Some numbers

A freelance translator's income can be calculated by the following formula:

r * p * h * d * w
r = rate
p = pages per hour
h = hour worked per day
d = days worked per week
w = weeks worked per year

Let's try plugging in some numbers. Say that you charge $30 per page, you translate 2.5 pages per hour, you work 4 hours per day (that's actually optimistic for hours worked in a corporate environment), 5 days per week, and 50 weeks per year. Call this person Average Allie.

Average Allie:
$30 * 2.5 p * 4 h * 5 d * 50 w = $75,000

Now, let's say you charge $40 per page, and translate 2 pages per hour, with time worked the same (Quality Quinton).

Quality Quinton:
$40 * 2 p * 4 h * 5 d * 50 w = $80,000

Now, let's say you charge $30 per page, but translate 3 pages per hour (Fast Frank):

Fast Frank:
$30 * 3 p * 4 h * 5 d * 50 w = $90,000

Curiously, it seems to generally be more lucrative to be fast than expensive.

How about people who work for very low rates ($10/page, or $0.05 word — certainly not unheard of), but work long hours (8 hours/day, no vacations) to make up for it? I'll also assume that they're not very fast (1 page/hour, because those charging the lowest rates are usually the least skilled, and the unskilled are usually slow too). Call this person Poor Peter.

Poor Peter:
$10 * 1 p * 8 h * 5 d * 52 w = $20,800

When people say that it's impossible to make a living as a translator, I think that they must have a scenario like the one above in mind.

To me, it's pretty obvious that the way for people like Poor Peter to improve their incomes is not by working more (increasing the values of h, d, or w), but by becoming better translators, so that they can work faster (increasing p), and charge more (increasing r)

7 comments to Some numbers

  • passerby

    I would’ve definitely thought that translators who cut rates sacrificed quality rather than time – they’d work fast but only produce something barely acceptable (or worse, if the client doesn’t find out).

    Charging more = earning more is a no-brainer, but I think your post better illustrates the fact that working faster (and smarter) is better than working crappy long hours. Charging higher fees could provide the incentive and environment to work more efficiently, but I think for really desperate people, being a “better translator” here only means working smarter, if increasing rates is out of the question to them.

    (I’m playing the devil’s advocate here; I’m thinking of people living in countries where income inequality is high and clients simply don’t expect translators to earn that much full stop)

  • @ passerby

    Good point about speed. I’m assuming a non-evil translator who puts a reasonable effort into her work. 🙂

    You might think that these people churning out sub-par translations are just cranking away, but in my experience they actually work a lot slower than translators who know what they’re doing.

  • Zed Xis

    You assume:

    1)an endless stream of work
    2)good translators translate fast; bad translators are slow
    3)good translators earn more money than bad translators

    There is no evidence that any of this is true, except for the idea that the translation market is a sound and fair place, where wisdom flows. In 21st century Earth though, things are very different.

    You don’t take into account very important things:

    1)field of specialization

    2)language pair

    3)marketing skills

    4)just plain luck

  • @Zed

    My assumptions are based on my own experience. In the translation industry, we’re like frogs in wells (to borrow a Japanese saying) — we have trouble seeing out of our own little environments. I’d like to hear about experiences that contradict my own.

    As for the important things you mention, keeping them equal, I still would argue that it’s a better investment to improve your skill and speed, than to take on more and more work.

  • Our company has a different way of paying translators which is by the hour rather than by the word which follows some of the logic you have above. Not all translators are equal and our theory is that if you are more productive this should be rewarded, we know this model is not for everyone but it does work really well for a lot of the translators who work for us. It’s only possible as all the translators work inside our online workbench so we can track time and efficiency (again not for all). There is more information on this model on our website if you wanted to read up on it.

  • I would be very wary of paying translators by the hour. A translator who is short of money (and you don’t get many translators with a Ferrari in the garage) could quote a longer time than it took him or her to complete the translation.
    I have been running a translation agency for the last 25 years and the only sensible way is to pay translators by the word. A good translator works fast, since he or she
    knows the subject that he or she is translating, so he or she rarely has to consult a dictionary.

    Most experienced translators use some sort of software system, either a translation memory program or an automatic “type on the screen” system – or both.
    Personally, I dictate my translations and send the dictations to a fast typist, who returns them typed in a few hours or the next day for a long translation. I proof-read the translations when they come back from the typist and correct any spelling mistakes. I also correct any inelegant phrasing, etc. and check any technical expressions. Using this system, I can provide good translations at a reasonable price – at a rate of 10,000 words per day.

  • I would agree with John, being paid by the hour can be risky. I’ve seen this with software developers as well – charging €x per hour. But how long will the task take?
    I would say that there are occasional jobs where hourly rates might be appropriate, but certainly not the norm. Sometimes there may be specialist work that is required for example on medical translations where research and review work is required by the translator.
    With word rates at least you get consistent measurable results – and everyone is on the same page. On word rates, you don’t seem to take into consideration translation technology systems like dictionaries or translation memory tools like Transit NXT ( Professional translators will use dictionary management systems and translation memory tools to improve both word translation volume and consistency. So they can increase their volume output whilst improving and maintaining exceptionally high standards.
    Rates need to reflect the effort and quality of work put in by the translator. Driving to lower rates is a bad thing. Rates should be set appropriately.

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