(with apologies to Stephen Sondheim)
I often wonder whether the leaders (if one wishes to apply such lofty
nomenclature) of this country's numerous translator and interpreter
organizations live in some kind of blessed land of milk and honey, a
land of beautiful aromatic flowers and streams and brooks of pristine
water, a land of sunshine and smiles, where n'er a cloud darkens the
day. And if such land of milk and honey exists, I surely want to go
for basic goods and services are increasing dramatically across the
board. Yet, translation prices have dropped and translator income has
remained relatively stagnant.
one can voyage to this land of sunshine via the many publications
issued by these numerous translator and interpreter organizations.
Therein, the visitor from the more earthly world of translation and
interpreting will be fed with honey and sweets such as "A School Outreach Profile" or "Promoting Translation in Education" or "Translating U.S. Undergraduate Admissions into Spanish". And if your craving for honey and sweets has still not been satisfied, you can feast on the tasty grapes of "Pursuing a PhD in Translation at Kent State University" or "How a Linguist looks at Translation".
But at the less ethereal cyberspace watering holes frequented by
less fortunate translators and interpreters, namely the "rabble" who
have been condemned to live in the brutally real world of translation,
there is lots of talk and chatter about declining income stemming from
globalization, or the promised efficiencies of computer-assisted
translation being translated not into more earning power, but markedly
less earning power, or the domination of the translation service
industry (a/k/a the translation agency industry) by businesspeople who are geniuses in marketing but would have difficulty understanding the meaning of "bonjour" or "guten abend," say
nothing about comprehending the process of translation; and at those
same cyberspace watering holes there is also constant talk and chatter
about other real world concerns with which the august leaders of our professional societies
and associations need not bother their little heads. After all, in the
land of milk and honey, such detritus as economics, business, income
and expenses are of zero importance. Truly, in the world of professional milk and honey, professionals do not soil their hands with pecuniary matters.
A visit to one of the aforementioned watering holes will provide an
excellent insight into the brutal economics and demographics that mark
the real world of translation circa 2008. All one has to do is to peek
at the translation job or project offerings made on those websites. If
the offering prices were of the 1990's vintage, we would be damn
fortunate! On the contrary, the price offerings are in most cases
straight out of the 1970's and 1960's. Translation editors are offered
compensation that is out of the 1950's!!
The moaning and groaning by translators—especially veteran
practitioners—over the state of translation economics is growing louder
by the week, particularly by those based in western Europe and North
America. Those based in the United States appear to be moaning and
groaning the loudest, and for very good reason. The statistics
developed by none other than the American Translators Association
(that's right, you read that correctly: the American Translators
Association) bear solid witness to the fact that average freelance
translator earnings in 2007 U.S.A. are about on the plane of a
mid-level government clerk or lower middle-management corporate
Before we take a look at the only body of compensation-related
statistics that we have for the U.S. translation employment market, a
few preliminary comments are in order:
The compensation surveys undertaken in the past 6 or so years by the
ATA are in the opinion of this correspondent, one of the organization's
more worthwhile achievements. These surveys are arguably one of the
association's few incursions into the business of translation, for the idea that translation (and its sister endeavor, interpreting) is a business is virtually anathema to ATA officials and leaders. After all, when one is a professional laboring in a true profession, the mere mention of the word business is like holding up a crucifix to Dracula's eyes, that is, the Hollywood version of the real-life Romanian nobleman.
But as one now-retired ATA official told me a while back, "The ATA
Board delights in issuing reports like the Compensation Survey, but
none of the members bother to read them, and worse, take the time to
understand what they really mean."
Having so prefaced, let's take a gander at some of these translator
income statistics developed in ATA's Compensation Survey for 2007. In
the first place, it must be borne in mind by the reader that this
survey was developed by using only ATA members as respondents. (More
accurately, 99.3% of the respondents were ATA members; 0.7% were
non-ATA members.) Furthermore, it is not clear whether the survey
questionnaire was sent to or obtained by members of ATA chapters or
affiliated organizations who are not members of ATA. And of course, we
do not have figures for translators who are neither members of ATA nor
of ATA chapters or affiliated organizations. Nonetheless, a fair
assumption can be made that the figures shown in ATA's 2007
Compensation Survey are a reasonable reflection of the entire American translation and interpreting industry.
