Apr 2, 2012

Just the facts: real rates and earnings of real translators

For several years now, I have published excerpts on quantity and hourly rates from the rate surveys conducted by the German translators and interpreters association BDÜ. These data are quite extensive and available for purchase at a nominal fee. I have found them quite helpful in understanding the relationship of my rates to the qualified market in the German-speaking region of Europe.

Colleagues and clients in other parts of the world have some problems with these data. First of all, they are published in German only, and other than my small translated excerpts I do not believe that they are easily accessible to those without competence in that language. This is too bad, because the publication also contains data for the translation of some languages beside German to and from English, since German clients sometimes use English as the "gateway" language for large, multilingual projects. But another problem that is claimed with regard to the German data is that they are alleged not reflect the market in other western countries. Anecdotal evidence from qualified translators I know who live elsewhere often does not support this assertion, but it is heard often enough from members of the poverty cult and erstwhile bottomfeeding resellers of language services or those without the competence or confidence to package their services at sustainable rates.

Thus I welcomed the news that the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL) and Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) in the UK had published a new survey of rates and salaries for translators and interpreters. This 56 page document offers an excellent overview of the current demographics and economics of the markets in which members of those organizations are active. It also includes valuable information on business practices regarding job cancellation, rush work and more.

Altogether 1750 translators and interpreters responded to the survey conducted in 2011, providing an excellent statistical basis for the report. Over 80% of all respondents (male and female) were freelancers, with an average age of 46 years. The age distribution is normal, so the median age (not reported) is around the average. Fifty-four percent reported English as their native tongue or language of habitual use (I like that term!). Seventy-three percent of respondents were UK residents with the rest distributed in Continental Europe and the rest of the world. The median years of experience for freelance and salaried full-time translators was the same (13 years), with slight differences for interpreters (10 and 7 years respectively). One percent of respondents listed "no qualifications", the rest having some sort of relevant degree or certificate/exams.

The median gross income for translation and interpreting, a shockingly low GBP 22,000, was distributed fairly evenly over the range from less than GBP 5,000 per year (pin money for part-timing spouses) to GBP 75,000, with a sharp drop above that and only about 1% reporting a six-figure income. The names of these individuals are a closely guarded secret, and there is probably no truth to rumors that members of the Occupy movement will be setting up camp in their front gardens shortly. A strong majority (80%) reported incomes to be the same as last year or higher, contradicting general mutterings of "plunging rates". Apparently there is indeed a demand for quality despite the reluctance of some talking heads in the MT subsector to admit that such a concept applies to language services.

Over 80% of respondents work for translation brokers, with just under 50% setting their own rates and about 70% arriving at rates by negotiation. So much for the "powerlessness" that is so often cited by the poverty cult when discussing compensation for services.

The report contains a further wealth of data on business practices, CAT tool usage and discounts, voice recognition technology, output and specialties as well as a wealth of information on salaried positions, which might be very valuable for assessing one's own status or reasonable terms for working with others.

The section with translation data for the various language pairs is not as granular as the BDÜ report, which has five client categories. Here the data are simply divided into "direct" and "agency" clients. Comparing the data to those with which I am familiar from the BDÜ survey I note that at the present rates of exchange between the euro and the British pound, the figures are lower than I can usually accept, but they are not nearly as grim as many claim. If the pound rises again, some of these rates could look quite reasonable to those living elsewhere. In interpreting the data for planning in other markets, I might use a different theoretical rate for GBP as I now do for the Australian dollar, which has risen sharply in recent times.

In each category. the highest, lowest and most frequent rates are reported along with the number of respondents, the maximum and the median.

Members of the ITI and CIoL received confidential copies of this report a few weeks ago, and private translators forums have been abuzz with the discussion of its implications. There is indeed much to think about, and the modest price asked by the organizations for a copy is well worth the investment. Non-members can purchase the report for GBP 20.00 by telephoning the ITI office at +44 1908 325250 - payment can be made by debit or credit card over the phone. (Please note that credit cards and non-UK debit cards are subject to a 5% processing fee.)


  1. Thanks for the tip! Just ordered mine.

  2. I think you'll find the report quite an eye-opener, Michael. There is a lot of data I didn't discuss here for simple reasons of time and space, and of course the specific rate information for language combinations is always of interest. Honestly, though, the most interesting part for me was the analysis that had nothing to do with the particular languages. Judging from the reactions of ITI and CIoL members I know, I think I'm not the only one who feels this way.

