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A lot has happened in the translation industry over the past thirty years. Translators have gone from using typewriters and multiple layers of carbon paper and white out to blazing fast computers with spellcheckers, CAT productivity tools and this thing called the internet that can answer nearly any question anyone would ask. 

But what has not really changed in the translation industry is the basic speed with which a translator translates. Thirty years ago, as today, most translators will tell you they translate between 2,000–3,000 words per day. There are a few who now as then put out 5,000–6,000 words per day, but these superstars are the exception, not the rule in the translation industry.

The translation industry as long adopted the practice of both charging by the word and paying vendors by the word. It seems like a fair system which rewards productivity, speed and actual, verifiable work output. But the rates that have been charged and paid out over time have trended in only one direction, down. Which prompts me to engage in this math exercise so that clients can see what the people working on their materials will earn – and if this is in line with their expectations for what an educated, trained professional linguist should expect to earn in the translation industry.

InterNation routinely receives solicitations from translation agencies that specialize in working for other agencies, sometimes in a few languages, sometimes in many. But one thing they all share is a low cost, low budget strategy that puts their prices between $0.07 to $0.12 per word – with the spread accommodating  the more and less expensive languages. The cost of living in say Germany or Sweden is higher than in Italy and Turkey and things cost a lot more in Japan than they do in Vietnam or Thailand. This economic reality of the translation industry of course also applies to the cost of translations.

One might think that these companies will be based in low costs countries like India, China, or Indonesia, and that this enables their low cost structures. But surprisingly, many of these translation industry colleagues and competitors  are located here in the US and Europe.

All companies in the translation industry will share similar expenses: rent, telephone service, internet access, business and liability insurance, computers, software and the never ending upgrades and maintenance (and increasingly it’s monthly “rental”), staff salaries (including project managers, bookkeepers, etc.), marketing and sales, and of course taxes. By the time all of these expenses are add up they will have consumed roughly half the budget, which leaves somewhere between $0.035 and $0.06 per word to pay the translators, editors and proofreaders and hopefully some profit for the owner of the enterprise. For the sake of simplifying the argument we’ll divide this remainder by four, so each person in this workflow would end up with $0.00875 to $0.015 per word. 

Which takes us back to our average translator’s output, to determine what his or her daily or hourly wage will be. If we use the higher number of 3,000 words per day x $0.00875 we come to $26.25 per day, or about $3.28/hr. If we use the higher words per day rate and the higher per word rate, we arrive at 3,000 words per day x $0.015 per word = $45 per day or about $5.62/hr.

At least in America and Europe that is far below federal minimum wage, although in India and China this might still be considered a middle class income. But it begs the following question: Are the translators in United States, Sweden, France, Japan, just to name a few high wage countries, really working for less than they could be making at Walmart or McDonalds? Many agencies advertise that their linguists have advanced degrees such as Masters and PhDs, and years of industry experience. Translation as an activity might be rewarding and fun, but I can’t see medical researchers, engineers or lawyers giving up their far more lucrative professions for such a paltry payday just to get to work in the translation industry. 

Or have all formerly high wage earning linguists moved to the sunny beaches of India where life in the translation industry can be cheap and good? Or is it possible that the claims of “we only use native speakers” or “every translation is edited and proofread by someone other than the translator” just don’t add up – because they can’t? Or are you really getting a machine translation that is given a quick once over by a non-native speaker?

Thirty years ago qualified, educated and experienced translators were charging between $0.08 and $0.12 per word. It does not stand to reason that wages can drop to a fraction of that in the translation industry, which is as labor intensive as it has ever been, productivity tools notwithstanding.

There can only be one conclusion: you get what you pay for.

And peace of mind has a price.  As John Glenn once famously said when asked if he was nervous during his first ride into space: “Just imagine, you’re sitting on top of a machine consisting of a more than a million parts, and every one of them was made by the lowest bidder on a government contract.” Godspeed is the word that comes to mind.

Showing 3 comments
  • Kimberlee Kucha

    Hi, what an insightful and wonderful post. Helped me a lot with my issue. Appreciate the details you have mentioned. Absolutely true!

  • Benno Groeneveld

    30 years ago when I started translating seriously I was paid $0.10, working and living in New York. These days (still in New York) I always ask for $0.12 per word and I usually get it. But I have received “offers” to work for $0.06 per word and even $0.02 per word (from a translation company in India).

    A translation company that touts itself as one of the biggest translation agencies in the world (and has annual profits well over $1 million) offers translators $0.06 per word. When I replied to such an offer and my email went to everyone who had received the request, colleague translators wrote that they were happy with that price and criticized me for complaining about that rate.

    So, translators themselves are partly to blame. To update an old saying: translators unite, you have nothing to lose but your low rates!

    • Erick Derkatsch

      I guess when you’re being offered $0.02/word, $0.06/word looks pretty good!

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