This week’s post topic was suggested by a reader: Is translation a dying profession?
Good question! Short answer: In my opinion, no, but I understand why people ask that.
Longer answer: Let me start with three data points…
- I graduated from undergrad in 1993, and a professor told me then (exactly 30 years ago!), Forget about getting into translation because it’s all being taken over by computers. Annnndddd that still hasn’t happened. I think that MT and AI are changing and will continue to change our profession, but I don’t think they will replace us on a large scale, within the working lifetime of anyone active in the profession today.
- If my university student daughter wanted to become a translator or interpreter, I would feel very positive about that and I would have no problem paying for her education for it (sadly, she wants to be an aerospace engineer but I continue to make my pitch!).
- I’ve been a freelancer for 20+ years and I’m on track to earn my highest-ever income this year, while working slightly less (not a typo) than I did last year.
Given all of that, I definitely don’t see translation as a dying profession, but/and…
- When I started freelancing in 2002, it was possible to earn what I would consider a decent “entry level” living working for big agencies that had a pretty low barrier to entry and based their hiring primarily on their own tests. I earned 10-12 cents per word working for those types of agencies in the early aughts and I knew Spanish translators who made 9-10 cents a word, and my sense is that those rates have now decreased by at least 50%. Perhaps even more for language pairs like English into Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Greek, etc. I’m personally not sure how people survive financially on those rates, unless their cost of living is very low, or they depend heavily on a spouse or partner’s income or another job.
- The amount of work needed to launch a freelance business has greatly increased in the past few decades. When I talk to translators who started their businesses in the 80s and 90s, many of them had a phone number and an AOL address, and within six months to a year with what today’s freelancers would think of as minimal marketing, they had so much work that they had to hire another translator to work with them. That’s not the reality anymore, and I think that a lot of beginning freelancers are disappointed by the marketing-to-translating ratio that they encounter in their first few years of business.
- The main shifts I’ve seen in the past 10ish years are a) the erosion of agency rates in general (see above), and b) a smaller distinction between “mass market” and “boutique” agencies, where the boutique agencies don’t pay dramatically better than the mass market agencies.
- This creates a real crunch in the “good” agency market. Good agencies are who most freelancers want to work for, so when a freelancer gets hired by an agency that pays well, has interesting work, and is easy to work with, they tend to stick with that agency for a long time. This is true of a boutique agency (now closed) that I worked with for a long time: they were “under the radar,” they paid well, and I worked with the exact same group of translators for 10+ years. Premium-market agencies do exist, but they’re rarely recruiting for translators.
- Finding direct clients takes a lot of hustle, and you do a lot of things other than translate. I have very little trouble getting direct clients to accept my rates, and I get the sense that some of my direct clients would pay more than what I’m charging. But to find direct clients, you have to have a clear specialization; you have to have the confidence to put yourself out there; you have to be an excellent translator; you have to know how to include the client in the translation process, not “just translate;” you have to have a partner or backup person who can edit for you, fill in if you’re on vacation, etc. Realistically, many freelancers don’t want to do any of this, or don’t stick with any direct client marketing method long enough to see some results.
- I definitely could not meet my financial goals if I worked only for agencies. According to various compensation surveys, the average US-based freelance translator earns between 55 and 60K (US dollars) per year. My guess is that this is mostly people who are charging around 11 cents a word and translating around 500,000 words per year. If that number fits your financial goals, there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. However, it’s also important to realize that when you deduct self-employment tax, benefits, professional development, office equipment, paid vacation, etc. etc., this is roughly the equivalent of a salaried job paying in the 40s, which is not a level that meets my financial goals. And if you’re working as much as you can or as much as you want to, the only way to increase your income is to work with direct clients. This is the part of the market that I see as very different from when I started, and my sense is that this is where the “dying” concerns come from.
I hope these thoughts are helpful, and I definitely don’t see us as a dying profession!
Corinne McKay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Training for Translators, and has been a full-time freelancer since 2002. She holds a Master of Conference Interpreting from Glendon College, is an ATA-certified French to English translator, and is Colorado court-certified for French interpreting. If you enjoy her posts, consider joining the Training for Translators mailing list!