This is a question I often see asked on social media, usually but not always by beginning translators or those who are relatively new to the profession.
I of course don’t have an answer to this question because the answer depends on many variables. It’s like asking the question: How much does an average writer make? Well, from nothing, to millions. And if you can sell the captivating plots of your books to Hollywood, it will be many more millions. So what is the average between zero and many millions?
There is no such thing.
How much does an average adult person weigh? Well, from about a hundred pounds, to maybe five or six hundred pounds. If you weigh more than that, you will probably not live for much longer.
The most important variables when it comes to a writer’s income are how many books said writer can sell and what cut the publishing house will take. We also know most of the variables determining how much people weigh: they depend mostly on how much and what we eat, drink, and move around, but also on our genes and metabolism, which in turn depend in part on our age, etc., and so on and so forth.
Although there is no answer to the question in the title of my silly post today, the variables determining translators’ income can be identified to some extent.
First of all, people who live off their own work will probably never make as much money as parasites who basically live off other people’s work, without really creating anything useful except a lot of money, mostly for themselves, by using a system that was custom-made for people like that, such as banksters on Wall Street.
A banker at a community bank may be doing a very useful and important job, unless he is a fraudster, and some of them are. As far as I can tell, Wall Street bankers mostly destroy value instead of creating it, as we saw in 2008 when they destroyed so much value that it resulted in a worldwide crisis from which they were then promptly bailed out by taxpayers, including translators.
As I said, it’s a system custom-made for them. The way they see it, they would be stupid not to use it for themselves, which means against us, regardless of how much damage they cause.
And they may be and are a lot of things, but stupid they are not.
Let’s turn now our attention to how much make people who live off their own work and do something useful, namely translators.
Some associations of translators regularly publish average rates and average incomes of translators who are members of these associations and who respond to regular questionnaires about incomes.
If I remember correctly, according to the ATA (American Translators Association) income surveys, the average income of an ATA member is about 40 thousand dollars, while a translator with ATA accreditation makes on average about 45 thousand dollars. (Please correct me if I have the numbers wrong).
I don’t know how sound and impartial ATA’s statistical methodology is. What I do know is that in 30 years of private practice as an independent translator, if I dare call it that, not a single direct client has ever asked me whether I was an ATA member, let alone an accredited one (I have been a member for 20 years, but I never bothered with certification).
So I would say the value of ATA certification for me personally is approximately zero because based on my personal experience, direct clients don’t even know there is something called ATA, which must be why they never ask me about it.
Personally, I would also hesitate to draw many conclusions from ATA’s statistics about our average incomes for a number of reasons. Apart from the very questionable definition of the term “translator”, which means that we may be comparing apples to oranges based on this term, not every translator is an ATA member, relatively few of them are ATA-certified, and not all ATA members respond to questionnaires about how much they make.
For example, I don’t participate in this survey because I don’t want ATA to know how much I make. It’s none of their damn business. I’m sure they say that the results are anonymous … yeah, right.
And if it turned out that non-accredited ATA members made more money than their accredited colleagues, would the ATA publish these results? Maybe, maybe not. I think the American Translators Association has a few conflicts of interest when it comes to the results of this particular survey of average incomes.
So far, ATA-accredited translators have been consistently ahead of their non-accredited brothers and sisters (in this survey) when it comes to how much they make, year after year, after year. I doubt that there will be a year when non-accredited translators are going to make more than their accredited counterparts. It would be really bad for the morale of accredited members.
I don’t think that in reality, being a member of ATA or being accredited or certified by this particular or another august organization of translators in another part of the world has much to do with how much translators make in real life. Other things are in my opinion much more important.
I think that such certification is useful if you want to stand out from the competition, but generally only if you translate a common language that has a lot of competition, such as French or Spanish, and only if you want to work mostly for translation agencies.
Because as I said, direct clients don’t even seem to know that the ATA exists.
Having said that, I still am an ATA member, have been for 20 years, partly out of inertia since there does not seem to be another organization for me in the United States, partly because I think that ATA does some (limited amount) of useful work, and partly because I do receive a (limited amount) of work based on my listing in the ATA database of translators; usually from Czech, Slovak, or Polish to English, albeit so far only from translation agencies.
So what other evidence do we have, other than statistics, for how much translators make? (Whenever I use this word, I hear Ronald Reagan’s immortal, although not original, quip in my head about the reliability of statistics: “There are lies, big lies, and then there are statistics”).
Well, we also have anecdotal evidence.
I know, for instance, that about twenty years ago, I was more than mildly surprised when a Japanese patent translator to whom I was sending work sometimes when I had too much of it from my own direct clients to do it all by myself, told me that he had made 137,000 dollars that year.
137,000 dollars is a very nice income even now, especially for a translator, and due to inflation, twenty years ago it was worth almost twice as much as it’s worth now.
This translator, who passed away a decade ago, worked for a few select translation agencies so that he wouldn’t have to worry about being paid on time (or paid at all). He had no direct clients, and because I was one of those few agencies that he would work for, I know he was charging 12 cents per English word to translate Japanese patents.
He must have been incredibly busy most of the time. He was very, very good – better than me at that time, partly due to the fact that he was translating the same kind of material that I was also translating, but had been doing it for much longer than I had.
I did learn a few things from him as I was proofreading his translations, back in the pre-internet times when there were very few precious resources from which one could learn anything.
Let’s fast-forward 20 years to the future.
Last week, a translator posed the question in the title of my silly post today on Facebook. She said that last month she had made 7,000 dollars, and asked: “How much do you guys usually make?” Nobody really told her much, translators are a reluctant bunch when it comes to talking about how much they make.
Except for yours truly, of course, because Mad Patent Translator has a penchant for getting unnecessarily into tricky discussions on social media, although nothing good can come out of things like that as we all know.
As I understand it, this particular translator works mostly with direct clients and has in fact very cleverly created her own niche for highly specialized translations and ancillary services: she translates documents for her direct clients that a certain country requires to have translated from and into English in order to apply for a second passport in a certain European country, (without giving up their US citizenship), and also walks them through the steps of the naturalization procedure.
Two heads are better than one, and so are two passports. To have a second passport is a very popular trend these days, made even more popular by recent phenomena such as Brexit and the selection (by a medieval torture instrument called “The Electoral College”) of the current US president.
Much as she dislikes Donald Trump, he must have been and continues to be very good for her translating business.
The next piece of anecdotal evidence is also from Facebook: a few weeks ago a translator said on a discussion group for translators on Facebook: “Last month I made 20,000 Euros. I must be doing something right.”
Another translator commented to me at the time, on Private Messenger, that she thought what he said was very inappropriate. So I agreed with her, but truth be told, mostly just to stay on her good side.
I think it’s a good thing when translators know that if they stay away from the “translation industry”, have a good plan for how to run their translation business, and do what they are doing very well, at least some of them can expect to make pretty good money after a while.
Although there is no average income of an average translator, it may be true that certified ATA translators make a little bit more than their non-accredited colleagues. But it is also true that your translation income does not depend at all on whether you are a member of a translator association. It’s even quite possible that translators who are non-members make more money than translators who are members.
It’s not a bad thing to make pretty good money if one creates something important and valuable, and I believe that a good translation is very valuable.
The thing about money is that it is a great motivator. That’s why people often ask themselves “how much money is in it for me”, and “how much money can I make if I do this, as opposed to doing something else?”
As Woody Allen put it: “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons”.