Tune in, charge more, or drop out

Post date: Feb 12, 2013 4:12:50 PM

Many (potential) translation customers aren't interested in high-quality translation - they want a cheap job that tells them, in their language, what the source language text says, with no frills. Yet the "Western" translation sector is geared to providing a "Rolls-Royce" service every time. We churn out translators with Master's degrees, piling them into an already overcrowded freelance market, and teaching them oodles of translation theory, yet not necessarily showing them how to deliver translations that are commercially tailored to customers' needs.

It strikes me that this is a big challenge for the translation sector in the UK. We need to decide what kind of service we want to provide: if we are attempting to sell a "premium" translation service, why would we go to work for agencies paying £60 per thousand words? We might as well all be plumbers. Or, to turn it around, if we are offering a down-and-dirty, no-frills, "kitchen-table" translation service, why are we constantly moaning about rates? We can't have it both ways.

My advice, controversial though it may appear, to any ambitious would-be freelancer would be to make a choice between these two apparently irreconcilable extremes: either try and get yourself into an environment in which you are providing high-end content, and being well paid for it (i.e. significantly above the basement level of £60 per thousand words), or go and do something else.

Do the math(s): £60 per thousand words, producing, say, 2500 words of finished translation per day, five days a week, 46 weeks a year (assuming you can get enough work to fill every single working day, and leaving no time for administration and CPD), gives a total annual income of £34,500. And bear in mind that many of the people working at this level have huge experience (up to 20 years or more in many cases). I know this may seem like a good income for a graduate; and I am well aware that there's a huge amount of built-in flexibility involved in being a freelance (which is one of the reasons why I love it); and I know it's not all about the money (although none of the other "professions" ever appear to need to state that view); but no self-respecting qualified tradesman would get out of bed for that kind of money, particularly one with several years' experience, and particularly one living and working in the South-East of England. Surely there's something not quite right there...