How much do freelance translators really make per hour?
This is something that is really difficult to establish. We can measure the earning potential based on the word count per hour, but some people translate three hundred words, and some more than five hundred words per hour. The same person will also translate more or fewer words depending on how well he knows the subject area and how well he can perform on a given day.
I can finish fairly large junks of text early in the morning when the world is still asleep, but after that I have to take longer and longer breaks, pretty much regardless of how complex the translation is, and I usually take a nap in the afternoon, or go for a walk with my dog to refresh what Hercule Poirot called “leetle gray cells”.
And herein lies the problem: nobody can translate for hours on end without a break. If you deliver for example vegetables to supermarkets, your work will involve a lot of loading of crates with spinach and broccoli, driving, unloading, flirting with the girl at the cash register …. in short, many different segments with different types of work and numerous breaks between them. You can probably continue working for 4 hours until your lunch break without becoming very tired.
But if you sit frozen in the typing position on your behind looking at a page in a foreign language and typing your translation in English or another language, and try to do it for 4 or more hours without a break, it will drive you crazy. Your body would not like it, and your brain in particular would refuse to cooperate.
The variable that is often not taken into consideration when people are calculating how much a translator can make per hour is the fact that most translators can translate only a certain number of hours per day, or rather per a period of 24 hours, which must be also true about other types of work requiring a very high level of concentration, while sitting in one place and typing.
Considering that most translators work in a home office where there are usually many distractions – news on TV and radio, blogs on the Internet, e-mails that one has to keep checking because they could be from customers, phone calls from scammers that have to be answered because they could be from potential customers – I am generally lucky if I can translate about 6 hours a day. On the plus side, these distractions make the life of a freelance translator a little bit more tolerable, with the exception of intrusive phone calls.
Sometime I will translate 8 or more hours per day, but to do that, I have to be working on a brutal deadline and I really have to force myself, which means that next day I usually have to take it easy, unless it is a very long translation with a very brutal deadline, in which case I have to continue abusing my body and my brain until exhaustion.
When I finish the translation, I have to proofread it, and translators generally don’t get paid for proofreading their own translations. Since I have to try to keep up a very high level of concentration if I want to catch most of my mistakes and typos when I proofread, I can’t go on for many hours while proofreading either.
We of course also have to prepare invoices, respond to e-mails, and do other types of work for which our sole remuneration is the knowledge that we did our best to keep our business functioning reasonably well for another day.
So if we translate for example on average 500 words an hour and usually charge 15 cent per word, a realistic formula to calculate our earning potential is not 500 words x 0.15 cents = 75 dollars x 8 hours = 480 dollars a day. A more realistic formula would be 480 dollars : 0.7 = 336 dollars per day (30% deducted for unpaid tasks like proofreading and other ancillary tasks and research), provided that we have work. Which would mean that at that rate, one could make about 80 thousand dollars, if one worked about 20 days a month.
I think that this is about how much a translator who is fairly busy working mostly for translation agencies at the above rate can make (15 to 18 cents a word is probably the average rate that translation agencies will pay for languages like Japanese, 13 to 15 cents for European languages such as French or German, as far as I can tell).
But of course, some days we will have no work at all. Many days in fact when we are talking about freelance work. One way to change the variables in the equation is to cut out the middleman. This is probably the only way if we are talking about a significantly higher rate. Without the middleman, the rate can be multiplied by a ratio of at least 1.5, and many translators have done that, although probably not most.
Since I have been working as a freelance translator for more than a quarter century, I try to look at the realities of the life of a freelance translator from a slightly different perspective. Instead of putting the emphasis on how much I can make by the hour and how many hours of work I can squeeze out of a 24-hour day, why not put the emphasis on the “breaks” between working and treat the working hours as an interlude between the really important things that we translators can do in and out of our offices?
If I refuse crazy rush jobs with brutal deadlines, and as a freelancer whose children are now all grown up, I am now free to do so, this will give me the freedom to read a book, watch a movie, or to go for a walk or to a restaurant, while at the same time I am still able to translate enough words per day to pay the bills.
For me, the important question is no longer about how much I can make per hour and how many working hours I can fit into my day, while both my body and my soul are taking the punishment year after year, decade after decade.
The really important question is whether and how much I enjoyed both the hours when I was working, and the hours when I was avoiding work because I found that I had better things to do, at least for a while, like walking the dog, reading a book, watching a movie, or writing a silly post for my blog.
Because none of us knows how many hours are still left in the remainder of our life.