Posted by: patenttranslator | August 16, 2014

Is a Universal “Fair Translation Rate” Possible?


The subject of a “fair rate” or a “living wage” is often discussed with passion on translators’ blogs and on social media. At least one translation blog is dedicated entirely to this subject. As other professions are also demanding what is usually referred to as “a minimum wage”, a number of movements in several countries are establishing a higher minimum wage in some local jurisdictions. For example, the Seattle City Council, led by a young, outspoken immigrant with a pronounced Indian accent, voted in June of 2014 to raise the minimum wage to 15 US dollars per hour, and the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel has adopted a minimum hourly wage of about 22 US dollars for 2015, although a proposal to raise national minimum hourly wage to about 25 US dollars was recently soundly defeated by a national referendum in Switzerland.

But how can one determine what would be a “fair rate” or at least a “minimum rate” for translation? Indeed, it is a very complicated proposition, not least also because it would depend on the definition of terms such as “translation” and “translator”. Most people would probably say that machine translation is also “translation” (although MT is obviously not translation, just like words and phrases listed in a dictionary do not really constitute a translation). And since MT is generally available for free, that is the criterion that many people would use to determine the lower range of translation costs, and anybody can call himself or herself “a translator”.

Another reason why it is so difficult to determine what would represent a fair rate is the fact that translators live in every country on this planet, and there are almost 200 countries on planet Earth where the cost of living and living standards are very different.

A translation agency operator proposed in a recent discussion on social media the following formula for what would in his opinion be a universally good per-word rate for translation: “…. £0.06 ($0.10), which per source word does, undeniably equal £900 for 5 days of 3000 words. Somebody in a salaried position of £40k or more would often be expected to work long hours or even work Saturdays.

But the problem is that what would be a very decent rate in country A would be a substandard rate in country B, and a starvation rate in country C. A rate of 10 cents per word may be an excellent rate if you live in Bangkok, Thailand, nothing to sneeze at if you live in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and a substandard rate if you live in Palo Alto, California, or Geneva, Switzerland.

Because translators of just about any language may live in just about any country, translators living in areas with a low cost of living compete directly with those of us who live in countries and areas where the cost of living is much higher.

On top of that, the tax systems are also very different in different countries. Here is how a translator living in Holland evaluated what was “a good rate” in the opinion of the translation agency operator mentioned above: “GBP 900 a week (or EUR 1100 ) sounds fantastic, but let me break it down for you. The percentages below reflect an income equaling at GBP 0.06/word GBP 40k or EUR 50k. Where I live (Netherlands), anyone self-employed is legally required to pay taxes (about 35%), social security (13%), and health insurance (about 3%), – so that’s 51% off. If you have kids, you may also want private insurance for long-term income loss due to illness or disability (4%), and maybe a pension for later (10%, and that’s low). Making it a total of 65% off. GBP 900 is actually more like GBP 300 a week – not bad, but then there’s mouths to feed, the rent/mortgage, the car, and 4 weeks unpaid holiday.”

Although on surface, the taxes would appear to be lower here in the United States than in Holland, it is mostly just an illusion skillfully created by Democrats and Republicans, the only two parties that are in fact allowed to participate in the political process here (and for good reason – they both work for the same people)! While income taxes + social security taxes will eat up only about 30% of an average paycheck here, on top of that we also have to pay property taxes (such as real estate taxes that can be easily 10 times as high as the same taxes in some European countries), substantial state taxes and sales taxes (although the sales taxes are lower here than the VAT tax in Europe), and various local taxes.

In addition, the cost of healthcare is not covered by the taxes for most people here (at least not until you turn 65), although it is much, much higher than in any other country. For example medications can easily cost 5 times as much here as in Germany, and most bankruptcies in US are in fact due to inability to pay medical bills. Obamacare did not solve any of these problems as it only pushed the healthcare costs even higher when it gave virtually unlimited powers to private health insurance corporations. If you add it all together, the tax burden here is at least as high as in Holland, while the “safety net” is minimal compared to many European countries, or even to Canada or Australia.

In fact, I have never seen an objective comparison and breakdown of the burden of taxes in different countries, including what these taxes are used for. It must be one of the taboo subjects that regular people are not supposed to be able to think about and discuss, not even on the Internet, although I am sure that this is a subject that is being intensively studied and carefully analyzed in various “think thanks”.

Another factor complicating this subject is the fact that none of us can be sure how many “words” we will be translating during those 5 days in a given week mentioned in the shortsighted formula above, as some weeks it may be more than 20,000 words, and some weeks it may be less than 2,000 words.

But just because the subject of a “fair rate” or “living wage” for translators is so complicated does not mean that there is no such thing as a fair rate for you, and a living wage for me.

We all know how much we have to make to keep the wolf from the door. But it will be a different rate for different translators, depending on factors such as the language combination, what it is that we translate, where we live, and, most importantly, who our most important customers are.

For reasons mentioned above, and for other reasons as well, it would make no sense for me to start suggesting now what a “fair rate” would be. I know what the number would be for me, but I don’t know what it would be for you.

Generally speaking, it is quite difficult to make both ends meet if we only or mostly work for translation agencies, pretty much regardless of where we live, because many translation agencies generally want to pay to people who live in countries with a high cost of living the same low rates as those that are paid to translators living in third world countries.

Unlike employees who are tied to their place of employment, self-employed translators can move to a place where the cost of living is lower. I have moved to different countries several times already, the last time I moved across the country 13 years ago, but I found that the benefits of such a move are not as important as I thought they would be. The main difference between the area in California where I used to live for 19 years (San Francisco Bay Area) is in the cost of real estate, which was and still is much cheaper where I live now (Eastern Virginia).

