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.
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.
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.
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.
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.