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How much do translators earn?
Thread poster: xxxFVS
xxxFVS
Spanish to English
Apr 27, 2011

As a translator working alone I am curious as to how much a full time translator can expect or hope to earn.

Do earnings tend to vary by specialised field?
Which languages are most profitable?
In USD terms, would 100,000 dollars a year be a little or a lot?
Is there a big variation by country??
I'm not looking for individuals' earnings but would like to get an idea of earning levels.
How do earnings increase with experience?

[Edited at 2011-04-27 11:56 GMT]


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Anton Konashenok  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 14:58
English to Russian
+ ...
It's a can of worms... Apr 28, 2011

It's quite a complex issue, and no single answer would be irrefutably valid, yet there are some general facts you can rely on:
- Earnings do vary by field, but it's not so much the field itself that plays a role as the level of specialization. That is, translation of general correspondence would be cheap, tourism or general business would pay more, and pharmacology or aviation would pay a lot because they require a lot of specialist knowledge for the translation to be correct.
- The most profitable language is the one you know best. If you are natively bilingual, translating between these two languages is your best bet. Apart from that, rare languages are more profitable on a per-word basis, but you won't get many jobs in them. If you are thinking of taking up a new language that would give you a steady stream of well-paid work, I guess Japanese may be a safe bet.
- 100,000 USD a year is a lot. Only a very serious professional with many years of experience would make this much, unless you manage to find a captive market.
- There is a huge variation from country to country, roughly paralleling the market in general and the living standard in the given country. One might conjecture this would be leveled out by the existence of Internet, but this is not the case, believe it or not - I'd say the same job may pay 4 times more in the U.S. than in India (although it's an open question whether we are talking of the same quality, see below)
- Earnings increase a lot with experience. I'd say a tenfold increase from a recent graduate to a professional with 30 years of experience is a reasonable estimate. However, it's not always the case, just as everywhere else - everyone has their ceiling, which is commensurate with their professional abilities. Essentially, it's not the experience as such that counts, but the quality of the translations you produce.


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 20:58
Chinese to English
We're technicians, not bankers... Apr 28, 2011

...or managers.
The big money comes with pushing other people's money around, or working in an organization that over-values its managers.

As a suppliers of a technical service, I would say we're more in the 50,000-80,000USD range than the 100,000 range. Just do the maths and work out how many words you have to translate per year, per week and per day.


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Lany Chabot-Laroche  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 08:58
Member (2009)
English to French
Nooo Apr 28, 2011

Phil Hand wrote:

We're technicians, not bankers...

Just do the maths and work out how many words you have to translate per year, per week and per day.


I can't! I'm a technician, not a banker


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 20:58
Chinese to English
If there's one thing we've learned these last few years... Apr 28, 2011

...it's that bankers can't add up. If you want money advice, go to an engineer!

If you want language services, come to us.

You go to bankers for - for - for -

What was it again? They must be good for something, surely? Somebody remind me, what exactly do we need the bankers for?


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:58
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
My two cents Apr 28, 2011

FVS wrote:
Do earnings tend to vary by specialised field?

No. You can make good money in many fields. It all depends on the other actors in the field. There are fields in which making good money is very difficult, for instance translation for publishers.
FVS wrote:
Which languages are most profitable?

None in particular. Any major language in which you are really good can give you good money. Naturally, you can only be good in translation into your native language.
FVS wrote:
In USD terms, would 100,000 dollars a year be a little or a lot?

I would say a very small percentage of people make that money working as a translator. For that amount of money you need very good credentials, a lot of experience, good management and communication skills, permanent/very high availability, fast typing skills, good knowledge and use of CAT tools, total attention to detail, a solid service attitude, and translations considered as perfect by the end customers. Personally I don't know of anyone. A more plausible figure even if you meet these requirements is in the range of 40,000-60,000 dollars. If you don't meet any of these requirements... forget about these figures!
FVS wrote:
Is there a big variation by country??

Translators earn more in countries where the profession is respected. Unfortunately Spain is not among them.
FVS wrote:
How do earnings increase with experience?

