** This article is updated regularly. It was last updated in November 2019 **
There’s a pretty enormous gap between what’s normal and what’s possible. Per word translation rates in the US, for example, tend to fall between $0.10 and $0.20 - but some Spanish translators will work for as little as $0.02/word. Translations from the Mayan language Kichu, on the other hand, easily command 20 times that amount!
What does a per-word translation rate look like in the long run?
Depending on whom you ask, the median annual income for full-time translators in the US falls somewhere between $40,000 and $43,000. But this median represents a vast range of incomes, with outliers in the six-figure range. According to Indeed.com, the average pay in the US for a translator works out to $3,577 per month.
What makes the difference between an ordinary and extraordinary income?
Let’s consider the question of average and potential earnings mathematically. Most translators cover between 400-600 words per hour for a job of average difficulty. This works out to 2,000-3,000 words per day, or 400,000-600,000 words per year (with weekends and some vacation time). At $0.10 per word, a full-time annual income comes out to around $50,000.
Now consider another translator working at the same pace. They have a targeted specialization or work in a niche language and (this is key!) insist on the high value of their work. That translator could command up to $0.35/word. Without working overly long hours, and particularly if they know how to use computer assisted translation or speech recognition tools to increase their efficiency, they could make nearly $200,000 per year.
In the end, a high quality product justifies a high rate. Education, experience, efficiency, cost of living, and self-confidence should all factor into the value of your work. Don’t let stubborn clients bully you or ridiculously cheap competition intimidate you; self-deprecation is the freelancer’s most common (and most easily avoidable) mistake!
November 2019 Update
We originally wrote this article back in 2013, so figured it was time for an update. The world of translation has moved on over the past six or so years and translation salaries have grown.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median pay for a transator in the US in 2018 was $49,930 - a healthy increase from the range of $40,000 to $43,000 reported above. This equates to $24.00 per hour.
Not only that, but the outlook for the future is very promising, with the BLS projecting a 19% increase for the translation job outlook from 2018 to 2028. That's much faster than the average increase - and a growing sector has plenty of scope for increased earnings.
Over in the UK, Payscale reports that the median translator salary stands at £23,000. That equates to $29,611 (at the exchange rate at the time of writing). Of course, it's not a straightforward comparison, as the UK and the US have vastly different taxation systems, not to mention healthcare and other costs. However, on the face of it, translators in the US earn some $20,000 more per year than those in the UK. Food for thought!
Do you ever feel like you are selling yourself short? Does cheap competition influence your rates? And just how often do you push out rate increases to regular and long-term clients? After all, the cost of living rises every year, so you need to make sure your income keeps pace with the increases!