We Need to Talk about… Money!

By Justine Raymond

Courses that tackle the topic of translator rates are materializing rapidly, but disclosing what we personally charge as translators is extremely important in terms of raising general rates within the profession.

Note: The following article is not intended to constitute legal, financial, or other business advice. Each individual or company should make its own independent business decisions and consult its own legal, financial, or other advisors as appropriate. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of ATA or its Board of Directors.

A recent conversation with a well-known translator about the general reluctance of people to talk about how much they earn got me thinking about the pervasiveness of poor remuneration in the translation profession. While seemingly controversial to point out the tendency for earnings to be on the paltry side in our profession, it’s not my intention to court controversy or be unduly negative. I fully acknowledge that there are many translators who earn decent money, even six-figure sums. However, it begs the question: Why, in an industry that is a $64.7 billion industry globally (with the U.S. accounting for approximately 40%)1, is the average translator’s income in the U.S. a not very lucrative $44,278 per year2? (The Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, puts this number a bit higher at $52,330/year on average.3) Of course, many translators earn far less, particularly those working in emerging economies. [Note: Because most freelance translators work for agencies, the direct client market will not be addressed in this article.]

Culture and Gender: Reasons Behind Lower Pay?

There are myriad reasons for lower pay in the language professions, so I won’t go into them in depth here, except to state the obvious: market forces dictate how much you can charge for your services, and ours is an oversubscribed profession, particularly for translators who have a common language combination.

In addition, and despite the naysaying, machine translation is getting better all the time and increasingly taking over quite a lot of the work, which means there are certain agencies that expect their translators to “post-edit” at an even lower rate! As if to compound the issue, the translation profession is comprised of mostly women. In terms of paid employment, 60% of women have never negotiated pay with an employer, and many women would rather leave a job than do this.4 Could this scenario be replicated in the case of female freelancers? It’s quite likely, but I merely wish to speak in pragmatic terms, without apportioning blame, because only by addressing the issue can we hope to combat it.

Another obstacle when it comes to tackling low rates might originate in cultural differences. I’ve experienced this myself when attending various courses run by both U.S. and U.K. translators, with the former generally being more forthcoming, casual, and willing to talk about money than the latter. Often, it’s considered impolite to talk about money in British and European circles, and it can be embarrassing and feel intrusive when someone asks about your rates, particularly if you suspect that you’re not earning enough or you’re not earning what you would like. Cultural ideas about money reflect what it means if you earn too much or too little, resulting in stigmas for both high and low earners. This could lead to unnecessary feelings of inferiority (e.g., What if you don’t earn enough to go on vacation?). Our profession can feel very elitest and class-conscious in this respect.

Moreover, most translators tend to have a more introspective, introverted nature and work as freelancers, so it’s difficult to get collectively and professionally organized around discussing money. Rates also vary and often depend on many factors, including subject matter, language combination, the level of formatting a document requires, etc.

Why Talking about Rates Is Good for Translators

It stands to reason that disclosing what we charge, particularly those translators who are higher earners, will increase awareness about rates among translators at every level. Lower earning translators can then use this knowledge to raise themselves up to a more economically equitable platform. However, there’s much reluctance to approach this topic of rates in our profession.

ATA Past President Corinne McKay, a well-known and reputable translator based in the U.S., writes coherently about a reluctance to talk about rates in one of her blog posts.5 Having taken a few of Corinne’s courses, I can vouch that she was never shy about broaching the topic of earnings and was the first translator to really open my eyes to a translator’s earning potential. She also didn’t just talk about rates in the general sense. Instead, she told you what she was actually earning. Other reputable translators have taken a bold approach and commit the rare, refreshing, but equally blasphemous act of advertising their rates on their websites for all and sundry to see.

Advertising your rates is a growing trend, and I’m seeing more of this on translator websites, particularly in the U.S. Of course, we’re not all aiming to be high rollers, and that’s okay (many translators are happy with moderate earnings), but wouldn’t being more open with each other about what we charge help to at least propel the discussion along and, as a result, aid in combatting lower earnings and level the playing field in terms of earnings within the profession? Perhaps it’s time, then, to speak more honestly and openly about our own rates.

