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Translation rates: Making sense of cents

Translation rates: Making sense of cents



Translation rates

Most people probably believe that they are underpaid and that their work is undervalued.


Translators certainly do and for good reason.


Fewer people are now studying languages and/or translation at universities and there is no doubt that skilled translators are leaving the industry.


Why?


Because rates in the translation industry are being squeezed and it is becoming increasingly hard for highly educated and experienced translators to achieve a living wage.


Unlike nurses, doctors, firefighters and other professionals seeking better pay, translators cannot strike as they are usually freelancers. In addition, they are working under the radar and so struggle to gain publicity or sympathy for the issues they face.


Sacrificing quality for speed and cost

Translation rates

Large language service companies (LSCs) are constantly pushing their translators to work faster and cheaper in order to gain clients and maximise profits.


Experienced translators are increasingly finding that they must work for lower and lower rates, forcing them to toil away seven days per week and forego any time off.


LSCs often insist on paying flat rates for work, regardless of the experience of those undertaking it. This leaves skilled translators receiving the same pay as newbies whose work has yet to be properly evaluated. The LSCs are themselves being squeezed by their direct clients as translation services are seriously undervalued.


It isn’t surprising that many professional translators are leaving the industry.

The human cost of translation services

The turnover rate for translators is disturbingly high with many leaving after one year or less. It’s relatively easy for LSCs to recruit new blood as budding translators fresh out of college are cheap. They are desperate to get a foothold in the industry and to earn at least some money and so will take what they can get. Scammers also present a major issue. There are plenty of unscrupulous operators applying for translation work using stolen credentials and then scamming translators or producing machine translations.


Translation rates

To make matters worse, the art of translation is becoming further undervalued due to the rise of Machine Translation (MT). Translators are being asked to undertake machine translation post-editing work (MTPE) instead of the translation of the source material and MTPE attracts an even lower rate of pay.


While there is a constant flow of new translators looking for work, the global talent pool is effectively shrinking as experienced professionals are leaving in droves.


Specialist, niche LSCs such as Word Connection tend to focus on the quality of their outputs, and many make every attempt to pay their freelancers fairly. But they face fierce competition from larger operators when tendering for work and can find it hard to gain new projects at rates that truly reflect the quality of the service they provide.


No golden era for translators

Translation rates

In our ever-more connected world, there is an increasing demand for translators. This should be a golden era for the profession with so many businesses and organisations now seeking to trade or operate internationally. But this is far from bonanza time for translators.


There’s a serious gulf between the value placed on translation services by almost every industry and their true value to the organisations that purchase those services.


This valuation issue can perhaps be most easily seen in the streaming market.


Making cents in streaming

Translation rates

Streaming platforms such as Netflix offer viewers international content with subtitles. Those subtitles have not proved to be any obstacle to attracting huge international audiences. For instance, Squid Game, a Korean series with subtitles, quickly became Netflix’s most-watched series ever.


Programming such as Squid Game is of huge value to Netflix but those who created the subtitles didn’t benefit at all. The translators who produce subtitles for popular shows are often paid per minute of programme time. The payment they receive can be as little as $1 per minute.


Imagine the extent of the dialogue that could feature in 60 seconds of a show and how many different speakers could be involved. It could take hours to produce high-quality, succinct subtitles for that minute of programming.


Actual translation costs

Translation rates

The demand for translation services has exploded but the squeeze on rates of pay has resulted in skilled professionals changing careers to seek higher returns and to avoid falling victim to burnout. When the finest translators quit, they are often replaced by students and amateurs who cannot deliver high-quality outputs.


Pablo Romero-Fresco, honorary professor of translation and film-making at Roehampton University, has pointed out that while more than 50% of the revenue obtained by most programming is generated from translated and accessible versions, only 0.01-0.1% of the programming budget is spent on them.


The picture is similar in many industries.


Will skilled translators ever be valued?

Unlike doctors or even bus drivers, translators are essentially invisible. They are usually freelancers who can’t make unilateral stands against low pay as their protests would simply be ignored.


Doctors and lawyers can’t be replaced by unqualified practitioners and scammers, but translators certainly can be. Then there’s machine translation which is being seen as the cost-cutting alternative to human translation, placing even greater pressure on payment rates. But scammers and AI can’t rival the quality of work that skilled translators can provide.


Hopefully, at some point in the future, global audiences will begin to demand better translations. And by audiences, we don’t mean simply viewers of Squid Game or the latest Netflix hit Lupin. We mean potential purchasers of any goods and services worldwide.


Is high-quality translation worth the cost?

Translation rates

Research has clearly demonstrated that people everywhere are more likely to make purchases when presented with websites and marketing materials that are rendered in their native language and that are properly localised. But those websites and messages cannot deliver their full sale potential if they are poorly translated. Indeed, low-quality translations can have the opposite effect.



Reputable translation agencies and freelance translators are being squeezed on price and one way or another, the knock-on effect is poorer outputs and levels of service. Sooner or later organisations everywhere will surely realise that going cheap can be really expensive.



James Myatt

4 min read

Jun 30, 2023

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