Translators’ pay: how much are you worth?

The Cabinet Office job satisfaction survey I mentioned in my last post ranks “Authors, writers and translators” at no. 42, with an average income of £26,207. The Adzuna  survey lists average pay for translators as £39,900. That’s quite a gap, and there are plenty of variables that might explain it: in-house or self-employed status, level of experience and/or specialisation, for example. But I suspect the £26,207 figure is nearer the reality for most self-employed translators. If you think it’s way off the mark, let me know and we’ll run a poll.

Focusing just on the income side of the surveys, here’s an exercise to do.

Step 1 – consider translators’ career paths

Read this description of the translator’s career path, by Lanna Castellano (I first saw it in the 1992 edition of Mona Baker’s book “In Other Words”, published by Routledge):

“Our profession is based on knowledge and experience. It has the longest apprenticeship of any profession. Not until thirty do you start to be useful as a translator, not until fifty do you start to be in your prime. The first stage of the career pyramid – the apprenticeship stage – is the time we devote to investing in ourselves by acquiring knowledge and experience of life. Let me propose a life path: grandparents of different nationalities, a good school education in which you learn to read, write, spell, construe and love your own language. Then roam the world, make friends, see life. Go back to education, but to take a technical or commercial degree, not a language degree. Spend the rest of your twenties and your early thirties in the countries whose languages you speak, working in industry or commerce but not directly in languages. Never marry into your own nationality. Have your children. Then back to a postgraduate translation course. A staff job as a translator, and then go freelance. By which time you are forty and ready to begin”.

(Lanna Castellano, 1988)

Step 2 – compare that with other people’s career paths

What do other people need to do their jobs? A degree? A post-graduate qualification? An apprenticeship? On-the-job training? Life experience? A vocation? Natural talent?

Step 3 – consider translators’ pay with respect to other people’s pay levels

Next, take a look at the income levels for other jobs, trades and professions included in the survey. How does translation compare? And don’t forget that some of the jobs listed are “cash in hand, on the nail”, where actual earnings are far higher than those stated.

Step 4 – examine your job: what does being a translator actually involve?

How difficult are the texts you translate? What are your specialist subjects? How did you gain your expertise in those subjects? How much research do you do for your translation projects? How many training events do you attend each year? How much do they cost (in time, as well as money)? How much reading and on-going learning do you do? Which software have you had to buy and learn to use? How many hours do you work? How much marketing and business growth activity do you do? How much is your service worth to your clients?

Step 5 – ask yourself this question

Are people in higher paid professions significantly cleverer than translators? If you re-trained (say a one-year post-graduate qualification or equivalent) and/or gained the relevant experience in a given profession, could you do their job? Could they do yours?

Step 6 – ponder the question: what does all of this say about translators’ pay?

This topic provoked quite a discussion on Twitter the other day (featuring Sarah PybusNikki GrahamClaire CoxKaren NettoSteve Woods and Jonathan Downie) about pay levels, not just for translators but for people in other jobs and for students, graduates paying off their loans and anyone having to get by on a non-stellar salary.

More thoughts and views welcome – let us know in the comments!

Other posts you might like:

St. Jerome: a good role model for translators?

All about price? Not necessarily

Omnishambles: object-lessons in how not to contract out language services


By Marian Dougan

17 Responses

  1. Very interesting post, Marion – and I think a poll would provide fascinating food for thought too. I know your income is likely to rise as you gain more experience and are able to concentrate on higher-paying and possibly direct clients. However, a figure of £26,000 a year, assuming you take 4 weeks holiday, works out at just over £540 a week, which when you work it back into numbers of words, isn’t a huge total – or the rates charged must be very low! At the other extreme, the owner of a translation agency (who was trying to persuade me to work exclusively for them several days a week – I declined!) once told me that he felt there was an invisible barrier of £50,000 which it was hard to exceed as an independent freelance translator….

