Posted by: patenttranslator | February 13, 2011

The Infernal Netherworld of the Chronically Underemployed Translator

This post started as a response that I wrote to a questions posed to me by Sophia Ozog, a blogger in France who is also a translator and project manager:

The question was:

“I think it must be really hard to build a positive reputation and raise your rates when you started really low. I’ve always been told that starting at decent rates was the best way to make a decent living in the long run. What do you think?”

My answer was:

“It’s OK to start low, although it’s better not to, of course. If you do start low, and many or most people probably have to in order to get some experience, you can really only raise your rates significantly by working for a different type of client, which means making the switch from agencies to direct clients. I worked only for agencies from 1987 until about 1990. At this point only about 15% of my income comes from agencies.

I think it’s OK to work for agencies if they are fair and pay decent rates, and some are like that, although not too many. But it’s not OK to depend on them for most of your income. For one thing, you won’t make any money. There won’t be really that much left after the agencies get their cut and after you pay your taxes.

But even more importantly, you are not the master of your destiny if your income depends on a middleman. If you have your own business, you should be working for yourself, not for a broker. If you need a broker to sell what you know, you are not really a business owner …. you are just a temp!

A temporary employee who works only when he or she is needed, for low wages and with absolutely no benefits. As a temp, you are not officially counted among the unemployed. But you are not exactly employed either. You are in the infernal netherworld of the underemployed. And that is not a good place to be. Although some might say that in these trying times, it is still better than being in the infinitely more infernal netherworld of the chronically or permanently unemployed, and it would be hard to argue with that.”

The truth is, no matter how long you have been translating, there will be longer or shorter periods of time when you will have very little or no work most years. The only exceptions are long projects which may take months or years to complete. For some translators, it may be a book. I translated a few books from Japanese in the nineties. Books can be interesting projects but … the pay tends to be low compared to technical translation, for example. There are all kinds of other types of long projects which may take months or years. Major lawsuits involving many boxes of documents in foreign languages, for example. I like projects like that because they can keep me going for months or even a couple of years. But if you don’t watch it, a long project can be also a kiss of death if you don’t have other customers when the long project is finished. It is really hard to juggle a major project and other clients as well, but we have to remember that every project will come to an end, at which point the client may say: “Thank you very much, it has been nice knowing you, have a nice life”.

Which brings me back to the issue of “decent rates”. I am not sure what a decent rate is, it would depend on the person, but I think that I know the definition of a rate that makes it possible for translators to pay their bills over the long run. If you can pay your bills and your taxes when you have been working for four or almost four weeks out of a typical month, your rate is too low because, as I said above, no matter how long you have been translating, there will be longer or shorter periods when you will have little work. This is not actually my idea, a friend who has been running a small translation agency since 1978, which is 10 years longer than I have been in business, told me this.

If you can pay your bills, and your taxes, although you have been working only for about two weeks out of a month, you are charging a rate that will make it possible to survive the inevitable ups and downs that come with running a small translation business.

I am pretty sure that this is how it works in other freelance professions too.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by financial-translator, La Rassegna. La Rassegna said: ► The Infernal Netherworld of the Chronically Underemployed Translator: […]


  2. You’re right: as translators, we need to see ourselves more as businesses and less as linguists for hire.

    There was a time when I only counted work hours as those I spent on jobs for clients, but when I started taking into account all the time I spent on business-related activities, my perspective changed. All of a sudden I started taking all the tasks that form part of running a business (marketing, admin., training, etc.) seriously. It also made me rethink how I set my rates.

    Anyway, I like your blog and your taste in music — at the very least your random (?) clips serve as good fodder for procrastination to keep me from getting back to those tasks too soon!


  3. “… at the very least your random (?) clips serve as good fodder for procrastination to keep me from getting back to those tasks too soon!”

    I hope I will start a trend. Lots of people on blogs dealing with other issues than translation use music video clips.

    Let’s entertain each other!

    Life is short and then you die.


    • Well done! It looks like the trend is catching on:


      • I noticed.

        So where are your music videos, Rob Lunn?


      • My music videos? At this point, exactly nowhere.

        I’m more of a lingering presence than a creator of any kind of content, although maybe I could tweet links to clips on Twitter, my virtual hang out of choice of late.


  4. Hi Steve! Many thanks for sharing this great post again and continuing the discussion we had before on my blog. I read this article that might interest you:
    I really enjoyed it, I hope you will too! That’s a fun and yet shrewd read.




    • Hi Sophia:

      I think this guy is a salesman selling snake oil that heals everything. There is no shortage of experts like this on this side of the pond.

      If I doubled my rates overnight, I would go bankrupt because I would lose all my customers. No matter what all “gurus” say, there is such a thing as going rate.
      You can only increase your rate, even double it in some cases, if you go after a different market segment that is used to paying more.

      The important thing is selecting the market segment that is right for you. For instance, if you work only for agencies or mostly for agencies, you will be making only about 50% of what your work would be worth in a market segment without the middleman.


  5. Interesting article.

    I agree with the guy who said that our rates depend more on who we know than what we know.

    While every type of translation has its own rules, I think that translators have to decide early on whether they will go after the low end market or the high end market. The low end market has few barriers to entry and it is not that difficult to find work, which is why beginning translators usually concentrate only on this market segment. In my case it meant working for agencies at very competitive rates, starting in mid and late eighties. I did that for about the first three years.

    After that I went after the high end segment, which in my case meant patent law firms. Most of my business is from these clients now, although I still work for a few agencies, but only those that pay better rates and on time, which is probably a minority in the age of ridiculously low rate venues such as Proz, when discounts for CATs are considered de riguer by many agencies, etc.

    I think that there is a method to my madness and that it is probably applicable to other translation fields as well.


  6. […] I said in one of my blogs (don’t you love it when you can quote yourself?) the […]


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