Secrets of six-figure translators

…with credit to Barbara Stanny, the author of Secrets of Six-Figure Women (which would be a good topic for a post too!)

Lately (and this impression was solidified at the recent ATA conference), I’ve noticed a very positive trend in our industry, that of the freelance translator earning over US $100,000 per year. Right now, I can think of at least five freelance translators I’ve talked to in recent months who have either insinuated or directly said that for 2008 they expect to break the six-figure income mark. Here, we’re talking about a) people who make the bulk of their income directly from translation, not from markups on subcontracting, and b) gross income, not net.

Now, I don’t have a gripe with how much I earn for how much I work; I will earn more than the average for full-time freelancers in the ATA this year, and I work about 35 hours a week during the school year and about 20 hours a week in the summer, with four to six weeks of vacation. However, I think that we can all learn a lot from six-figure translators and their attitudes toward their work. From my unscientific research, here are a few observations on what it takes to earn more than 100K per year as a freelancer.

First, I think that six-figure translators are actually a very diverse bunch. Some charge extremely high rates, some make very efficient use of technology like CAT tools and speech recognition, some work very long hours. So, I think it’s important to realize that there are a number of paths to 100K, it’s not all people working in a certain language or living in a certain place.

Next, I think that in order to reach six figures, there are a couple of non-negotiables: being very, very good at what you do, having a targeted specialization or working in a niche language, charging higher than average rates and being a businessperson/translator, not a translator/businessperson. For example, the average full-time freelancer might translate 400,000-600,000 words per year. If you charge 10 cents a word, you have to translate almost double that amount to reach six figures. But at 20 cents a word, 100K starts to look practically doable. So, although not everyone making six figures is charging very high rates (which I would define as 35-40 cents a word and up, and yes, there are people out there who are commanding those rates!), I would say that if you are not averaging at least 18 cents a word, you would have to work very long hours or very, very efficiently to reach six figures.

Six-figure translators are rarely, if ever, generalists. I think that the exception to this rule is people who work in languages where the pool of translators is small enough that people don’t tend to specialize. Partially, I think that this results from the fact that specialization is the key to attracting direct clients, and very few agencies in the U.S. are willingly going to pay 20+ cents per word for common languages; if you break the 100K mark, you are undoubtedly working either primarily or exclusively for direct clients.

Surprisingly, the six-figure translators I’ve met are not the over-caffeinated stress machines that one might imagine. Rather, they seem to love their work and be happy that they have coincidentally found a way to make what one of them described as “a ton of money” doing it. Six-figure translators also talk about money a lot. While I’m sure that no one is going to attend a translation event and broadcast the fact that they charge five cents a word, I do think that willingness to talk about rates is a good tool for setting/raising your rates; when you meet someone who is as busy as they want to be at double what you’re charging, it is a good incentive to push your own rates up.

Six-figure translators also seem to concentrate on clients who care about the quality of their translations and the level of service they receive, not just about things being on time and on budget (although I’m sure they care about that too!). In her presentation about marketing to direct clients, France-based French to English translator Chris Durban talked a lot about selling “a translation that reflects the quality of the company’s products and services,” which I thought was a great way to distinguish translation as a non-commodity.

So, whether you’re setting your sights on six figures for 2009 or whether you’d just like to earn a little more than you are now, I think that six-figure translators have a lot to teach all of us about the way we run our businesses.

34 Responses to “Secrets of six-figure translators”
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