Higher Earners

Of course, it’s also true that many translators at the top of their game (in terms of being able to command large sums) are often very much “out there.” In other words, these translators are not shy about promoting themselves and often set up lucrative courses so other translators can perhaps learn the skills required to generate higher earnings and be just as successful. We certainly shouldn’t begrudge these high earners of the translation world. Clearly, they’re doing quite a few things right. While we should welcome insight into their working methods to hopefully raise the pay bar for everyone, we should also not poo-poo the realities, and sometimes hardships, of working in an oversubscribed profession with a common language pair. The attitude of “You just must not be marketing or working as hard as me” isn’t helping. Furthermore, coming out of the woodwork can be hard, particularly for a person who is extremely shy and/or introverted, shuns much of social media, and for whom networking or attending conferences is about as attractive as cutting toenails! Therefore, might more reclusive translators benefit if there was more talk from less reclusive translators about what they are charging?

As mentioned previously, what we charge depends on many factors. However, it’s astounding the number of times that questions concerning how much to charge crop up on translator forums. This indicates that, as translators, we often not only don’t know what others are charging for roughly the same type of work, but we don’t even know the potential amount we could be charging! Many a translator’s jaw has dropped when they learn what they could have been charging all along! Therefore, by encouraging more open discussion about rates at conferences, translator meetups, and professional seminars, we could more easily discover what people are charging and then seek to re-evaluate our own rates. This would give us more bargaining power in the negotiation process, not only with direct clients but particularly with agencies, where we’re often squeezed the hardest.

Resistance to Talking about Rates

There will be resistance to encouraging discussions about rates, with some arguing that there’s no such thing as a “going rate” in the translation profession (certainly for freelancers), and that rates are not comparable anyway (e.g., perhaps a novice wouldn’t have the confidence or ability to charge the same as an experienced translator). Also, some will say that freelancers should be able to charge what the heck they want. There could also be accusations of price fixing. I don’t dispute or refute any of this, but I would argue that there’s such a thing as a bottom fee for the profession, beyond which translators are selling themselves short and bringing the profession and their own unique language skills and training into disrepute, irrespective of being able to charge lower fees because they live in a country where it’s not necessary to earn big.

A counterargument to all this would be: Why should legal firms based in the U.K. or the U.S. get away with paying translators, say in Brazil, a pittance when these firms are raking in millions? You’re paying for deftness after all, regardless of the location. I do understand that, yes, it’s easier to negotiate fees when you’ve already built up some clout with clients and have a steady income; not so much when you feel like a tadpole in an overcrowded pond with lots of things to eat you in, above, and around it. Many novice translators have such low confidence that they sincerely believe the only thing they can compete on is price. However, charging low fees (certainly long-term) affects one’s self-esteem and distorts the way in which our profession is viewed by the wider world.

Disclosing Your Rates: When and How?

So, how can we start to feel more comfortable talking about money, specifically our money? Initially, I think experienced translators who are comfortable in their professional skin could organize more presentations, workshops, and courses wherein they not only discuss rates but disclose theirs. In many ways this is already happening, with Stack and online forums essentially functioning as the office watercooler for freelance translators and helping to normalize the discussion of rates. Online courses with such titles as “How to Raise Your Rates” and “Negotiating Rates” are also starting to appear more frequently. The less obscure and cryptic we are about our own rates, the more translators will know what ballpark figure they can set for a particular specialization or task at hand.

At the same time, however, we need to be aware that there are good reasons why some organizations discourage structured discussions concerning specific rates. For example, ATA has an Antitrust Compliance Policy that strictly complies with federal antitrust law in effect in the U.S. ATA’s policy regarding the discussion of rates was adopted by its Board of directors as a result of a U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigation in the early 1990s. A member’s conduct in connection with all ATA meetings and events must comply with antitrust law because penalties for violations of antitrust law can be very severe—not only for ATA, but also for its individual members.6

The good thing is that our profession is kinder and more open than many others in terms of sharing this type of information. Translators working in the same language combination will often refer one another to clients when they can’t take on a particular assignment and disclose their rate if asked. Networking as a translator feels more personable and intimate as a result, meaning that our profession facilitates approachability and friendliness. As mentioned previously, advertising what you charge (or providing a summary of ballpark figures) on your website breaks down taboos and makes you stand out as a professional, especially because so few translators are doing this.