    I suspect the average is likely to be somewhere between the two, but it would be interesting to have more concrete figures. I was amazed when someone at the workshop I attended last weekend was bemoaning the fact that translation conferences were beyond the means of freelancers on the “typical” translator’s salary. I personally think they are money well invested and reap many rewards, but perhaps, like Lanna, as a 50-something translator, I have reached my “prime” and therefore am out of touch with the average?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Claire – and for battling with the comments feature.

      I’m stunned when I see how little some translators charge – even for difficult tests (legal and financial, say). And not just folk starting out. I do sometimes (very often, actually) think translators are their own worst enemies. And mine and yours too, as they distort the market and clients’ expectations.

      Like you, I’ve seen translators comment that they can’t afford to attend conferences. Admittedly, we can’t be jetting off to all of the international ones that are held, but it’s sad if folk can’t attend even the ones in the UK. Like you, I find conferences enriching and rewarding, and fun too. Will add to this reply later, have to dash to visit my Mum.

  2. It makes you wonder if there’s a link: is it the translators who don’t invest in their own CPD by attending translation conferences who then aren’t aware of trends in the industry, be it rates, latest tools, current thinking, etc. and so remain stuck in a low-pay spiral? To say nothing of the potential for networking and meeting clients…

    1. I suspect there is indeed a link. I know plenty of translators who work in their own little bubble and do no CPD whatsoever. Nor do they network or interact with other translators (on social media, say). That’s certainly the case with a lot of into-English translators working in Italy. And in the UK too, sadly.

    2. I suspect there is indeed a link, Claire. I know plenty of translators who work in their own little bubble and do no CPD whatsoever. Nor do they network or interact with other translators (on social media, say). That’s certainly the case with a lot of into-English translators working in Italy. And in the UK too, sadly.

  3. Hi Marion,

    Always a fascinating topic and not just because it gives rise to classic three-blind-men-and-an-elephant dilemmas. 🙂

    First, blind man 1: The figures quoted in the Cabinet Office job satisfaction survey are fairly consistent with the findings of the latest ATA salary survey, which dates to 2008 (I did the currency conversion using current exchange rates, so am comparing 2014 dollars at today’s exchange rate to 2008 dollars).

    Second, blind man 2: The ATA figures are self-reported, capture a specific population (people who join associations with very low membership dues and stay members) while at the same time omitting huge swaths of the $34 billion-dollar global language industry — sectors where ATA, ITI, FIT, etc. are typically invisible or not major players.

    Third, blind man 3: Which market are we talking about? This matters a great deal, because markets differ dramatically and have as much in common as Tiffany’s does with Walmart — they are both retailers and all similarities end there.

    It’s not news that for the last several years the translation industry has been splintering into two radically different environments — the premium, high-end, subject-matter-expert, high-cost-of-failure sector, and the fat bulk middle cost-drives-everything market with collapsing rates and people squabbling over every fractional penny paid on a fuzzy match and where translation is dismissed as either a commodity or a utility, depending who at TAUS is near a keyboard today.

    Let’s be blunt. I don’t know a single translator working in the premium market who is making less than US$100K a year, and usually a great deal more, with great flexibility in setting rates and terms.

    The same is true of dictating translators, especially those working in high-demand technical markets, where by virtue of sheer volume and subject-matter expertise they make at least 3x to 4x the quoted average rate in the survey above. This was and is certainly true in my case as a working translator right now.

    Where does this leave us in describing our elephant?

    The Lanna Castellano quote you used at the beginning of your post was hugely instructive (I love that quote) because it precisely mirrors so much of my own personal experience when I owned a premium boutique translation company. I’ve always admired that quote and it gave me the opportunity to ponder it once again.

    It seems to me that a person who has lived the career that Lanna describes so eloquently is very much more likely to be working in the premium market than in the bulk commodity market. There are exceptions to be sure — translators are notorious introverts who are often unwilling to engage direct clients and there are unfortunate remnants of Neil Inglis’ “Poverty Cult” still alive and well in the industry, as Chris Durban noted recently on ITI’s Pillar Box blog.

