Posted by: patenttranslator | June 14, 2015

The Pyramid of Translation Rates and Your Place in It

Some people think that Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens from faraway planets. But I think it is more likely that an ancient architect came up with the concept of the structure of a tomb worthy of a pharaoh because it reflected so perfectly the structure of the society at the time.

Pyramid of classes in Egypt

In my scholarly analysis today, I will try to address the issue of different rates that are paid to translators for their work by likening the pyramid of the different types of translation rates in “the translation industry” to the social pyramid based on the roles and functions of different people and professions that existed already some 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt.

At the bottom of the pyramid in ancient Egypt were slaves who had to perform the most arduous tasks while working basically for food. They were also the ones who had to build the pyramid for dead pharaohs from huge blocks of stone that they had to move across the desert on primitive tools before the invention of wheel (unless we believe the theory that all of this work was done by space aliens who later vanished without a trace).

The job of peasants, who were positioned just one layer above the slave class in the pyramid of ancient Egyptian society, was to work hard in order to feed everybody, from the slaves to the pharaohs.

In the next layer were craftsmen, merchants were in the layer just above the craftsman class, still higher up were scribes, while soldiers, who were making sure that everybody obeyed orders, were in the next class. The soldiers were controlled by government officials, who were mostly priests and nobles. The highest government official, called vizier, was appointed directly by the pharaoh and the pharaoh was at the top of the pyramid as a supreme ruler of all people in ancient Egypt.

If it occurred to you that the structure of human society has not really changed all that much, mutatis mutandis, since the times of ancient Egypt over the last five thousand years, I would have to agree with your conclusion.

But instead of trying to recreate the social pyramid in modern society, in which a pharaoh would be replaced by a few billionaires ruling from the top through government officials, who make sure through politicians, soldiers and judges that the peasants and workers at the bottom of the pyramid don’t get too lazy – the only class that is missing in modern society would be probably the class of slaves – I will try to apply the social pyramid of ancient Egypt to the pyramid of rates paid by different kind of clients to translators in modern society.

The topic of rates is always very popular with translators. Translators discuss rates in discussion groups online and on their blogs with fierce passion and with a firm conviction that their version of where the true rates really are is in fact the correct one. To my surprise, even each of the last two issues of the ATA Chronicle (American Translators Association) had an article about translation rates, although the issue was described only in very generalized terms.

What I think is missing in many of these discussions and articles is that translators often talk about a market for translation is if there were only a single market for translators, when in reality, there are many markets for translation, or many layers of a pyramid of rates, if you will, which resemble quite closely the pyramid of relationships between different strata of the society in ancient Egypt.

Direct Client-Pharaoh

Just like everybody worked for a pharaoh in ancient Egypt, everybody works for a client, ultimately a direct client, in the contemporary translation market. The customer, namely a direct customer, is therefore the pharaoh who sits on the top of my pyramid of translation rates.

But although it is the customer-pharaoh who determines the amount that will be paid for a given translation, there are many intermediate layers in the pyramid of rates, and the amount that will be paid to a translator is determined mostly based on the level to which a translator is assigned in this pyramid.

Cloud Workers-Slave Translators

On the bottom of the pyramid are so called cloud workers, a very popular term in the contemporary translation industry, because, just like the slaves in ancient Egypt, cloud workers are expected to work for free, or for such a pitifully small amount that it would barely suffice to buy bread and clean, drinkable water.

It is interesting how the concept of slavery, which can be basically defined as having to work for free, survived all those millennia, only to be gratefully resurrected and skillfully converted in the modern Internet-based industry into the contemporary concept of so called cloud workers.

Peasant Translators

Translators who work or might be working one day for agencies as post-processors of the machine translation detritus would correspond to the class of peasants in ancient Egypt. They can probably afford to eat slightly better food once in a while if they work very hard, although their diet is likely to be mostly meatless, even though they are not aspiring vegetarians, because just like peasants a few thousand years ago, the reimbursement for their drudgery will be only very modest.

Merchant and Craftsmen Translators

Translators who work as real translators for various translation agencies, rather than as mere post-processors, would correspond in this pyramid to the merchants and craftsmen of ancient Egypt. Some of these translators are paid relatively well, although most of them are not.

Because the translating merchants and craftsmen live in different countries and work for translation agencies in different countries, there are many different variables in this layer of the pyramid of translation rates. These modern variables did not exist in ancient Egypt, where the level of compensation probably depended only or mostly on the level of the skill of the merchant or craftsman since all Egyptians lived in the same country and worked for the same pharaoh.

A few cents per word may not be a bad rate for a translator living in Brazil or Thailand, but the same rate would not suffice to pay for necessities of a translator who lives in Western Europe or North America.

Different rates are also paid to this class of translators by different translation agencies. Translators who work for translation agencies located in third world countries are typically paid low rates, as are translators who work through “Internet portals”, who are typically paid considerably lower rates than those who work for agencies specializing in a field in which good translations are highly prized by end-clients, such as translations of patents.

