How does translation compare to other industries

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Economics of Freelance Translation

Part 3. How does translation compare to other industries?

So we’ve got an idea of how much it costs to be a translator. We will now look at some other industries and ask ourselves “how does translation compare to other industries”. I experimented with a number of different ways to present the data. In the end I decided to compare it to three other professions. I selected three professions which would be attractive to specialist translators.

Civil engineering is a profession many technical translators may wish to enter (I qualified as a civil engineer many years ago myself, so it’s something I follow carefully). Those who are not technical, but focus more on legal documents might become legal secretaries (I tried using lawyers as a comparison, but there are so many different types of lawyer it became impossible). Finally, I thought pharmaceutical translators could always consider entering the world of pharmacy. So those three professions will each be compared to the profession of translating.

Civil Engineer

Civil engineers compared to freelance translators

Civil engineers compared to freelance translators

There is usually quite a strong requirement for further studying to get a good job and pass the required entrance examinations. Time will need to be set aside for that, so to account for this time, let’s say it will take about 6 months to get the job you want, and that you have to pay your rent and cover your food for that time; so that makes something like 5400 GBP. We won’t actually add any costs for books or further tuition fees as it does seem possible to take the exams using your Master’s Degree reference materials.

Adding those things together, we can see that it will probably cost something like 20,900 GBP to get a job as a civil engineer assuming you pass everything first time. Now let’s look at the other side of the equation.

According to the website Prospects, the average graduate starting salary for civil engineers is 23,500 GBP.

The average salary of ICE fellows (which can probably be considered the peak of an engineer’s career) is around 81,001 GBP, as of 2014.

Thus, we can say that the cost to get the first job is around the same as the first year’s salary. But those costs work out to be something like 3.9 times less than your peak salary over your career. Unlike our freelance translators calculations, We don’t need to make any adjustments to these figures because “in-house” jobs have sick and vacation pay (not to mention pensions etc).

Legal secretary

As of 2014, legal secretaries in the UK start on salaries of around 17,000 GBP per year. This can be expected to rise to something like 36,000 GBP at the peak of a career, with additional qualifications and experience.

Training for a legal secretary varies wildly, but I think we can say something like 635 GBP is sufficient for the basic training courses which will get you through the door. More advanced training is available and legal secretaries with higher qualifications seem to move into slightly grey areas between a lawyer and legal secretary with higher pay and more entrance requirements, so for this article, I’m only looking at more junior legal secretaries. They can expect peak earnings of around 25,000 GBP unless they take the steps towards a more senior position.

The initial training can be completed in a matter of weeks, and therefore, I’ll just say something like 900 GBP plus the course fees will be required to cover rent etc. during further training. This makes a total cost 1835 GBP. This is something like one month’s salary, and only a very small proportion of the potential peak earnings; especially if it is seen as a route to a more advanced position.


Starting salaries are around 27,000 GBP (this is the average from a range of 20 to 35k), and maximum salaries are up to around 60,000 GBP. In the UK, the main requirement is the MPharm Master’s Degree in Pharmacy which is a four year program. The University of Birmingham offer the course for 9,000 GBP. The courses seem to include very clear routes into employment, with a good chance of starting work right after graduating, so I’ll assume that the tuition fees are the only costs.

Thus we can see that the first year’s salary is going to be 18,000 GBP higher than the investment, and that the maximum salary is around 6 times the initial investment.


Career Salary expectation Initial investment Peak salary / Training fees
Translator Medium High 4.62
Civil Engineer High Medium 3.88
Legal Secretary Low Low 13.62
Pharmacists Medium Medium 6.66

So speaking purely in terms of finances, we can see from the above table that translating falls squarely in the middle of the middle class professions. To get back to our initial question of “how does translation compare to other industries”, the initial investment required is rather high due to the working from home and qualification elements, but the rewards can be reasonably high for the few people who make it through the gruelling training and development process. Technical professions seem to require a more straightforward entrance process with a good potential salary, but the path is much more linear with less freedom. Junior professional roles are easier to enter with somewhat lower rewards.

I’d like to conclude with a side-note, far too many people in our industry don’t take it seriously. Can you imagine if civil engineers didn’t have any legal requirement to do any particular training and were constantly bidding against totally unskilled competitors on price rather than skills. We need to keep our quality high to give maximum value to our clients and to agencies. Only with excellent quality, timely work and with continuous development and improvement can we “get out of the way” and let our clients reach their target markets our audiences in the most efficient way. Low quality translators who make no initial investment and expect to make a quick buck on the side, with the collusion of many lower quality agencies, have harmed the development of the best freelance translators.

In the final part of this series, I’ll try to review what we’ve seen and make a judgement about whether or not being a translator is a good choice of career purely from a financial perspective.