One of the questions I’m asked most often, both by email and in person, is how much translators get paid. “How much do you actually make?” folks ask. I sometimes wonder how polite of a question that is and whether they’d ask that of, say, a teacher or a doctor or a salesperson.
Well, anyway, the pay depends. How long have you been a translator? What type of work do you do? Where do you live?
The Translators’ Association here in the UK writes on their website: “The negotiation of fees is a matter for the individual translator and client to resolve. In the Society's experience of reviewing contracts, we have found that UK publishers are prepared to pay in the region of £88.50 per 1,000 words.” That’s a sensible starting place. Obviously, some really complicated jobs will require you to ask for a higher fee, while a simpler job that allows you to use translation tools and includes a lot of repetition of words will earn you less. Likewise, if live in a country with a really high cost of living, your prices should be higher. A small job may make you want to ask for a flat fee, rather than a per word rate. But start from the assumption that you want to earn around £0.08 per word.
“Can you actually make a living as a translator?” people also ask me.
The answer to that question is yes, and no.
It too depends. It depends on what type of translation work you do, how good you are at both translation and networking, how able you are to work alone for long hours and to chase down work, and how long you’ve been at it for. If you’re just starting out and you only translate poetry, you most likely won’t be able to work full-time as a translator. If you have a medical degree and you want to specialize in pharmaceutical texts, then you might have a better shot. If you’re an award-winning translator of thrillers, you’ll probably end up having to turn down work.
I recognize that this isn’t necessarily very helpful of a response. But it does reflect reality for translators. As you broaden your customer base and get more experience, you’ll get more work and be able to raise your rates. But it’s unrealistic to expect that as soon as you print business cards, you’ll suddenly be very busy with work.
That’s why many translators have “portfolio careers” or “parallel careers”, developing their freelance translation careers while also doing other work, such as working for a translation agency or publishing company, teaching, painting houses, practicing law, doing admin work, etc. It’s also quite stimulating to have different aspects to your career and to have the opportunity to move from one task to another. Personally, I feel it makes me a better translator.