    What makes this dilemma of identifying true translator income and salaries even more problematical is that the dynamic tends to be self-reinforcing.

    The companies and organizations that conduct surveys (Common Sense Advisory is the worse culprit) tend to be laser-focused on the commodity market to the complete exclusion of the entire rest of the translation market. The premium market is like the IR part of the spectrum to them and since they can’t see in the IR, they just stare off into space and then tell you that they can’t see anything.

    This can lead to some very strange conversations, as you might imagine. 🙂

    I think we owe it to our colleagues to keep our eyes wide open to the entire spectrum of today’s market so we can be aware of market opportunities and realities for all translators — and to advocate for those — and not allow ourselves and our reality to become blinded by those who may not share our interests or even be hostile to them.

    1. Thanks, Kevin, for taking the time to write this – I hate to think how many tweets it would have taken.

      I’ve seen Chris Durban’s presentation on “The Frugal Translator” but wasn’t aware of the one by Neil Inglis. I’ve found a reference but not the whole presentation – have you got a copy?

      It’s difficult of course to generalise on translators’ pay – levels of experience/expertise, markets, language-combination rarity, specialist knowledge, country of work. There are so many factors to take into account. But I think far too many translators hugely undervalue what they do, in an almost masochistic way. And it makes me angry because they’re allowing clients to undervalue them too. And that is bad for our profession and bad for the translators who want to charge and be paid rates that reflect their professionalism, experience and the quality of their work.

  4. In some ways, I think that concentrating on pay fogs the issue a bit. Surely the more important bit is overall quality of life. After all, how much is it worth to not have to suffer interminable team meetings, “motivational” boss talk and targets?

    Yep, loans and bills need paid but if we focus on just what people earn, we probably commit the same error as Lanna did in her view of how to become a translator: we reduce thousands of variables into one.

    Rates and pay are important but personal life, workflow, balance and the like are even more important.

    1. Thanks Jonathan. I agree that it’s not all about pay. Indeed, the Adzuna survey ranks translation as no. 1 job partly in view of the low stress levels (deadlines apart, IMO).

      However, I think that the translation profession suffers from “esteem” problems: esteem from clients and self-esteem among translators. And pay (or rates, from the translators’ side) is one way in which esteem and recognition of professionalism is expressed.

      Also, I’ve heard translators bemoan the fact that they can’t afford to attend conferences or workshops, or buy a new computer (see also Claire’s comments). And that’s not a good situation.

      As for Lanna’s “career path”, her essential message is that work and life experience are hugely important for translators. And I agree with that. I’m a far better translator now than I was when I started out, partly because I spent 20 years in non-translation working environments (where I enjoyed my work – even the meetings!). And the experience and knowledge I gained there make a huge difference to my work today.

      I realise that Lanna’s comments can be disheartening to translators (actual or aspiring) fresh out of university. But if they can grasp the underlying message – the importance of acquiring “knowledge of the world” and applying that knowledge in your translation work – then it’s a lesson well learnt.

  5. I think the idea is that if you are a freelancer in the premium market whose per-word rate is 5x higher than it is in the bulk market, you not only can skip team meetings, boss talks and targets (you’re a freelancer), but you can work a lot less to be paid a lot more. 🙂