Another important caveat to keep in mind is that the survey combines income earned from both translation and
interpreting. This is clearly one of the major flaws of this survey in
that it may be providing us with erroneous or misleading data. We know
(1) that many translators are not interpreters, and many interpreters
are not translators; (2) that in the past seven or so years translation
has experienced severe downward price pressures, much of it stemming
from globalization and the increased use of computer-assisted
translation ("CAT") tools, while fees for interpreting services have
either held steady or slightly increased.
The biggest segment of the American translation and interpreting
industry is composed of the full-time independent freelance
practitioner (52%). The next largest is the part-time independent
freelance segment with 28%. Therefore, the survey only confirms what
many of us have known for years: that the freelance (or independent)
translator (and/or interpreter) forms the backbone of the industry. And
given that, this author will focus almost exclusively upon that
There was a time not too long ago when an experienced freelance
translator in the U.S. could be and in many cases was the prime
breadwinner of the family. I personally knew many such translators. If
the average income figure arrived at in the ATA's 2007 Compensation
Survey for an independent freelance translator is anywhere close to
reality, and I for one believe it is, then the day of the prime
breadwinner freelance translator in America has gone with the wind. The
2007 compensation survey reports that the average gross earnings (from translation and/or interpreting services) of a full-time freelance translator in 2006 was $60,423. This is the average for translators having anywhere between 1 and 21 years (or more) of experience. The average gross earnings
(from translation and/or interpreting services) of a full-time
freelance translator in 2006 with 21 years or more of experience was $69,883.
Now, it must be pointed out that the figure of $60,423
is the average gross earnings of five (5) years-of-experience
categories established by the survey-takers, with the lowest (1-to-5
years' experience) being $41,947 and the highest (21+) being $69,883. And
these two latter figures are themselves averages, which means that with
respect to the category of more-than-21-years experience, there were
those who earned above $69,883, and likewise those who earned below $69,883.
This latter figure tells us a story, a very important story. In 21st century America, a gross annual income of $70,000 is not prime breadwinner money. Let
us not lose sight of the fact that the earnings reported by the ATA
Compensation Survey for independent (freelance) translators are not salaries or wages, but business income, from which business expenses must be deducted.
And from the resulting difference, one must further deduct Federal
income tax (and State income tax, whenever applicable), plus
self-employment tax (i.e., social security/Medicare contributions).
Thus, an independent (freelance) translator with just two dependents
earning $60,423, would be left with approximately $45,000 - $48,000 after deducting business expenses and mandated income taxes and social contributions. And
it is safe to say that a person with just 2 dependents and an annual
income in the range of $45,000-$48,000 would probably fall into that
mass of people who are without basic health-care insurance. It is also
safe to say that someone with 2 dependents earning between $45,000 and
$48,000 is fairly close to being a candidate for food stamps (according
to Federal labor statistics, a person earning $45,000 a year with 4
dependents is below the poverty line).
In other words, very clear other words, an annual income of $70,000 is at best the income of a co-breadwinner. More
so in the case of someone earning $60,000, which as pointed out
constitutes the average earnings for all freelance translator
categories. But in today's realm of economic realities, those figures (of $60,000 and $70,000 gross) are probably nothing more than a household supplementary income. Notwithstanding the bellowing by translators that theirs is a profession, the above figures and all of the other figures shown in the 2007 compensation survey don't look exactly like professional earnings.
Now then, let us return to the average earnings of $60,423
for a full-time freelance translator, and place that next to another
statistic developed in the 2007 compensation survey, namely the
percentage of female translators: 68.6%.
This juxtaposing of average annual earnings of ca. $60,000 in an industry where ca. 70% are women should also tell us a story.
Despite the significant advances made by women in the job market and
in the various professions in the past 25 or so years, and despite the
average overall increase in employment earnings of women in that same
period, women still lag behind men in income and still lag behind them
in the category of prime breadwinner.
