How much does a translator make?
If you are considering becoming a translator, you may be wondering if it’s even worth it. How much does a translator really make? Hold tight, cause we are about to find out.
Let’s start with raw data. According to the American Translators Association compensation survey for 2022, freelance translators make 61,000 dollars per year, on average. The bottom fourth of the market only makes 30,000 $ per year, while the top 25% of freelance translators bring home 80,000 $.
But how much could you be making as a translator when you are starting out, as you begin gaining more experience and once you are finally an established professional?
A lot could be mentioned here – area of expertise, language pair, quality of marketing materials and dozens of other elements all play a role. At the end of the day, though, a translator only makes money depending on 3 key factors.
It’s that simple – if nobody is requesting your services, you will make no money. You have to find clients that send you any kind of projects. Then you have to find clients that send you predictable (ish) amounts of words every month. Then you have to find more of those.
There is something we call feast or famine in the freelance world. Either you have too many jobs, or you find yourself twiddling your thumbs. This is no bueno, and you should do your best to always be fully booked.
When you have those clients, you have to find ways to spend as much time as possible on billable tasks (actual translation) and as little time as possible on unpaid ones such as creating quotes and answering emails.
Are translators high in demand?
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics ‘Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 20 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.
About 9,200 openings for interpreters and translators are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire’.
Per hour, per word, per project – your rate determines how much your time is worth. Rates vary wildly in our world, from a minimum of 0.01 $ per word which you can find on online freelance portals to 0.3 $ per word, like some colleagues brag about on their LinkedIn feed. The market will dictate how much you can charge at each point of your career.
Don’t fall into the trap of just looking at your per-word rate. Look at these two scenarios:
- A client pays you 0.10 $/word but their texts are always a challenge. When working for them, on average you can translate 150 words per hour.
- A different client pays you 0.08 $/word, but you have been working together for a while, and you know everything about them. Because of this, your average output is 250 words per hour of work.
When working with client A, you are making an average of 15 $ per hour. When working with client B, you will make 20 $ per hour.
How much do translators charge per hour?
This depends on their language pair and area of expertise, but most translators charge somewhere in the range of 20 to 50 $ per hour. Here are some interesting stats from Proz.com, known for having the largest online database of translators in the world.
German to English, rate per hour 35,65 $
German to English, rate per hour 33,85 $
Arabic to English, rate per hour 31,65 $
English to Chinese, rate per hour 37,40 $
English to Bengali, rate per hour 29,40 $
English to Icelandic, rate per hour 40,00 $
If you want to know how much translators charge in a specific language pair and area of expertise, you can find out on this page.
The quicker you are, the more words you can take on – or the earlier you can be done with them. Translators are becoming quicker and quicker – otherwise, how do you explain the increase in daily productivity highlighted by Proz.com in their 2022 industry report?
Is being a translator a good job when you are starting out?
Scenario 1: Jim
Jim is starting out on a generalist platform such as Upwork, and he’s able to consistently get jobs on there. His rate is at the lower end of the spectrum, 0.04 $/word, and he translates 200 word per hour because he is new to this.
He dedicates 2 hours per day to this gig Monday to Friday. Every day, though, he spends 30 minutes shooting proposals and negotiating rates. Plus, he is able to dedicate it 4 hours on Saturdays, which he only uses to complete actual projects.
Overall, Jim is dedicating 14 hours to translation, but he’s getting paid for 11,5 hours, at 8 $ per hour. He makes 92 $ per week, or 400 $ per month.
Can Jim make more driving for Uber? Absolutely. Is it fair that he’s earning so little? I don’t care, and Jim doesn’t either. He is a hustler, and he aims to jump to 300 words per hour within one year, as he keeps getting better as a translator. If he can actually make it, he’ll be making 12 $ per hour, 138 $ per week, or 600 $ per month. We are rooting for you, Jim.
Scenario 2: Jason
Jason is 1 year ahead of Jim. He built a reputation on a popular FCFS translation website and he’s doing great there. He’s getting constant jobs at a rate of 0.05 $/word. He dedicates to his side hustle 10 working hours per week, Monday to Friday (2 hours per day). And he only spends 1 hour creating proposals for new jobs on other platforms. As he translates 300 words per hour, this means he’s getting 135 $ per week.