  6. Hi Marian,
    Am late to the party/discussion, but wanted to point out that networking is something you do not only with other translators but also *with clients*. Not necessarily to pitch your services, just to stay in the picture about their concerns and developments in their field.
    It sometimes astonishes me — although it shouldn’t, really — that there are translators out there fretting about “no respect” and “low pay” who have *never actually been to a client event* or even met any clients in the flesh.
    True, in many cases they would be utterly out of their comfort zone (at the start). But surely that’s the point: by putting yourself in new situations and stretching your skills (social and other) you really do become a better translator. Plus you get into the mindset you need to serve premium clients.
    @Jonathan, I get your point. But as I wrote in my Pillar Box contribution, it irks me when a discussion of prices is pulled over into the “well, income is not as important as quality of life, of course” field. Well, yeah. But hey, it isn’t an either/or issue — I’ve come to think such comments reflect the translator’s discomfort with money issues in general (sooo tacky :)) rather than any deep philosophical divide. And keep in mind that nobody is recommending translators work around the clock with their eye on the pile of money they are piling up (bad for the health, that one). But for the hours when you are working you should be earning a tidy sum.
    @Marian again: like you, I not only think but *know* that many translators undersell their work as a matter of course, perhaps because they have no overall view of what is done with the texts they send in, how these fit into a bigger project, who else is working on the project (and what they are charging). At the risk of repeating myself, one response might be: get in the habit of going places where clients go so you can pick up this information. (Oh, and use it.)
    Charging low prices is a strategic error. It makes savvy, top-end clients wonder what is wrong with your work; it detracts from your credibility. Whereas charging higher prices (and Kevin and other correspondents are correct in citing 3 or 4 or 5-fold differences) and, of course, being capable of supplying work to that standard, makes you part of the core team. That’s important for the quality of your work, and for getting not only listened to but *heard* by the higher-ups.

    1. Thanks Chris! And thanks for your email, to which I’ll reply separately. I’m working on another couple of posts on this subject, which will surely reflect your comments as I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. I’ve seen your presentation on the “Frugal Translator”, and today (doing some research for the forthcoming posts) found the one on the “Visible Translator”. There’s also an on-going, and lively, discussion on Twitter on this topic. So watch this space…

  7. I think I need to clarify my comments a little…

    I absolutely agree that underselling and lack of attention to common business skills (including creativity, networking, etc) are huge issues. If we want to make translation (or interpreting) pay, we need to think like businesspeople and go out of our comfort zones. Who knows, maybe it is possible to get clients who aren’t agencies. I also have to confess that I haven’t yet been to a client event that I haven’t been interpreting at but that is something I am working on.

    On the other hand, I do think that one of the reasons that people become freelancers is the (relatively) more relaxed approach to life and work, compared to most office-bound jobs. There are freelancers whose interest in the business side of things extends to “knowing enough to make sure I earn a decent living”. I don’t know if I could say that is a bad thing.

    The possible issue with the recent and welcome push in helping translators and interpreters acquire business skills is precisely that we could lose sight of the need for balance and the need to accept, once again, that different freelancers are different in their approach to money, business and work.

    Of course, none of this excuses low rates and sloppy practices. None of it obviates the need for freelancers to be business savvy. It might, however, mean that we might want to teach the business side of freelancing as part of an overall package of teaching people to freelance in a fulfilling, balanced way. It might mean that we need to find ways to heal people freelance in a way that is comfortable and helpful for them, whilst still bringing in a comfortable income. Just a thought.

  8. Who says freelance translating isn’t stressful? The number of translators that I have met who suffer from stress-related problems is quite high. I suspect we don’t talk about that side of things very much. We have a very introspective nature.

    Let’s face it, if you’re not earning enough it can be stressful and if you are earning enough it can also be stressful because the workflow may be harder to manage.
    Of course, it may depend on the type of clients you have, but agencies certainly push people to the limit, and direct clients give you a head on confrontation that can also be tough-going.

    But to get back to the question of money. I repeatedly encounter translators who are not honest about what they charge and it’s not that surprising really, since many of them are competitors. So what does that mean when it comes down to overall earnings? Are the figures we are being dished out reliable?
    I am always wary of statistics, particularly when it is difficult to work out what sample of people are concerned.

    Like many of you above, I’m convinced that many translator’s undervalue themselves, so at the end of the day it’s got to show in their income.

    This is why it is always a good thing to talk about money (a cultural taboo in some countries).

    Thank you for bringing up the subject!

    1. Thanks for your comment Miranda. We tend to associate stress with high-powered jobs and having to meet targets and so on, but as you say, money worries can be a cause of stress too – less acute but equally damaging. So if you have problems making ends meet, or dealing with late-paying clients, then that’s pretty stressful, I think.

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