Back in 2011, I wrote this post about how much freelance translators earn. After almost seven years, it’s still the most popular post on this site, with over 21,000 views. A reader recently sent me a series of questions about translator income:
“I’m in college and deciding whether to try to make a career as a freelance translator or interpreter. I’m wondering about income potential. How much do you think a freelance translator just starting out can expect to make? If it’s OK for me to ask, how much do you make? And how much of your income comes from translation versus other things? Do you feel downward price pressure from clients? How much do translators and interpreters with in-house jobs make?”
Those are all good questions, young translator, so let’s take a look at what I wrote in 2011 and do a bit of an update.
The most recent American Translators Association compensation survey is from 2015, using respondents’ self-reported income data from 2014. Anyone can read the executive summary here, and ATA members can read the full report here. If you just want the gross income takeaways, ATA-certified translators reported that they earned about $54,000 a year, and non-ATA certified translators reported earning about $45,000 a year. We (I say “we” here in that I’m the current ATA President) are always looking to refine the survey questions for the next time around. One case in point: the ATA survey allows users only to choose between “full time” and “part time” status, with no gradations therein. And, for example, I work about 35 hours a week with 6-8 weeks of vacation a year. I consider that full time, but a lot of people would call that part time. However, this survey gives a good snapshot of T&I income levels for people who are freelancers, private sector employees, government employees, educators, and company owners.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics also has data on translators and interpreters. Their average of $46,000 a year falls below the average reported by ATA-certified translators on the ATA survey, but above that of non-certified translators. There’s a big asterisk here–to my knowledge (which is certainly not always correct!), the BLS data excludes both independent contractors and government employees, which essentially means most translators in the US. ATA is approximately 70% independent contractors, and I’d venture a guess that federal employees are some of the higher-paid translators and interpreters in the US, so this data is certainly skewed if those exclusions apply.
The Authors Guild recently did a survey of literary translators’ income, and the German literary translators association did the same in Germany. You can read an interesting summary of the results of both surveys in Slator. The numbers there appear dismal, with two-thirds of respondents to the Authors Guild survey reporting that they earned less than $20,000 last year from literary translation. However, the catch is that only 7% of respondents reported that literary translation is their only source of income. Still, I think it’s safe to say that rates for literary translation were not stratospheric to start out with, and are not rising.
Just for kicks, you can also cruise sites like Glassdoor, and see what they think translators and interpreters are getting paid. When I did this just now, they seem to be using the BLS average as their reported average salary, but there are definitely some decently-paying jobs listed on there, in the $75,000-$90,000 a year range.
I don’t mind talking about what I earn. For context, here are my key stats from 2017:
-My gross income is in the low six figures and has remained steady for the past several years
-As mentioned above, I work about 35 hours a week and take 6-8 weeks of vacation
-In 2017, about 60% of my income came from translation and about 40% from book royalties, course registrations, and consulting
-I work almost exclusively with direct clients and individuals; at this point I have only two to three agency clients, and only one of those represents more than a few thousand dollars in income
-I do not make a concerted effort to increase my income, because I earn enough to meet my financial goals, and because a high quality of life, including significant amounts of time for my family and non-work interests, is very important to me
What’s the magic number?
In my opinion, many translators radically underestimate how much they need to earn in order to achieve a similar level of financial security to someone with a traditional job. One of the reasons I’ve pushed myself to earn in the low six figures is that that number gives me a level of financial security that I’m happy with. My family has savings. I can afford to take time off. I don’t worry about what would happen if I got sick and couldn’t work for three or six months. That was certainly not true when I started freelancing; but lots of translators get stuck in that rut. They’re perpetually in survival mode, one financial disaster away from taking on credit card debt or having to borrow money from family or friends to get by. After 15 years of freelancing, I don’t want that kind of worry. That’s part of the reason that I focus on direct clients whose budgets allow me to earn a healthy income.
At the same time, I think there’s nothing wrong with decreasing your living expenses so that you don’t need to earn a high income. With my daughter halfway through high school, I can see a point such as that in my own future–where I might make a deliberate decision to do something like rent our house out, hit the road for a year, and live off a lot less money. No problem there.
But for most freelancers, I’m going to say that in order to achieve a similar level of financial security to someone with a traditional job, you need to be earning in the range of $75,000-$90,000 a year, unless you have very modest financial needs or another source of income. I think that 75-90K is a good goal to aim for, and I think it’s realistic for most people who are good at the job, market themselves assertively, and make a concerted effort to move into higher-paying markets.
Finally, I see–among other translators I know and among students in my classes–a lot of income polarization in our industry. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. But I hear from some translators that they earn well into the six figures while working primarily or exclusively for their long-term clients, doing very little marketing, and not needing to work crazy hours. I hear from other translators that they struggle to earn enough to live on, despite doing what they perceive as a fair amount of marketing, and that they feel downward price pressure from nearly all of their clients. This is a complex issue and perhaps deserves its own post.
Over to you, readers. Thoughts on these income-related issues?