Financially speaking, is it a good idea to become a freelance translator?
Is it a good idea to become a freelance translator?
So far in this series we have talked about the non-tangible benefits of freelance translation, how much it costs to set up as a freelance translator, and how translation compares to other industries. In this final part on this topic, I’m going to round off some of the analysis we’ve been doing and decide once and for all if freelance translation is a good field to get into from a financial viewpoint, by asking the simple question: Is it a good idea to become a freelance translator
As we saw in our comparison of translation to other industries, translators at, or close to, their peak can earn a pretty good middle class salary. In this regard, we are comparable to a lot of middle class professionals such as pharmacists, journalists and low-level managers. Even after paying all the necessary costs, a good translator with a good number of clients will often be able to take home a good pay packet, which by UK standards will be sufficient to cover a mortgage on a property (outside of London) as well as a car and a nice holiday once or twice a year.
However, to get this salary, we have to go through a very painful process, and invest a great deal of time and effort. While most middle class professionals can start at the bottom and gradually get promoted throughout their career, translators start with absolutely nothing and reach a ceiling fairly early. This ceiling is reached when the translator has industry standard rates and works at industry standard speed, with few gaps between jobs. Rates and speed continue to increase slowly over the future, but we can’t expect to get 20 or 30% pay rises at any point, whereas engineers say could get a promotion to a more senior role with double or more the existing pay.
While the peak salary is enough for a good living outside London, London is expensive, and translator’s salaries, even the top rated ones, may not be enough to cover it. This is something which is common among professional services. Professionals are starting to move outside of greater London into the neighboring regions, and other cities within commuting distance such as Reading or Colchester. This is very problematic for Londoners who have their friends and family living in the city and do not wish to move away. Joint mortgages or buying with friends seems the only viable solution at present.
Effectively, there’s a rather hard entry process to get an acceptable income. Although translators at their best are comfortably well off, survey upon survey shows that the average translator at any one time is living close to minimum wage. Although in this article I contrasted “early years salary” with “peak salary”, a look at detailed industry figures shows that only a tiny proportion of very dedicated and passionate freelancers ever make it past the first stages of the industry.
Since starting to see the situation from an agency perspective, the main trend I’m seeing is that there is a huge background noise of low quality or middle quality translators flooding my inbox and bombarding me with their CV’s, whereas the translators I really want (the high quality ones) are usually kept busy all the time and don’t always have the availability I would like. In other words, there are too many bad translators and not enough good translators. The question for the freelancers is therefore, which are you going to be?
Just to re-iterate, for me, a good translator will generally have some of the following: professional memberships (ITI or equivalent would be good), a translation qualification (DipTrans or Master’s Degree would be ideal), several years experience working as a freelancer, and (this is the crucial one) understanding of some technical area, this could be law, technology, engineering, construction and so on. There are always exceptions of course.
A classmate from my Civil Engineering course went down a different road to me and took a job at a large environmental engineering company after we graduated. I became a translator (specializing in engineering), he became an engineer. His salary is now (20 years later) around one-third higher than mine was when I was freelancing very regularly.
Last December we went to a party together and he stayed on my couch. In the morning he had to get up (with a bit of a hangover!) at 6.30 AM, take a shower and trudge through the snow for two hours to be at work at 9 AM. I stayed in my warm bed until about 8.30 and had some toast before starting at around 9 AM. Is that freedom worth an extra 30 % income? For me, it certainly is. I’m not advocating laziness, but I do think it’s really nice to have some degree of freedom over your schedule.
I love words and I love languages. I also love buildings and construction and structures and bridges. I love translating. It’s got its downsides, but at the end of the day, who really gets to spend the day using the languages they love, working in an environment they love, with a flexible schedule and with amazing colleagues. After working hard and long to get where I am in the industry, I would not change it for the world!