Scribe Translators

I would like to think of myself as a translator who, after 28 years, is positioned at least at a level that would correspond to the level of the scribes in ancient Egypt. Because my rates are relatively high (from the viewpoint of a translation agency), I only work for translation agencies that are located in relatively affluent countries – in United States and Western Europe (although I used to work also for translation agencies in Japan more than a decade ago).

A good percentage of experienced and highly qualified translators would probably correspond to the layer of scribes in the pyramid of professions in old Egypt, although many more translators would be probably classified as translator-peasants.

Soldiers and Auditors

Soldiers and auditors would in what is called the translation industry correspond to translation agencies and their PMs, or project managers who work for translation agencies. Just like in Egypt under the pharaohs, some PMs-soldiers are paid very well, although most are probably paid even less than the translator-scribes, only slightly more than translator-peasants.

In spite of the mostly meager salary, their job is important because they need to enforce and maintain discipline in the ranks of various types of translators, from the cloud-based slaves and post-processing translator-slaves, to the translator-scribes.

Auditors, who would correspond to translation agency operators or owners, are paid well if they understand the business and know how to run it – but they can also easily go bankrupt if they make too many stupid mistakes.

Viziers, Priests and Nobles

You had to be a vizier in ancient Egypt, or at least a priest or a noble, if you wanted to be able to deal directly with the pharaoh.

One difference between ancient Egypt and the world in 2015 is that you don’t really have to be a vizier, or at least a priest or a noble, if you want to be able to work directly for a direct client-pharaoh in what is referred to as “the translation market”.

You just need to be able to find out where your direct client-pharaoh is hiding and figure out how to offer your translation directly to your pharaoh-client.

After 28 years of trying to solve this puzzle, I am happy to say that most of my clients are now pharaohs. Every direct client willing to pay my rate is a pharaoh as far as I am concerned – although I also work on the scribe level for PMs-soldiers working for the pharaohs indirectly through translation agencies, who could thus be also classified as soldiers based on my pyramid of occupations in what is called the translation industry.

I hope my modest contribution to the passionate discussion about translation rates will help some translators to realize that there is no such thing as “the market”. There are many translation markets in this world, at least as many as there were in the pyramid of occupations in Egypt under pharaohs, and if you entered the market on the level of a slave or a peasant, you can’t expect to be making enough money to even feed yourself, let alone a whole family if you are still stuck at that level.

Whether you are working on the level of a slave, peasant, craftsman, or a scribe or a vizier is in fact much more important than what language you happen to be translating and what kind of expertise you may have and in what field.

Since things did change a little bit in the configuration of human society in the last five thousand years, instead of wasting your time on complaining about the miserable rates that you are being offered as a translator-peasant or even translator-craftsman, try to skip a layer or two in the pyramid of rates and become at least a translator-scribe, if not a vizier who gets the best rates simply because he deals directly with his pharaoh-client.


  1. So much wisdom before starting a new week ! 🙂


  2. It must be overwhelming. 🙂


  3. I loved this post! It’s in your top five best ever, for me at least.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Jesse. You made my day.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I just came here to say you have written a master-piece and I will keep this with me to remind myself of what I need to do to advance in the industry later, and to remind myself of the realities of the pyramid!

        I’ve read ~100 of your posts, and I vote this in as a top 5 too! 😉

        Recently I started feeling that I am being made to slave for very little, while receiving little actual direct support.

        The tools at our disposal for using our Goggel translation environment (G–T–T) are so crappy that I am writing my own, and I might jump into web development in a few years if I can’t get a better-paying translation job.

        I’d like to really develop my skills, but I have the sense that my LSP would prefer to keep me a stupid sheep to receive their smallish salaries. I am getting to know a Pharaoh or two, and perhaps I can contact them directly at a later point … ? The chain I am a part of, is quite open – I wonder how much Goggel is paying the 1st link in the chain though O_O

        Goggel -> LSP1 -> LSP2 (for whom I work, but no contract, just pay-check to pay-check)

        In any case I do greatly appreciate that I do have a fixed paycheck in exchange for hard work, being that I am a kind of PM / translator from day to day. However, no doubt in my mind that they will hope I am not doing TOO much on the career side, or else I would certainly move on to greener pastures within a few years 🙂

        Anyway, in my humble opinion, cloud translation is preferable to spending a year at home training to become a translator, and I think it would be a better alternative to do a cloud translation job for 3 years, even if it’s just $500-1000 a month, than doing a 3 year translation degree. Of course, the best way would be to get a decent-paying job right off the bat – I was able to do that because there was a huge demand for my language combination.


      • Thank you so much for your comment, FTP.

        You are rambling a little bit today, but that’s OK. I get the drift, hope that you will continue reading my silly blog and commenting once in a while, and wish you luck wherever the fate and your whim will take you.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Some people think that Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens from faraway planets. But I think it is more likely that an ancient architect came up with the concept of the structure of a tom…  […]


  5. Interesting (and flattering!) analysis, Steve. I imagine it’s thought-provoking for those keen to up their game. Nice work.

    That said, I am not sure the “Viziers, Priests and Nobles” are that small in number. I think many are simply not visible to us. Others may, upon graduation to this class, decide to withdraw from situations where their place on the pyramid is visible to outsiders, either as a result of circumstances or conscious intent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Unfortunately, the priests and viziers are small in number.

