Point on the graph: direct-client rates for J2E translation

A job offer was recently posted to the Honyaku mailing list, looking for a translator for a book by a Japanese researcher into English. The offered rate was ¥7,600 per 200 English words. That works out to ¥38 per word, or according to the XE.com Universal Currency Converter, US $0.42/word at today's exchange rate (31 Jan 2009).

US $0.42/word certainly sounds a lot more enticing than the $0.10/word or so I see bandied about on sites like proz (and sometimes much less). Of course, this translation is going to require a very skilled translator, with a high level of knowledge of the field. From the offer:

The University of Tokyo has embarked on a project to make outstanding work by its faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences available in English translation. The titles selected will be published by leading academic publishers in the English-speaking world.

The translator is also going to have to work closely with the publisher, probably going through several revisions and proofing the camera-ready copy prior to printing. That's more work than the "fire and forget" mode of translation that's common when you go through agencies.

This rate isn't all that unusual. ¥38/word is about on a par with what the top translation agencies in Japan charge (about 50-75% of which makes it to the translator). It's middling for direct clients with highly demanding work. The University of Tokyo seems to be trying to cut out the middleman, thereby attracting a higher caliber of talent for the same money as going through an agency. An institution like UT has the administrative and publishing capabilities to handle such a task on its own.

I hope this can serve as another point on the graph to those wondering what freelance translators (especially Japanese-to-English) actually charge. Beginning translators especially tend to only see the bottom end of the rate scale, offered by the low-end agencies willing to hire inexperienced translators. But there's quite a large range available, depending on your talent, experience, knowledge, and marketing skills.

3 comments to Point on the graph: direct-client rates for J2E translation

  • Aaron Little


    I am one of the relatively inexperienced translators that you talk about in your post. My language pair is also Japanese/English and I have a hard time deciding what my rate should be. I certainly don’t want to bottom fish, and I want to get what I am worth, but it is difficult when you dont have much information to go on. Because of my lack of experience I am tempted to take a low rate just to gain the experience that it gives me.

    I have read that one good way to decide what you should charge is how much you want to make in the end, but with little experience it is hard to go off that number. I am guessing that if you get between 10-20 yen per word from an agency that you are doing pretty good. At the moment, I get 7 yen per Japanese character translating automotive manuals, and that seems to be the best I can do at the moment.

    If you could share what you charged when you first started out, or could offer me any advice as a translator in the same language pair, it would be a great help.


  • @ Aaron

    7 yen/Japanese character isn’t excessively low. Depending on how you count, that’s about 12 to 14 cents/English word, which isn’t too bad.

    The lowest rate I’ve earned freelance is 8 yen/character, but my first J2E translation job was in-house at a US auto plant, where I earned $24/hour ($36/hour for overtime), which is probably a lot less than you earn charging 7 yen/character.

    One way to move up the rate chain is to keep taking work at your current rate until you’ve got as much work as you want to handle. Then, only take on a new source of work if it pays more than your current work. When you get a new source of work, you start turning down your cheapest clients.

    Of course it’s more complicated than that — i.e. per-character rate isn’t the only measure of the worth of a client — but it’s a rule of thumb.

  • Great post, Ryan! Rates are one of those issues that are tough no matter how long you’ve been in the business. A few things I’ve learned along the way:
    -no one wants to bottom feed, but you have to start somewhere; there’s no shame in accepting work that pays modestly so that you can get your business off the ground
    -agencies will often pay more than you think they will, when a) they’re in a major bind and really need you or b) you can set yourself apart from other freelancers in terms of quality
    -in some cases the best way to get more work is to look up, rather than down. I find that high-paying direct clients are often more concerned with wasting time than spending money, so they don’t want to shop around for quotes from 10 translators as an agency might.

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