It is not just experience that can increase your earnings. All factors listed above must be increased if you want to increase your income. I know of many very experienced translators who keep making more or less the same money as when they started.

On a general note, this is a kind of question that comes around very often. I think people ask these things because:
- They are starting in the profession and someone said that they can make a fortune.
- They think they are making too little money and want to know whether it is normal and they should quit.
- They think they might be making a fortune and want to enjoy the sense of privilege.

Which one of these is your case?

I also wonder why people ask about money without specifying their qualifications, experience, specialisations, etc. Isn't it a bit futile to discuss money without discussing whether you meet the requirements to be a successful translator?


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:58
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Sorry, not true Apr 28, 2011

Anton Konashenok wrote:
- Earnings increase a lot with experience. I'd say a tenfold increase from a recent graduate to a professional with 30 years of experience is a reasonable estimate.

Sorry pal, but this is plainly misleading and creates absurd expectations. So you are saying that a recent graduate charging 5-6 cents per word (which is ridiculously low, but has been seen here in jobs) can expect to make 50-60 cents per word after 30 years? Absurd, sorry!

Well, now that I think of it, in 30 years also the price of bread, milk, and meat can increase 10 times in any market with a high inflation! Is that what you meant to say?


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 20:58
Chinese to English
Remember poorer countries pay less Apr 28, 2011

I suspect Anton is suggesting not that rates will go from 5 cents to 50 cents. In poorer countries, rates start at 1 cent. As you get more experience and you break out of the local market and into the international market, you start to get more international rates - as well as getting quicker and more skilled at picking projects.

FVS is in Spain, so Tomas is likely to be closer to his/her situation. But do remember that not every translation market is like Europe. You think you're not respected in Spain, please, try Russia. Try China. More relevant to your pair - try Bolivia.


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Sara Freitas
France
Local time: 14:58
French to English
Specialization and marketing Apr 28, 2011

It is possible to make an excellent living translating...100K gross revenue and upwards (and without massive -- or virtually any -- outsourcing). The key is positioning. Finding a lucrative niche, honing your skills to deliver value-added services (not "just" translating words or sentences but offering some true business value to the process), and effectively marketing yourself to direct clients. Many direct clients are desperately searching for value-added service providers (and have been for years) and translation is one field where it seems pretty tough for them to find what they need. Make your self "findable" by the right people and rates are not an issue.

Trying to be big (i.e. turning into a kitchen table agency) is not the answer, in my opinion. Shoot for small and exclusive. Position yourself as a consultant and price your services accordingly.

In France I always find translators' reactions interesting when you start talking about the rate for a day's work. At 8 cents a word, that might be around 200 EUR per day. Even the most bottom-feeding lowball consultant would charge at least 500 EUR per day and a more standard "basic" consulting rate is 1000 to 1500 per day (expert consultants command much more, of course). Even a junior tech writer on per-diem gets more than most translators charge.

Comparing what you do (the business value you deliver and the rates you charge) to other consultants is an eye-opener, and much more useful than trying to compete with price-dumping agencies on price (you'll always lose, there will always be someone cheaper).

So, ask yourself what business value can you deliver to customers in your niche and how much are they willing to pay for it? Chances are they are willing to pay much, much more (not a few cents more, but MANY TIMES more) than your current per-word rate.

Sorry if this is kind of vague, but the "secret sauce" will be your niche, and there are as many potential niches as there are translators (language pair, value-added "extras" depending on your personal talents, your geographical location, your industry of specialization...the combinations are endless and the secret to your success will be as unique as your niche!).