Other costs are very similar, plus the weather in Bay Area can’t be beat, and you don’t even need to have air conditioning.

Moving to another country with a much lower cost of living is another solution, and some translators have done it and are very happy about their situation. But it is a drastic solution, a solution that can easily backfire. First of all, most people can’t really move very easily, except when they are still young, single, and childless. Uprooting yourself and your whole family in your middle age or even later may or may not work out the way it was intended, and it may be difficult to try to reverse the situation.

Secondly, it is not sure at all that if you move to another place or another country,  the same conditions will exist there as they are now in 5 or 10 years from now. For example, as the US dollar lost about 40% of its value relative to most European currencies since about the year 2000, it is really not possible to make calculations based on one’s current income in a given currency because currency fluctuations are completely unpredictable.

And even if the situation remains as it is now, if you move from a country with a high cost of living to a place where just about everything is much cheaper, let’s say from a first world country to a third world country, this may also mean that you will never be able to go back home because you would not be able to afford to live there anymore. Although self-employed translators have a big advantage in that unlike most people, they can move quite easily, even to a different country, there is a big difference between living somewhere because you want to live there, and living there because you can’t afford to live anywhere else.

A better solution is to look for and find clients who are willing and able to pay the rate that you need where you are living now. Fortunately, clients who pay rates commensurate with the level of expertise and education that is required from highly specialized translators in various specialized fields can still be found by those of us who do not look for “low-hanging-fruit” easily obtainable at miserly rates from many translation agencies and from a number of blind auction sites, only to then bitterly complain about the miserable rates paid by so many translation agencies and angrily demand a universally “fair” translation rate, which is in my opinion mostly just a Fata Morgana.


  1. My observations over time have taught me that (end) clients who need a quality translation, are more than willing to pay what we regard as fair ‘rates’ to either an agency or a translator who has a proven reputation for reliability and expertise. There is also considerable evidence that clients in ‘high cost countries’ generally demand ‘high quality translations’, and are consequently prepared to pay ‘premium rates’. This compensates to some extent for the cost differences between countries, although the wide-spread use of English/Spanish/Chinese militates against this in some respects.

    The first problem therefore, appears to be the ‘absorption’ by intermediaries of a disproportional share of what the market is prepared to pay’. Intermediaries are able to prosper because a large group of unqualified, poorly qualified, or indeed quite a number of highly qualified but lazy/ignorant translators, allows them to control the market. (Some even ignore the low-hanging-fruit and are only picking up the fruit that drops to the ground, Steve 🙂

    The second, but equally important reason why agencies prosper, is that end clients find it difficult if not impossible to identify and select a ‘properly qualified translator’ for their needs, so they seek to transfer the risk of picking the wrong one to an ‘expert’ agency. I wonder how that’s working for some of them?

    The solution (as demonstrated by any number of well-established professions) is to differentiate the ‘translation profession’ from the ‘translation industry’, i.e. from the aforementioned intermediaries and their SUBCONTRACTORS (incorrectly and with malicious forethought referred to as vendors by the former, and correctly calling themselves free-lancers, i.e. willing to carry a lance for another at the wage offered). Differentiation is achieved by collectively working towards ‘professionalisation’, i.e. developing a recognisable, professional profile for ‘qualified’ professional translators (Certified Language Professionals) Please see for further reading on the subject.

    The process of professionalisation creates a visible professional profile (like CPA), solving the second problem referred to above, and it creates a barrier to entry into the profession (the current absence of which is a main cause of our problems). The barrier to entry will eventually cause a reduction in the supply (of qualified/certified translators), ultimately leading to an increase in prices (correcting the first major problem referred to above).

    Nobody but well-qualified, professional translators (and their end clients) will benefit from this strategy, so we are the only ones with an interest in pursuing it. The forces arraigned against us are formidable, so looking for help or assistance elsewhere (e.g. whining and complaining to all and sundry about poor rates paid by agencies), is not only futile, but achieves the opposite effect QED.

    The first step is to do what we are supposed to be good at, i.e. getting our terminology right (the way we ourselves describe who we are and what we do). See:


    • Seconded. End-clients are more preferable than agencies as they tend to pay higher rate and don’t demand additional ‘fuzzy’ discounts.


  2. […] The subject of a “fair rate” or a “living wage” is often discussed with passion on translators' blogs and on social media. At least one translation blog is dedicated entirely to this subject. As ot…  […]


  3. Both of the terms, “fair rate” (i.e. piecework rates (per garment/kg – read word/line/page in the case of translators) paid to sweatshop workers and fruit pickers) and “living wage” (minimum wage determined and paid by a ‘beneficent’ but powerful employer who does not want his or her labourers to starve and become useless, but does not want them to get fat and lazy either :-), are clearly counter-productive to our effort to lift the professional profile/status of translators and improve their career prospects.

    Let’s start talking about “(sustainable) fees for the provision of professional services” instead. That’s right, personal, professional services are PROVIDED, not SOLD.
    We are not vendors as the language of many (corporate) agencies would have it, another description intended to reduce our status/profile that some of our colleagues appear to have blithely accepted.

    Remember, if you don’t have a plan of your own, you’ll become part of some else’s plan.


  4. […] Will) Show and tell: Forvo, online pronunciation guide ATA Business Smarts – The Midsummer Slump Is a Universal “Fair Translation Rate” Possible? Top 30 Jokes That Are So Bad They’re Funny 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to […]


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