How much do freelance translators earn? Is it enough?

Beginning freelance translators often want to know (understandably) how much they can expect to earn in our industry. Experienced freelance translators often want to know (understandably) whether they are earning enough for the effort they put into their businesses. So, what do freelance translators earn?

  • The American Translators Association does a compensation survey every few years: you can purchase the entire report here or read the executive summary for free. The dates here are a little confusing: the data tables in the summary say that they are from 2006, the file itself is named 2007 and the executive summary appeared in the ATA Chronicle in February 2008. According to this survey, the average full-time freelancer makes a little over $60,000; but US-based respondents reported a large income disparity according to whether or not they are ATA-certified (average income of $72,000 for certified translators and $53,000 for non-certified).
  • The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has some information too, and it’s even more disparate. The BLS reports that in May 2008, the average salary for translators and interpreters was about $38,000 (yikes), with the highest 10 percent earning over $69,000 and the average federal government language specialist earning an average of $79,000.
  • PayScale.com has some snapshot info about translators and interpreters, and it’s also broken down by years of experience.

I think that the issue with most of these surveys is that they are not specific enough to individual situations. For example, is someone who works 35 hours a week and takes 6 weeks of vacation full time or part time? Is someone who works at a client’s office 2 days a week and works for freelance clients 3 days a week self-employed or in-house? Should translation volume be taken into account? If you earned $130,000 last year but you worked 70 hours a week with no vacation, should your income be pro rated to a 40 hour work week with 4 weeks off? You get the picture!

Anecdotally, I think that most of the above-referenced surveys are slanted toward the low end of the market. Back in 2008, I wrote a blog post on Secrets of Six-Figure Translators, and since then I’ve talked to many more freelancers who’ve either stated or conveyed that they earn over $100,000 a year. I think that if you’re very good at what you do and you market yourself fairly assertively, there is enough work out there to earn at least $75,000 a year as a freelance translator even if you work with a mix of agencies and direct clients. I’d say that at this point, all of the translators I know who work exclusively with direct clients earn at least $100,000 a year.

But the real question when it comes to income is: is it enough? The “is it enough” question involves a lot of subjective factors, because it ties into the subsidiary question of whether you’d be doing better if you had a different job. Here’s where the subjectivity comes in. For example in my case:

  • I’m reasonably happy with my income as compared to how much I work. I earn more than the ATA average and my sense is that I work less (maybe even a lot less) than most freelancers do, partly because of my family and non-work commitments and partly because I think I’m more productive at 30ish hours per week. However when I look at how the benefits of my husband’s in-house job (company-funded retirement plan, insurance, paid vacation, and so on) add up, it’s a reality check. If I deduct 15.3% self-employment tax (which I only pay on about half my income since I have an S-Corp), 4-6 weeks unpaid vacation and my self-funded retirement plan from what I make, the bottom line is decidedly different.
  • But, then there are the subjective factors. I love where we live, and there are very, very few in-house jobs in our area for what I do. The only reasonable option, working for a government agency, would involve driving over an hour each way and a relatively inflexible schedule. It’s very important to me to have a work schedule that meshes with my daughter’s school schedule at least until she is old enough to be home alone. Realistically, if I wanted an in-house job that was close to my house and that would offer a similar level of flexibility to freelancing, I would probably be looking at earning less than half what I make now.

“Enough” also depends on where and how you live. $75,000 sounds like a decent chunk of money, but if you are not incorporated and thus pay self-employment tax on that entire amount, live in a nice apartment in a major city, have a car loan or student loan or credit card payment and fund your own health insurance and retirement, that amount goes pretty quickly. On the other hand if you live in a fairly rural area, are debt-free or close to it and practice freelance frugality, you could probably be saving 50% of your after-tax income if you gross $75,000 or more.

Readers, over to you…thoughts on the income issue?

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