Volume 10, No. 1 
January 2006

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Select one of the previous 34 issues.




Index 1997-2006

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Love of Languages
by János Samu

  In Memoriam
John F. Szablya — 1924 - 2005

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

  TJ Cartoon
Great Moments in Languages—The Homegrown Grammarian
by Ted Crump

  Translators Around the World
The Hague Program and how it could affect the translating and interpreting profession
by Eleni Markou

  Science & Technology
Nuclear Technology—a Translation Testing Ground
by M.L. Seren-Rosso

  Translation Nuts & Bolts
Translating Pronouns and Proper Names: Indonesian versus English
by Izak Morin
Equivalence in Translation
by Lotfollah Karimi, M.A.

  Translator Education
Criterios para las selecciones textuales en la formación de traductores especializados
M. Blanca Mayor Serrano

  Literary Translation
Documentation as Ethics in Postcolonial Translation
by Dora Sales Salvador
Fate: The Inevitable Betrayal in Translating
by Leandro Wolfson
Proper Names in Translation of Fiction (Translation into English of The History of a Town by M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin)
by Alexander Kalashnikov

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Compiling Corpora for Use as Translation Resources
by Michael Wilkinson

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Practical tips for practicing translators.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I don't know if this is appropriate question for your site, but I thought I would ask anyway. What is the standard payment for freelance translators? How is it calculated (keystroke, word, line, or page)? Does it vary with the type of document (pure text, fiction, illustrative, legal, user's manual and so forth)? Does it vary with the language?

And finally (and perhaps more appropriately...), do you know of any web links where one could find this kind of information?

Thank you very much,



Dear Beginner,

Intriguing, isn't it, how many translators get the vapors when money comes up—perhaps they all have trust fund incomes (money is so tacky, don't you agree?). Which makes it all the braver of you to wade right in and ask.

Here's the scoop: translation is billed differently in different countries, for both historical and language-specific reasons. Thus translators in Germany, home of the Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän and the Krankenhaustagegeldversicherungen are not too keen on per-word pricing and have opted instead for characters per line.

Of the options you cite, per-word appears to be on the upswing, while only per-page is on its way out—hardly surprising, given the variety of fonts available at the click of a key. (Face it, one A4 page of 16-point Times has little in common with a 21 inch x 29.7 inch swathe of 8-point Arial narrow). We're sure one of our readers will write in to set us straight on languages using non-roman alphabets. You must also be sure to specify whether your unit-count is based on the source text or the target; most clients will be happier with the former, as it can be relayed in your estimate (i.e., before you take on the job).

Whichever unit you use, the figure you must track is your earning per hour—net of social security and tax. How many words can you reliably translate per hour in field X, Y or Z, and what will your net (not gross) be for every thousand dollars or euros invoiced?

We strongly advise you to calculate this regularly for each of your clients, since it will identify where you are earning most. Those are the fields you will want to develop. At the very least it will remind you how expensive your addictions are (to notoriously poorly-paid literary translation, for example).

Following a number of legal challenges from anti-monopoly authorities, national translators' associations tend to be very skittish about quoting actual figures, but you'll find some interesting stats chez ADÜ (Northern Germany) at www.adue-nord.de. You can also download a summary report in English. The full version of the report will be available in the next two weeks or so from any German bookstore (Book-on-demand) and also online. This full version is 172 pages long and costs 45.80 (plus 3 - 6 international book-rate postage). It is in German only.

The Swiss translators' association ASTTI also gives some specific figures at www.astti.ch.

Finally, the French national translators' association SFT conducts an annual survey that will soon be displayed in the public area of its website, we're told. In the meantime, the SFT helpline will give you figures for your language combination if you phone them on +33 1 44 53 01 14.

But remember, in many cases figures provided are arithmetic means. Real live translators may charge less... but can also charge far more. The challenge is to identify what clients are prepared to pay, which, for a quality product, is far higher than what some people claim is "the going rate."

