: what if I know I can provide the value, but I also know that the compensation I would get doesn’t match the investment of time or effort that I made? Today, I sat down to translate some insurance claims that were in Russian, but were branded with a US insurance company. Knowing that the standard claims form had probably been translated from an English original, I took some time to find the correct version of the form and convert it to editable format. This took some digging (plus having Adobe Acrobat installed), but after no more than half an hour it gave me about 2,500 words of a guaranteed good translation that I would otherwise have had to translate myself, including the fields of the form and a variety of legal notices and patient information.

And so the question poses itself: do I deserve to be paid for those 2,500 words?

At first, I was thrilled. Free words means free money, right? And more money for less work sure sounds like a good deal. But the longer I thought about it, the less comfortable I was with this idea. It felt like I was pulling a fast one on the agency that sent me this project, taking the insurance company’s original work and passing it off as my own. (Not to mention that they would probably notice that I had somehow magically managed to exactly copy the formatting on a flat, poorly-scanned pdf.) That wasn’t the kind of professional I wanted to be. I wanted to earn my compensation, not take advantage of my clients.

In the end, I charged for the words that I added to the blank form, as well as for the time that I spent looking for the form and converting it, based on my standard hourly fee. This way, I was paid for what little translation I actually did and for the value that I provided by finding the form and using it effectively. Meanwhile, I used the time that finding those forms freed up to work on other projects, which means that no potentially productive time was wasted.

Incidental benefit: I suspect that I made a good impression on my agency client, since they ended up getting a pretty steep discount. And I’m not naive: I assume that they will charge their client for all the words, or for the full scope of the task as originally defined. But that’s on them.

So as I said before, I want to be paid. I have earnings goals and I want to meet them; I look out for myself and will fight back if I feel I’m being taken advantage of. But I refuse to engage in rent-seeking, in maximizing income and chasing after more money at the expense of everything else.


I’m aware that pricing and compensation can be a bit of a sore subject, and the view I’ve laid out above is plenty controversial. What do you think? Have you ever faced a similar situation? How did you handle it?

Note: please kindly refrain from posting specific pricing or rate information. The FTC would not approve.