  3. For me, the most shocking part of the report was the issue of low income. Most active ITI and CIoL members readily assumed that earnings around 20,000 GBP per annum must be for part-timers. Well, I'm not so sure about that. People out there really accept jobs for £30 per 1000. It makes translation as profitable as being a coffee barista with a couple of overtimes. But who would admit to earning low rates?

  4. @Marta: I think the Blogger software must have changed; your comment arrived in an unfamiliar way and it took a bit of digging before I figured out how to approve it.

    You are not the only one to remark on the low numbers, and I do in fact know of full-time translators who fall below the reported figures for reasons that are usually clear enough. Some of these have other sources of income to support them, some do not.

    I was thinking about this the other day, and it reminded me of the attitude of a servant in a play I read nearly four decades ago. I recall that he spoke of the 'disaster' of serfs being liberated. I suppose a parallel could be drawn to translators with a serf mentality, who have been 'liberated' by the elimination of the underpaid staff positions they might have held decades ago. If you still think like an employee and act like one and refuse to act as required for an independent professional, things might be tight. That is, of course, not the story in every case, but it certainly is for some I know.

  5. Thank you for the interesting information about the ITI and CIoL survey. I was familiar with the BDÜ report and I find it very useful.
    In my own association in Slovakia I have been trying to convince colleagues for years that we need a survey of this kind, however to no avail. We do have a small survey on our association website (in the member section) but in general, members are rather passive. They are only active when they want to complain about low rates.
    I think another issue for us in Eastern Europe is the fact that clients from Western Europe expect us to be the "cheap labour" they employ in their factories in our countries. Unfortunately, too many of us give in to that pressure.
    I think it is also our responsibility to charge German or French or any other "western" clients rates that would not undercut our colleagues in the West. If we charge too low, it will have impact on colleagues elsewhere. It's a global responsibility, I think.
    Personally, I don't see a reason why I should charge my German client a third of what he'd pay to a colleague in Germany. As a translator, it doesn't really mater where my domicile is, as long as I provide the quality expected, right?
    I'm now starting a crusade on pricing, awareness raising among colleagues in Slovakia, to make them understand that they are not some poor victims who have to accept anything the oh so mighty client is willing to throw at them. They need to act as enterpreneurs.
    Sorry, my post is so long, but when talking about rates, I always get carried away.

  6. @Maria: I had some interesting chats with PM colleagues in Hungary earlier this month. When I suggested that a client in Germany would order a German to English translation from them only because of the reputation of the eastern countries as being "little Indias", they tried to tell me that the primary motivation was their project management competence. While I do believe that they are every bit the equal of good PMs at an agency in Germany, Switzerland and the UK, possibly better given the high standards of education in that country, I'm not buying it. And the further conversation, in which they suggested that if they paid a translator what many agencies in Germany are able to pay, they would get no orders confirmed that I am right. The low price politics of the east has, very unfortunately, led many in the "West" to view their eastern service providers in much the same category as the human traffic from the east that fills their brothels. This is very, very bad for everyone. Quite aside from the economic considerations, there really are superbly skilled people in places like Romania and India (though seldom for translating in my language pair I can name at least one exception), and these people should be recognized and remunerated based on their skills, not their geography. If the world's best project management is to be found in Latvia, hurrah! Hire that company to manage your major multi-lingual projects. Perhaps the lower overhead of that shop will result in some savings as well. But if German to English or French to German translation is part of that package, prepare for costs that are not too different from what a German or Swiss agency might charge or you might not like the results that will typically be returned.

    "Ah, but we have found no correlation between price and quality!" some of these people will say. Well, no. If, like one eastern agency rep speaking at a ProZ conference in Prague, you consider 7 euro cents to be a generous rate for service providers living in DACH countries, you will not see a lot of difference from the three-cent monkeys. What part of "can't pay the rent at that rate" do they not understand? There are a few of us who support families with our work; a costing model based on the hope of house hubbies, moonlighters with a secure salary and students is really not a stable model for providing good service.

    There are, of course, a very few positive exceptions in the worlds of donkey carts, rickshaws and sacred cows, and I celebrate every one of these for their wisdom and business acumen. And I do look forward to more, though I don't expect many in my lifetime.


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