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Jerzy Czopik  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 14:58
Member (2003)
Polish to German
+ ...
Why do people tend to give so rock-bottom hourly rates? Apr 28, 2011

You've put the question the wrong way round.
What you need is to know how much money do you want to have to spent for everything what is not really necessary in life, like holiday, traveling for fun, fun activities, hobbies and so on.
This is the first figure you need. Now start adding the necessary things, like flat or house, car, computer, software, electricity and so on. Do not forget you need a new computer or car every now and then, so collect money upfront for those. Then add all insurance needs and some retirement funds. This way you will have the amount of money you must earn. Depending on what was your figure, ie. monthly or yearly divide the numbers by hours, remembering that a year has just 220 working days in average. Form this number deduct 1/4 for administrative and non productive work. Then deduct your holiday time and multiply with 8 hours, so you get the number of working hours you have per year. Compare the figures and you'll know what you need to earn per hour...

When we talk about 40,000 US$ per year, this gives you a word rate of roughly 11 US cent...
Of course if you do not want to work 24/7.


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Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 14:58
German to English
earnings and rates surveys Apr 28, 2011

Hello FVS,
Because you asked for USD figures, I looked up the ATA survey (http://www.atanet.org/docs/compensation_survey_2007.pdf). The data are from 2006 and most translators seem to have reported some rise in earnings, so the numbers may be somewhat out of date (they are also pre-crisis). This summary only gives annual earnings, the average is around 55-60,000 USD (gross per year). 100,000 USD is a lot of money if you are working in the US, but because of the weak dollar, this seems like a reasonable amount for a successful translator working for EU-clients = on the upper limit or just outside of the normal range.

Many (or all?) country's translator organizations collect and publish this type of information. The SFT surveys are always very interesting (even if you are not directly involved with the French market) and the complete version is available as a free PDF. All you need to do is to find the comparable publication for Spain (or possibly another country if most of your employers are located there).

@Jerzy
I think that you've put the answer the wrong way around. What you are describing is more or less (= includes necessary earnings) a break-even point for an independent contractor.
This equation should not be used to set your rates! It is there (1) to help you choose which markets to take part in and which to get out of or avoid altogether and (2) to help you decide whether or not you should take up another line of work.
The point is that you should constantly be searching for market segments and customers that offer prices (or other conditions that are as important to you as money) further and further above your break-even point. As independent contractors in a free market, our role is to either try to earn as much profit as possible or to decide how much money we need and then to try to earn this profit in the least amount of time possible. Anything else distorts the market and leads to artificially low prices. The customer's role is to incur the least amount of costs (= rarely to be achieved simply by taking the lowest bidder) for a translation of adequate quality. As long as everyone remains focused on long-term profits/costs, this is a pretty good system.

Sincerely,
Michael


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 15:58
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Fully busy? Apr 28, 2011

If you apply Jerzys approach you have to be sure that you have a constant flow of jobs. For most of us this is not the case. According to Murphy's law the best job offers drop in when you have packed your suitcase for a three-weeks vacation (as happend to me in 2008).
In my best years I made 35 kEuro before tax. But even in those years I had only a few weeks of 8-hours working days. On average I work 3-4 hours only, which fits me well.

So you need big projects with good rates in order to achieve maximum income. So all depends on you business skills, advertising, service attitude etc. Less on your skills as a translator.


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Jerzy Czopik  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 14:58
Member (2003)
Polish to German
+ ...
Maybe I was not clear enough Apr 28, 2011

If you go for the calculation I posted you'll see the effect we really need.
Many self employed tend to oversee facts like not being able to work productive all the time, having to pay insurance and so on, so they start from the market and adapt their rates to what they seem to find there.
But we need to calculate the other way round.
As example for Germany I've done a fast online calculation based on a turnaround of 80,000. The monthly income is then only roughly 3,200...


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xxxFVS
Spanish to English
TOPIC STARTER
@Heinrich Apr 28, 2011

I have to chuckle at your holiday story. For me seems there is usually too much work or too little. And whenever I plan a holiday, yes, the work floods in. In Spain it's called the 'ley de Murphy' - sod's law in English.

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xxxFVS
Spanish to English
TOPIC STARTER
@Michael Wetzel Apr 28, 2011

Thanks for the link. Extremely interesting, and it relates to 2006. I found that work dropped off about 30% after the 2008 crisis but is now recovering, so that year would be a good one I guess.

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