Person signing a business contractMost interpreters get nervous when they think about negotiating with an agency (language services company). Of course, you want to make as much money as possible, but you’re often told a number that seems low. Approaching the discussion is easier with knowledge and planning.

First, it’s not only your rate per hour that matters. Also consider the ancillary expenses you’ll have—mileage expense, parking, tolls, and travel time. Consider the amount of work the agency can provide—you want to maximize your billable hours per week, so an agency with more and longer assignments can be more attractive.

Think about remote versus in-person assignments. Moving from one Zoom meeting to another takes less time and expense than driving to a different clinic. Also think about how quickly you get paid. If you have a good rate, but need to wait 120 days to get paid, a lot of your money won’t be in your bank account.

Strategies I suggest are to apply to several agencies to get used to the process. Start with agencies you are less interested in, so if you make a mistake, you can learn from the experience. What are the questions asked and the forms that need to be completed? An agency can offer a rate that they are willing to pay, but this isn’t necessarily the highest amount. Start high (but be realistic) and signal flexibility in your policies and rates—some agencies have client contracts that limit what can be paid. If your initial offer is too high, you may be greeted with silence rather than a continuing discussion.

Keep it simple—all of your rates are usually entered into a management system that allows agencies to identify potential interpreters for a job. Different prices for different types of assignments, and tiered fee structures, can limit the number of agencies willing or able to work with you.

In the end, remember that you, a single interpreter, are a small business that sells a service. You will define your rate per hour, your policies, and your additional fees. As you successfully develop client relationships, be thankful and also continue looking for new, more profitable relationships. As a business, you are free to decline work. The quality of your work and the customer service you provide can enable you to raise rates or find new clients willing to pay your rates.

Richard Antoine, MIB/MBA
Executive Director,