“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Literary translators' rates officially "catastrophic"

By Nicky Harman, published

The CEATL (Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires) has recently published a report on literary translators' rates and working conditions. The report can be downloaded from here

It's interesting to look at how much other translators/languages are getting paid compared to the rates Chinese to English translators get. On page 20, the UK rates are right at the bottom and, on the far right, it has a box "rate per word = 10 [euro cents]". The Euro:pound rate today (18 May 2010) = 0.86:1, so that would be equivalent to GBP£86, in other words about the same as the rate recommended by the UK Translators' Assocation of GBP£85 per 1000 words.

Of course, Chinese to English rates are often calculated differently if the deal is done in China, ie RMB per Chinese character. Further conversions needed!

I understand that CEATL is currently conducting a new survey along the same lines, for 2010-11.

Comments

# 1.   

No one goes into writing (be that as an author or translator) for the money.

Frankly I am surprised that the rate is so high. Let's work it out:

Lets say you translate a novel and it ends up at 100 thousand words, that's nearly £6880. Say you give yourself a year to do it, that works out at 274 words a day. And say it takes you an hour to translate those 274 words(it takes me an hour to do 500 words of highly technical translation work, this includes all the time it takes to research chemical names, patent terms etc).

That works out at £18.85 an hour, which is more than 3 times the minimum wage in the UK. Even if it takes you double the amount of time, £9.42 per hour isn't a bad wage. Now obviously you are going to have a full time job and do your translation on the side, so to me £7000 a year on top of your full time wage seems quite good.

Tom Saunders, May 19, 2010, 5:09a.m.

# 2.   

Hi Tom, apologies, it's just been pointed out to me by Martin (CEATL) that I'd done my maths wrong (it's now corrected in my post above). I'm not sure if that affects the main point you're making above.

 Nicky Harman, May 19, 2010, 5:33a.m.

# 3.   

It is simply ridiculous to compare technical translation with literary translation in such a superficial manner.

When I do semi-technical translation (electronics, IT), much of my energy goes into researching the terms and ensuring accuracy and clarity. I generally do a light edit on my text before I deliver it. I don't agonize over the language or sentence structure.

Literary translators are writers, or should be, who often feel compelled to go over their work again and again looking for the right word, rhythm and feeling. They are involved in a creative endeavor that cannot easily be compared with technical translation.

 Bruce, May 19, 2010, 6:34a.m.

# 4.   

Bruce: A couple of years ago the managing director of penguin told me that most novels only sell around 2000 copies, and at about 70p per copy for the writer, they aren't getting paid anywhere near what there work is actually worth. So, why should literary translators expect any better?

With technical translation you are providing a professional service that in one way or another is going to lead to someone making a lot of money. The same can't be said for literary translation.

That said, I love translating literature and hope to have several novels translated and published in the next twenty to thirty years of my working life, but I don't expect for one second to earn any money out of it. Why should I?

Tom Saunders, May 19, 2010, 8:01a.m.

# 5.   

Maybe the new Amazon Crossing will be the place for you to publish that dream list of books in translation from Chinese?

http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1428575&highlight=

Anna GC, May 20, 2010, 5:21p.m.

# 6.   

Tom, why should you expect to be making any money out of translating literature? Because the concentration of mental and spiritual effort to produce work that may potentially influence the lives of multiple readers on an abstract level ought to be worth something, especially when such work is later bought by organizations that turn a profit on its sale.

Do not expect that you are writing for an unskilled audience. I have been translating business material, mostly for the pharmaceutical, legal consulting and mining industries for four years, and I admit that at 1200 characters an hour, it pays pretty well. Yet the proportion of the material I translate that actually goes on to make anyone significant money is not high, as anyone who has ever spent time with memos and case studies knows. Read Theodore Roethke's "Dolor" for the pain that one endures spending time with this stuff.

"With technical translation you are providing a professional service that in one way or another is going to lead to someone making a lot of money. The same can't be said for literary translation."

In what way can it not be said? I might consider rewriting this sentence, as this version thoroughly discounts the specialized, self-acquired training necessary to engage in literary translation, which is certainly demanding enough to merit the distinction of "professional."

All this being said, I suppose your first mistake lies in the incomplete statement, "No one goes into writing (be that as an author or a translator) for the money." That may be true (except in Danielle Steele's case), yet the reality is that people go into it anyway, give up possibilities for other advancement for its sake, work over eight hours a day on it and, in some cases, eventually produce work that is influential and appreciated. People like William Carlos Williams are the exception, not the rule.

 Canaan Morse, May 23, 2010, 3:33a.m.

# 7.   

Canaan, Mark Twain once said: "Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing."

People choose to write and translate, if they can't make money from it, they shouldn't complain, they should either get on with or quit, or go into publishing.

If someone were to jump up and down on the spot for 8 hours a day and say "This is hard work, someone should be paying me for doing this" I would say they were deluded. Similarly, if someone wants to spend all day translating novels that no one wants to read and complains about not getting any money for it then I would say they are equally deluded (unless of course they are doing the translations for fun, in which case I would say they were doing something highly worthwhile).

On the other hand, if someone is making money from it (publishers etc)then I would say the translators need to form a union and demand a fair wage. Excuse me if I don't hold my breath though.

