“Translators shouldn’t earn more than $75,000/year”

One of the nice things about being a freelancer is that you can earn as much as you're worth, rather than what somebody thinks you ought to earn.

Over on the Honyaku mailing list, however, "Captain Adam" doesn't think that translators should earn more than $75,000 per year:

In my opinion, a good translator is worth every penny. However, as a translation company owner and former freelance translator, I find it hard to justify that the occupation of "translator" is worth more than a $75,000/year salary.

Logically, clients should buy translation services based on what the service is worth, not by how much the translator is earning per year. Would you rather pay for lousy translation at a higher price, because the translator earns less money than a good translator?

But in my experience, this is a pretty common sentiment. I blogged before about how a translation agency lost a huge contract, and I lost a lucrative job, because the translation coordinator didn't think that a translator should earn as much in one month as I was billing.

6 comments to “Translators shouldn’t earn more than $75,000/year”

  • That’s completely ridiculous. A translator will often have the same level of education as a lawyer or an engineer. We have ultraspecialized knowlege in our area of expertise, language (actuallly, at least two languages), *as well as* extensive knowledge of our customers’ products, company, marketing strategy, you name it.

    There are several reasons that explain why translators are underpaid (and I consider USD 75,000 underpaid for an experienced, high-quality translator). My top three are:
    – low barrier to entry (“I speak two languages, therefore I translate”);
    – no way for the customer to judge the quality of the work (Google “market for lemons”); and
    – market fragmentation (too many freelancers pitted against each other by large agencies that aggregate demand).

    A translation coordinator can honestly say “my client isn’t willing to pay this much”. Saying no translator is worth that much is just abusive and not in the best interest of his employer or the customer. Let the market decide, as long as the market has a way to judge quality…

  • That’s insane. Translators are highly educated and trained professionals, and they should be paid accordingly. As a former in-house translator and now full-time happy entrepreneur, I have to say that it’s very possible for linguists to make in the six figures. We can all achieve it — by choosing the right clients, by targeting our marketing strategy — and I can’t wait for the day when we have the same status as lawyers, doctors, software developers, etc. We are professionals and should be compensated on a professional level. Hopefully, in five years, we will have a post along the lines “Why linguists should make at least 100K a month”!

    I completely agree with Éric on the market fragmentation and frequently talk about this with colleagues: if we see each other as colleagues rather than competitors and work together, we will present a united front that customers can’t get to compete with each other. With more unity comes more credibility, and there’s more than enough work for all of us.

  • MT

    Good Lord. Captain Adam is a complete idiot.

    It’s not like we don’t have overhead. I mean, after I pay for health insurance for my family, buy food, pay mortgage, pay self-employment tax, state and local business taxes, on top of federal, state, and local income taxes (I’m in the U.S.), and pay into a retirement account, it’s not like there’s tons left over.

    Freelancers don’t always keep all those expenses in mind when setting their prices, either, but a good rule of thumb I’ve heard cited is that being self-employed means you need to gross about $20,000-$30,000 US per year *more* than someone doing the same job as an employee for another company. Thus, a freelancer making $75,000 corresponds actually to an in-house employee making only $45,000 to $55,000. Highly qualified, in-house, full-time translators make way more than that–particularly those doing medical, law, and patent translations.

    I’ll say it again. Captain Adam is a complete idiot.

  • @MT

    I agree that setting any type of arbitrary limit on translator income based on what you think they “ought” to earn doesn’t make a lot of sense. I note that “Captain Adam” claims to be an ex-freelancer — if I was very snarky, I’d say he must’ve not been a very good one, if that’s all he thinks translators are worth. 🙂

    That said, I wonder if the captain came to Japan back in the early 90s from the US. Salaries in Japan have been pretty much static for the past 15 years, while they’ve gone up a lot in the US. Back in the early 90s, $75,000 was probably a decent salary in most parts of the US. Even so, I don’t see how he could think that the equivalent of $75,000/year in Tokyo would be a comfortable wage to support a family on, especially as a freelancer without the perks of working in a company.

  • J C

    Luckily What Captain Adam thinks has no bearing at all on the industry
    or anyone’s lives anywhere, so he is entitled to his insanely
    stupid opinions. Translators are worth every penny they get
    for having the guts to make a go of it on their own, if freelance,
    and in a company, well lets put it this way, 75,000 is not going to
    attract many good translators.

  • I 100% agree…. especially since i will soon be tri-langual. Im not a translator but i know they are worth every penny. I am fluent in Russian, English and soon to be fluent in Mandarin. I just use the languages to run my business and get the best deals. I see how, if i was a big business man, having a translator would benefit me greatly!

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