Let us just repeat that: there is no "standard payment" that we know of, and the translation providers (freelancers and agencies) that refer to one are often quoting well below what clients are willing to pay for top-tier work.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I'm fully bilingual, though I daresay, a bit more fluent in English than any other language, Chinese being the other. I used to write poetry, and the most important thing I learned from that particular experience was that the translator's fluency in the target language was most important; while fluency in the original language is needed for picking up the nuances in the language, fluency in the target language was needed for expressing it. While I'm sure that's all old-hat to you, it was a revelation for me.

I first noticed this when I started watching Chinese films and actually noticing the subtitles, and thinking to myself, "ugh, THAT was an awkward translation," or "THAT could have been done a lot better." I love the idea of seeing a graceful translation that mirrors the original language: using archaic English to express a passage in archaic Chinese, or using slang to show modern-day colloquialisms. It's gotten to be an obsessive habit, where I mentally try and translate every Chinese film I see. It seems like a plausible—and very appealing—career choice.

I'm currently undergoing my quarter-life crisis (I'm 19) and trying to figure out what, exactly, I'm going to do with my life. I'm studying at a university as a biochemistry major, though I've taken a few linguistic and cultural courses as well, as it strikes my fancy. But if I were to seriously pursue this translation-as-a-career idea, what should I do?

Are there any courses or paths of study I should look into? And lastly, and words of advice? (Things like, "trust me, dear girl, you will regret becoming a translator" would be helpful about now, before I jump headfirst into it.)




Dear May,

Do we all agree that it is far preferable to have a job one is passionate about? Good.

Successful, happy translators are, in our experience, all passionate about language and words, so you seem to be on the right track there. But to be successful, they also need outstanding writing skills and a specialization.

Why not use your remaining years in college to hone these skills—keeping in mind that a university specialization in biochemistry will get you off to a strong start in scientific translation, especially with your language combination. You can then branch out into film or other translation—texts that, like Heineken, reach the parts others don't.


PS: By the way, the late Federico Fellini agreed with you that film translation is not just translating words, rather the challenge of slipping humbly and discretely into another culture. Bravo, maestro!


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Help! I need some career advice. With an M.A. from Middlebury, a law degree and a recent M.A. in translation, I planned to become a legal translator.

However, I'm finding that my translation degree was heavy on theory and light on practicality, so it did not prepare me to work with real-world legal documents. The few contracts I've translated resulted in negative feedback from the agencies, and I'm now gun-shy of taking on another legal job.

How can I gain experience with common legal documents like employment contracts, wills, court rulings, divorce decrees or articles of incorporation? Without experience in these everyday legal documents, I'm afraid I'll never develop a legal translation business. Should I just stick with general translation, which I'm not having any problem with, and give up my specialization dream? Any suggestions?

Legal Beagle


Dear Beagle,

You don't say which legal documents you are unfamiliar with—did your law degree not include exposure to contracts (gulp), or are you referring to your foreign-language courses?

If it was the latter, your experience merely confirms a certain gap between some academics' approach to translation and what the market demands. Specialization is definitely what you should be aiming for, so by all means look into legal translation courses at other universities (check the course catalog first to be sure you are getting the nuts and bolts) or—better yet—seek an internship with an established legal translator or law firm.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I live and work in Rwanda. After getting a Bachelor's Degree in Translation and Interpreting from the Université Nationale du Rwanda in 2003, I moved into the freelance market, specializing in banking.

It was a struggle to start, but I ended up translating memos, correspondence, central bank regulations, agreements, leaflets and so on. Two years later I applied to the Office of the Auditor General of State Finances, where I now work as an in-house translator.

Can you recommend any websites that might be of use to me? I am particularly interested in banking terminology and related areas.

African Banker


Dear Banker,

Your letter is a reminder of just how profoundly the internet has revolutionized the profession. Not only are there dozens of excellent websites out there (plus hundreds of mediocre multilingual ones—great fodder for the free trial offer approach for freelance translators looking for new clients—there are also virtual watering holes where like-minded professional translators get together to bounce ideas on terminology and other issues off each other.

For finance and banking, the discussion list par excellence is (surprise, surprise) the Financial Translators Forum. Registration is free, but limited to freelance and salaried translators; agencies are not welcome. Focus is the watchword (don't start telling these guys about your summer holidays). To sign up, contact Dominique Jonkers at dominique.jonkers@skynet.be.