      But I am hoping that their number will grow. The agencies are becoming so oppressive that the only way to deal with them effectively is when you don’t have to deal with them at all.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Steve Vitek said, “… the only class that is missing in modern society would be probably the class of slaves.”

    Don’t dismiss this so fast: there may still be slaves among us. A couple years ago, I read a prediction that, as translation agencies learn ever more refined ways to exploit CAT tools to squeeze a few more pennies out of translators, they would likely find a way to push rates down to zero. I scoffed. Naïve me. Let me explain.

    Although I spend most of my time in the scribe and vizier layers, I was amused to get a request through Proz last week to sign up with a certain agency that shall remain nameless. Curious to see it operated, I responded. When it sent me a “discount grid” for matches, I made it clear that I do not give such discounts, since I translate the meanings of language in context rather than replacing individual words. At most, I said, I’d be open to negotiating a discount for 100% matches. I did this in the past as a courtesy discount to clients I liked even before I had a CAT tool.

    Well, well, well, wouldn’t you know it, the agency responded by saying “We pay our translators 0% for 100% matches.” Yep, that’s right: zero, zilch, nada. Since this agency also requires the translator to use its large translation memories, I suspect a substantial portion of the matches would be 100%. Its editors, on the other hand, are instructed to make sure to “pay required attention to 100% matches” in reviewing the work that the slave translators do.

    Since I often claim that such interactions can be a chance for “client education,” I responded with tremendous restraint by pointing out that the translator also has to pay required attention to 100% matches and should therefore be compensated for the time and intellectual effort required through all stages of the translating process. Furthermore, I pointed out, “discount” does not mean “freebie”: if I go to a “discount store,” I doubt the manager would allow me to fill up my shopping cart and walk out without paying *something*, right? If I insisted that I learned from this translation agency that “discount” means “no charge,” I suspect I’d be invited to step into a police car or an ER van under suspicion of a mental breakdown.

    So there you have it: modern-day slavery in the translation hierarchy.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Yes, I know, that’s why used the qualifier “probably”, Crafty One.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. As always, Steve, a very enjoyable read. You are clearly a philosopher at heart 🙂
    As to slavery, I think it is more prevalent today than it ever was, although today’s slaves appear to be more like the traditional serfs (although I don’t think this necessarily equates to a step up in society’s hierarchy).

    Owning a slave meant one had to purchase, house, feed and motivate them (usually with the threat or application of a whip: “pour encourager les autres”, in order to exploit their labour and intelligence.

    From a business point of view, this is clearly quite inefficient.
    Using economic constraints like structured poverty (thus limiting actual and social mobility) and the fear of starvation, works much better.
    I don’t need to tell translators how prevalent this is today, indeed, it seems to be the foundation upon which the ‘success’ of both traditional and modern of c(r)apitalism is based. Those on the winning side call it exploiting opportunity; those on the losing side see it as exploitation of the weak by the strong.

    It is no accident, methinks, that although Dutch society today is among the more advanced, egalitarian and civilised of western countries, the Dutch word used for ‘operating’ a business is ‘exploitatie’, dating back to at least the fifteenth century. A person operating the business is called an ‘exploitant’.
    History has a way of explaining the present and even give us a glimpse of the future 😦 Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose……

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Another very good article. Thank you, Steve.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this on Translator Power.


  11. Excellent post. You are on the top of your game, as usually!!!!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Sometimes life is all about the song you sing.”
      Grandma Ettie


  12. I am going to post the link to this at my


  13. Love your posts! This one is a particularly good read – thank you!


  14. […]… […]


  15. Dear Steve, we are preparing some slides for a Facebook page to talk about fees, we made a small summary in Spanish of your post and placed a link for people to read it in full. When We have it ready I will send the link. Thanks for such a piece!!! Lorena

    Liked by 1 person

  16. […] Clearly, not everybody can be a member of a super-smart and exceptional elite, since the very concept of “elite” is based on the premise that only a few chosen ones among us can to reach the exalted position on the top of the pyramid of translation rates. […]


  17. […] with Lawyer-Linguist Suzanne Deliscar Why translation is the fastest-growing career in the US The Pyramid of Translation Rates and Your Place in It What to ask your client before starting a translation Don’t Be Too Hard On Clients Who Ask To […]


  18. Well, the more publicity for this useful blog post, the better. I have just shared it with my 750+ LinkedIn contact persons, in both English and Spanish, for a maximum exposure – with hashtags… Thank you for the link.

    P.S. Blogs with a button for reblogging, in my opinion, automatically give permission to reblog. I can’t see why there is so much fuss about this. To the contrary, humble and obscure translators, lost in the translation market, should be grateful for a maximum exposure of their silly posts… 🙂


    • And anyway, as far as I know, there is no law ruling about reblogging, so that’s it…

      Only translators like to “split hairs”, it seems… :-/


    • I agree. But I think that one should always ask for permission to translate and publish first.


  19. Yes, he asked for permission an I gave it to him.


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