Justine Raymond argues that change will only come when translators start to openly discuss their rates
A recent conversation with a well-known translator about the reluctance of people generally to talk about how much they earn got me thinking about the pervasiveness of poor remuneration in the translation profession. Pointing out the tendency for earnings to be on the paltry side in our profession seems to be controversial (some translators react with hostility when the topic is raised), but it is not my intention to court controversy or to be unduly negative. I fully acknowledge that there are many translators who earn decent money, even six-figure sums.
However, it is important to consider why, in a global industry that had grown to £35 billion by 2018, with the top 25 language service providers (LSPs) in the UK growing at a rate of 40% a year,1 the average translator’s income in the UK is just £24,702.2 Of course, many translators earn far less than that, particularly those working in emerging economies.
It stands to reason, then, that when translators disclose what they charge, especially those earning in excess of £50,000 a year, awareness about rates increases. Lower earning translators are thereby given knowledge they can use to raise themselves up financially. In considering this issue, I will focus on freelance agency work, because that is how most translators work.
Culture + gender = low pay?
There are myriad reasons for lower pay in the language professions. 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 industry, particularly for translators with a common language pair. In addition, machine translation is getting better all the time, and translators working for agencies are expected to post-edit at an even lower rate than they are paid for translation.
To compound this issue, the translation profession is mostly comprised of women. In terms of salaried employment, 60% of women have never negotiated pay with an employer and many women would rather leave a job than do this.3 Could this scenario be replicated in the freelance market, with many women simply accepting the rate quoted by an LSP? I am speaking in pragmatic terms, without apportioning blame, because we can only hope to combat this issue by addressing it.
When it comes to tackling low rates, a further obstacle might originate in differences between cultures. I’ve experienced this myself when attending courses run by both American and British translators, with the former generally being more forthcoming, casual and willing to talk about money than the latter. Often, it is 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, especially if you suspect that you are not earning enough or if you’re not earning as much as you’d like.
Cultural ideas about money include preconceptions about people who earn ‘too much’ or ‘too little’, resulting in stigma for both high and low earners. When a colleague couldn’t make it to a meeting once, a higher earning peer rather insensitively quipped that she was probably jumping off a ski lift somewhere (assuming, with scant evidence, that this translator was a high earner as well). This can lead to unnecessary feelings of inferiority (what if you don’t earn enough to go on holiday, let alone skiing?).
Our profession can feel very elitist and class-conscious in this respect. Moreover, most translators work as freelancers and tend to have an introspective, introverted nature, so it is difficult to organise collectively and professionally around this matter. Coming out of the woodwork can be hard, particularly for a person who is extremely shy or introverted, shuns much of social media, and finds networking or attending conferences as attractive as cutting toe nails! Rates also vary and often depend on factors such as the level of formatting required, language combination and subject matter.
Why money talk is good
The number of questions on translator forums concerning how much to charge is simply astounding. This suggests not only that we don’t know what others are charging for roughly the same type of work, but that we don’t even know the amount we could be charging ourselves. Many a translator’s mouth has dropped when they learnt what they could have been charging all along.
This lack of knowledge, combined with a reluctance to address the topic of rates, contributes to keeping fees low. Corinne McKay, a well-known, reputable translator based in the US, writes coherently about this reticence on her blog.4 Having taken a few of her courses, I can testify that she was never shy to broach the topic of earnings. She was also the first person to really open my eyes to a translator’s earning potential. She didn’t just talk about rates in the general sense; instead, she told us exactly what she was earning.
Other reputable translators have taken a bold approach and committed the rare, refreshing, but blasphemous act of advertising their rates on their website for all to see. Advertising one’s rates (or providing a summary of ballpark figures) is a growing trend and I am seeing more of this on translator websites, particularly in the US. This breaks taboos and makes you stand out as a professional because so few translators do it.
It also means other translators know what you are charging. We can thereby seek to re-evaluate our own rates and gain bargaining power in the negotiation process, not only with direct clients but also with agencies, where we are often squeezed the hardest.