However, while we should encourage more talk about rates among ourselves, we should remain tight-lipped with our clients. One of the greatest, yet simplest, tips I was given was to remain tight-lipped whenever a client was starting to quibble about the rate. Stand firm, don’t waver, remain quiet, and see what happens after you’ve quoted a fee. People pleasers will often try to attempt to justify the rate without realizing that the rate needs no justification. This tactic has worked time and time again for me. In essence, then, disclosing rates can be done at any time the translator feels comfortable, and can occur both manifestly (e.g., listing them on your website) and discreetly (e.g., during a one-on-one conversation at a conference).

Choosing Not to Disclose

If you don’t want to talk about what you charge, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a team player or letting your colleagues down. I personally don’t disclose my rates on my website because I mostly work with agencies (including those that specialize in the legal field), so haven’t thus far felt it necessary.

We must remain sensitive to those translators who simply don’t want to disclose their rates for whatever reason. After all, translators should feel absolutely zero compulsion to do so. It should be made clear from the outset that discussions about rates are not intended to pry, but to increase awareness and bargaining power among translators. Those who aren’t earning what they would like can always join in the discussion by stating what they would like to be earning in the future, with other translators helping to brainstorm so their colleagues might visualize achieving their income goals. I guess a rule of thumb here would be to wait until people volunteer the information while encouraging the more confident higher earners among us to disclose information about their rates at every viable opportunity.

The Future Is Bright!

Over time it’s hoped (sooner rather than later) that this increased awareness of potential earnings on the part of translators and the adoption by the latter of a similar “pricing strategy” will translate (pun intended) into a new reality for translators (i.e., no more working for peanuts). The news is bright for budding and experienced translators alike. Translation as an industry is set to grow exponentially on a global scale.7 What needs to grow alongside this is knowledge about earnings potential.

Notes
  1. Hickey, Sarah. “The 2022 Nimdzi 100: The Ranking of the Top 100 Largest Language Service Providers in the World” (Nimdzi, 2022). Also see: Nicol, Victoria. “Translation Industry Trends and Statistics” (My Language Connection, August 12, 2022).
  2. “How Much Does a Translator Make?” (Zippia, August 22, 2022).
  3. Wozniak, Ted. “Summary of the ATA Compensation Survey,” The ATA Chronicle (March/April 2022).
  4. Leonhardt, Megan. “60% of Women Say They’ve Never Negotiated Their Salary—and Many Quit Their Job Instead,” CNBC (January 31, 2020).
  5. McKay, Corinne. “Secrets of Six-Figure Translators,” Training for Translators (November 12, 2008).
  6. ATA Antitrust Compliance Policy.
  7. Ludgrove, Louise, and Lyon, Peri. “Seven Translation Trends That Are Driving Growth in the Industry” (The Maverick Group, July 22, 2021).

Justine Raymond has been a freelance Spanish>English translator since 2009, translating official documents and contracts for law firms based in the U.S. and the U.K. specializing in immigration law, as well as business, and marketing material. She also translates for the nonprofit sector and nongovernmental organizations. She has lived and worked in the U.K., U.S., Mexico, and Spain. She has an MA in translation studies from the University of Sheffield, U.K. justine@jr-ts.com

2 Responses to "We Need to Talk about… Money!"

  1. Linda Pollack-Johnson says:

    Thank you for clarifying that ATA members are only restricted from talking about money at ATA meetings and events. I had thought we were restricted in all settings and I was uncomfortable when folks would broach the subject. On social media, I am seeing more and more assertive comments from translators and interpreters outlining their rates and work conditions and terms.

    1. Justine Raymond says:

      Thanks for your comment, Linda. Agreed, it can feel like a difficult subject to tackle and so by trying to encourage those who feel most comfortable in our profession to do so will hopefully mean that it becomes easier with time. Best wishes to you!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The ATA Chronicle © 2023 All rights reserved.