Given these figures, one must ask whether the translation industry
has become the domain of the educated homemaker-mother, whose language
skills are able to provide either a co-income or supplementary income
to the household. Indeed, these income figures will make a few of us
recall a controversial piece written about a decade ago: "Translation:
An ideal occupation for women."
"We are a little people, and like little people
we think like little people"
(Prince Faisal of Arabia, as portrayed by Alec Guinness in
"Lawrence of Arabia")
The per-word unit has for at least one hundred years been the basis
for determining a translator's fee, particularly in the U.S. Although
there have been suggestions and even isolated attempts to change this
basis, it has remained the dominant form in translation services
The natural efficiencies of the computer allowed for the
corresponding increases in translator productivity, and that increased
productivity kept the per-word unit firmly in its position as the
dominant basis for determining translation fees. Since the time that
the computer became the principal production tool, no one has
questioned the practice of charging for repetitive words or phrases or
entire passages that were very similar but not precisely identical. The
concept and the predominant thinking was that a translator's time had to be compensated even though the translator was not actually translating words, but merely blocking, copying, pasting and comparing and/or verifying.
But the advent of the computer-assisted translation ("CAT") tool and
its widespread implementation has dramatically changed the economic
playing field, and translators, particularly those who are relatively
new to the industry, have readily accepted the notion that they should
be paid solely and exclusively for words translated only once, and that
their time and knowledge applied to moving words and re-positioning
phrases or components of phrases, i.e., data movement, to provide
complete and accurate communication has absolutely no remunerative value. Like livestock marching in willing resignation and without protest to the slaughtering pens, the translators of the 21st century are seemingly doing likewise.
To this correspondent, it is not a question of what brought about
this change in thinking that translators should be compensated only for
so-called "new words" or that bastard sibling called "fuzzy matches,"
but rather who has promoted this concept and who is benefiting most by its application.
To many in the freelance community, the "villains" are clearly the
translation agencies, now predominantly in the hands of language-blind,
profit-focused and marketing-focused businesspeople. The few
translation agency owners who are willing to speak about this issue,
say that it is the translation clients who are forcing this change upon
the translation agencies in an effort to lower translation costs, and
therefore the agencies have no choice but to pressure freelance
translators into accepting compensation solely for "new words"
translated...at prices that would have looked attractive in 1978!
Added to the mix are the attitudes of translator organizations,
which have become more and more fascinated by machines and attendant
technology than with the resulting economic impact. Worse, some of them
have jumped into bed with the manufacturers of CAT and other
translation-assisted tools, blindly but gleefully accepting handsome
advertising revenues. In addition, translation organizations have
encouraged their members to use this technology on the sole grounds
that it provides for increased efficiency and productivity, although no
studies have been sponsored or undertaken to determine what if any
efficiencies are actually achieved, save for the efficiency of
increasing profits at one end and lowering compensation at the other.
Indeed, if CAT and other so-called translation-assisted tools are
providing such increased productivity, then why is it that so many
translators are complaining about longer hours of work and less
compensation? Something don't smell right here.
The United States is now moving into a major economic recession, but
a recession that is coupled with rising inflation. Every single one of
us is now feeling the effects of this inflation, as prices for basic
goods and services are increasing dramatically across the board. Yet,
translation prices have dropped and translator income has remained
relatively stagnant. And if we place any credence in the complaint that
translators worked longer hours to earn in 2007 what they earned in
2006 or 2005 or 2004, then in effect what we have is a reduction in income.
If there is any veracity in the translation industry's current
economic indicators, then perhaps the time has come for all to ask
themselves whether translation is an endeavor in which a person can
earn a supplemental income at best, and whether it is an industry that
constitutes a welcoming harbor and nurturing environment solely for
"housewives" (desperate or proverbial), and one in which most of the
practitioners are quite willing to march to their own slaughtering pens.
by Bernie Bierman
This article was originally published in The
Gotham Translator, a publication of the New York Circle of Translators.