Many of the translators at the top of their game (in terms of being able to command large sums) are not afraid of promoting themselves, and set up lucrative courses so that other translators can, perhaps, learn the skills required to generate higher earnings. We shouldn’t begrudge them their success; clearly they are doing a few things right. At the same time, we have to acknowledge the realities of working in an oversubscribed profession with a common language pair. The attitude that “you’re just not marketing or working as hard as me” isn’t helping.
Of course, we’re not all aiming to be high rollers, and that’s ok (many translators are happy with moderate earnings), but I would argue that in being more open with each other about what we charge, we help to combat low earnings and level the playing field within the profession. I would also suggest that charging very low fees puts you and the profession into disrepute and denigrates your own unique skills and abilities.
How to disclose your rates
How can we start to feel more comfortable about discussing money – specifically our money? Initially, I think seasoned translators who are secure in their professional skin could set up more talks, presentations, workshops and courses wherein they not only discuss rates but also disclose their own. In many ways this is already happening, with professional online forums essentially functioning like the office watercooler for freelance translators, helping to normalise the discussion of rates.
The less cryptic we are about our own rates, the more translators will know what ballpark figure they can set for the particular specialisation or task at hand. Online courses with such titles as ‘How to Raise Your Rates’ and ‘Negotiating Rates’ are starting to appear more frequently.
The good thing is that our business is kinder and more open than many. Translators often refer their peers to clients, even when they work in the same language combination/s, and the peer will then often ask the translator making the referral what they charge. Networking as a translator feels more personable and intimate as a result, meaning that our profession facilitates approachability and friendliness.
However, while we should encourage more talk about rates among ourselves, the subject should not be open to similar discussions with clients. One of the greatest, yet simplest, tips I’ve been given is to remain tight-lipped whenever a client starts to quibble about the rate. After you’ve quoted a fee, stand firm, don’t waver, remain quiet and see what happens. People pleasers will often try to justify the rate without realising that it needs no justification. This tactic has worked time and time again for me.
the right to remain silent
Disclosing rates, then, can be done at any time the translator feels comfortable, and can occur both manifestly (e.g. on your own website and in forums) and discreetly (such as during a one-on-one conversation at a conference). But if you don’t want to talk about what you charge, it doesn’t mean you’re not a team player, or that you’re letting the side down. I, personally, have not disclosed any rates on my website because I mostly work with agencies and haven’t felt the need to do so. I do think that disclosing rates in this way is a great idea to promote, though, so I may make this change in the future.
We must remain sensitive to translators who do not want to disclose their rates for whatever reason. They should feel zero compulsion to do so. It should also be made clear from the outset that such discussions are meant to increase awareness and bargaining power among translators, and are not being done for the sake of prying.
Over time, I hope that this increased awareness of potential earnings, and the adoption of a more ambitious pricing strategy, will translate (pun intended) into a new reality for translators – i.e. no more working for peanuts! For budding and seasoned translators alike, the future is bright. Our industry is set to grow exponentially on a global scale.5 What needs to grow alongside this is knowledge about our earning potential.
1 ATC (2019) ‘ATC UK Language Industry Survey’; cutt.ly/ATC18
2 Payscale (2022) ‘Average Translator Salary in United Kingdom’; 1/10/22; cutt.ly/PayScale
3 Leonhardt, M (2002) ‘60% of Women Say They’ve Never Negotiated Their Salary – And Many Quit Their Job Instead’. In CNBC, 31/1/20; cutt.ly/cnbc02
4 McKay, C (2008) ‘Secrets of Six-Figure Translators’. In Training for Translators, 12/11/08; cutt.ly/Train4Xlts
5 Ludgrove, L and Lyon, P (2021) ‘Seven Translation Trends That are Driving Growth in the Industry.’ In The Maverick Group, 22/7/21; cutt.ly/MaverickTrends