Tom

Tom Saunders, May 24, 2010, 5:09a.m.

# 8.   

It is perfectly legitimate for a literary translator to expect good pay for his/her work. I do not consider £18.85 hour overdue to a hardworking experienced professional providing a worthy service. Think of all the other types of professionals. What is their yearly salary? Please do not compare the price of translating with flipping burgers at McDonalds' or sweeping the floor at Walmart, and say they are making out lucky. The rule of thumb is, since there are 50 weeks in a year and 40 yours per week, that is 2000 hours. So you just divide the yearly salary by 2000, to get the equivalent hourly wage. £18.85 x 2000 = £38,000 per year. Not a lot when compared to other professions. And translators are not making their money walking down a corridor, going to a meeting, chatting on the phone, or the other activities that space out the workday of other professionals. We are talking only about the time spent in undivided attention, alone, in front of a computer. Sounds like fun, until you have done it to pay your bills for ten straight years. Do that, and you will also understand that professional literary translators expect to be paid for their work at rates that put them on par with other top-rate, well-educated, dedicated professionals from other walks of life.

frank burns, May 26, 2010, 3:49p.m.

# 9.   

"It is perfectly legitimate for a literary translator to expect good pay for his/her work."

It is also perfectly legitimate for a pieceworker in the textiles industry -- and the kids at Foxconn -- and the baristas of Salina, KS -- to 'expect' good pay. But it is naive.

There are two ways translations get paid for: 1) the free market of publishers, which doesn't care about you or your expectations and which when it sees news articles about how translators should be paid more says ah I see I can pay them nothing and they'll still do it. And 2) the government/the community's shared resources, funneled through schools and ngos and prizes and grants. The government actually listens, in its own way, to arguments about fairness and social justice etc. etc.

You seem to be making an argument about the value of professional translators to the community, but aiming that argument at free market pricing -- and when people say this line of thinking is futile, assuming that they're somehow arguing against your worth. Nobody's saying that a translator isn't worth $19/hour or whatever -- they're saying that there's not a single person on the paying side who's interested in that math. They want the best book for the lowest price. To put a point on it: publishers don't care if you have to get a day job or not.

Ironically, writers of literary fiction have long since given up on making a job out of it until well after their best works are in the market. The time for hand-wringing 'nobody pays writers enough anymore' is past -- they seem to be focused on producing desire for their works, not mourning its loss. This strikes me as the inevitable next step for this community, as well.

frank grimes, May 30, 2010, 8:51p.m.

# 10.   

Did you see this one? How not to discuss rates with a translator... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeF7ykpRRc4

Anna GC, June 6, 2010, 4:09a.m.

# 11.   

My god, that's incredible! Absolutely spot-on, on the one hand, but also—who went to all that work? It's not exactly something we can show to clients, much as I'd like to.

 Eric Abrahamsen, June 6, 2010, 9:03p.m.

# 12.   

http://nopeanuts.wordpress.com/

And they're on Facebook as well. Of course...

Anna GC, June 7, 2010, 3:26a.m.

# 13.   

Very interesting. But strange how the translators are amalgamated with the authors. If I think I have a book in me and I want to try to get it published to fulfill some kind of a dream that's one thing. But translating is what I do for a living, it is a JOB, not a dream. Why should I accept lousy pay to try to help someone else achieve their dream? How many printers accept below minimum wage because someone wants to see their book on a store shelf? It's the same thing.

Squiggle, September 25, 2014, 5:49a.m.

# 14.   

Squiggle summed it up. You need to be able to live on what you earn. I am too well aware that the free market is not interested in renumerating my particular sector. Which is why translators fight and will carry on doing so. As someone else said, stop equating translation with the flipping of burgers. And defending the very idea in principle. Ask yourself how you will feel if one day, in the distant future, you were to find yourself on a hospital bed being treated by a 'doctor' who didn't do the required 10 years' preparation but who is charging 'lower rates'. If you are shrugging your shoulders in defence of a free market, what are you going to argue for when eventually every single profession is devalued?

Ana Beard, March 28, 2015, 11:50a.m.

# 15.   

Squiggle summed it up. You need to be able to live on what you earn. I am too well aware that the free market is not interested in renumerating my particular sector. Which is why translators fight and will carry on doing so. As someone else said, stop equating translation with the flipping of burgers. And defending the very idea in principle. Ask yourself how you will feel if one day, in the distant future, you were to find yourself on a hospital bed being treated by a 'doctor' who didn't do the required 10 years' preparation but who is charging 'lower rates'. If you are shrugging your shoulders in defence of a free market, what are you going to argue for when eventually every single profession is devalued?

Ana Beard, March 28, 2015, 11:50a.m.

# 16.   

Glad you agree with me Ana!

Just thought I'd add a comment about Frank Grimes' view about writers "focusing on producing desire for their work" and that that's where translators should be heading too. I have to say, most of my clients have such a poor grasp of English I could do a shoddy job and they would be none the wiser and given the number of typos and factual errors in the copy I receive I'm not sure they would even care. The majority of my clients are incapable of judging my work and therefore of desiring it or not. By the way I don't do a shoddy job because I am a professional, and I should be paid as such.

Squiggle, March 28, 2015, 12:22p.m.

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