Jason followed the tips contained in this guide and over his first year he developed a niche – he translates contents related to clothing and style. He recently picked up a client in this area on Proz.com who’s sending him roughly 2,000 words per week at a rate of 0.08 $/word. This volume takes him 6 hours to take care of, and he mainly deals with it on Saturdays.
Jason is now making 135 $ from his translation platform work, plus 160 $ from his one Proz client. That’s 295 $ per week, 1275 $ per month.
Scenario 3: Jenny
Jenny is smart. As she started, she knew she didn’t have as much time as Jim and Jason during the week, but could dedicate the whole weekend to her translation work. She decided she’d not even try generalist platform, but would reach out to translation agencies playing her best card – she’s a nurse, so she can easily take on specialized medical translations (I told you she’s smart!).
For the first 4 months, Jenny spent 8 hours per week reaching out to translation agencies. She made basically 0 money throughout that period, but she’s seeing the results now.
9 months in, she’s working 10 hours per weekend with 3 different clients at an average rate of 0.09 $/word. And since she only works in her field of expertise, she’s fast. She can do 350 words per hour, and she’s confident she’ll soon be able to do 400.
Jenny makes 315 $ per week, 1365 $ per month. She has 4 more hours, and she’s hoping to get an extra client. Then she’ll see if she manages to get to 400 words per hour. If she pulls this off, she’ll be making 500 $ per week, a bit more than 2150 $ per month, working only on weekends.
How much can a translator with 3 years of experience make?
Scenario 1: Emma
Emma is a stay at home mom to two kids aged 4 and 7. She used to be a tour guide, but when she became a parent she decided to use her language degree in a different way and became a translator.
She got her first clients on Upwork, using the tips I shared in my guide to become a translator. By the time she graduated to work with translation agencies, she had stellar reviews on the platform, which helped her land a dream client – a small publisher of travel guides who pays her 0.08 $ per word, but is extremely flexible with deadlines and has work for her any time she wants.
She also has 3 agencies she cooperates with on a weekly or monthly basis, at a higher rate – 0.11 $/word.
She can translate 2200 words per day in 7 hours, which she usually splits between her long-term client and the agencies that require her services. She takes 6 weeks off every year, and her average income is 50,600 $ per year, 4200 $ per month.
As the kids grow up and require less of her time, she plans on slowly growing her business at least by 20,000 $ more over the next few years.
Scenario 2: Ern
Ernesto is a fantastic translator… with a fundamental problem – he’s slow. He never learned how to use a CAT tool in the best way. And he’s a slow typist.
But Ernesto is a great guy, his PMs love him and send him work whenever they have some. He works with a handful of agencies in technical translation, his main area of expertise.
Recently, he was contacted by a PM he worked with at one of those agencies. She liked to work with him, and wants him to also start to work with her new company. She told him there’s a steady flow of work in his language pair and area of expertise, and that he could expect 10k words per month. The problem is, he can’t handle the extra volume.
Right now, Ernesto works at 0.1 $/word, but he’s only able to translate 2000 words per day. He’s fully booked basically every day, and works on Saturdays as well to avoid turning down too many jobs and keep all of his clients happy. Since he takes 4 weeks off every year, on average he makes 4800 $ per month, 57600 $ per year.
If he wants to make more, or make the same while working 5 days per week, Ernesto needs to increase either his productivity or his rate.
Scenario 3: Erika
Erika’s goal is not to become rich with translation. She is a digital nomad, and cares more about the amazing flexibility her job offers her.
In her previous life, Erika taught university level chemistry. With her credentials, she soon found plenty of work in her niche.
The first year she worked any time she got the chance and made 36,000 $. By year two she had to make a conscious decision to only work 4 days a week, or she’d be glued to her translation projects all day. She found a number of recurring clients and her rates stabilized at 0.10 $ per word.
This year she raised her rate to 0.12 $ per word. She lost a client who couldn’t afford her anymore, but the others stuck with her because she provides a great level of service.
She works 7 hour days, 4 days a week. Since she can translate 375 words per hour, she makes 65,520 $ per year, 5460 $ per month.
She’s heard about direct clients and knows she could get one or two. But she also knows they are a lot to handle, and at this stage she prefers low-maintenance clients. She’s perfectly fine as she is and is not looking to increase her client base or her rates.
What money looks like for expert translators?
Scenario 1: Sun
Sun has been working as a translator for 7 years. She started with an MA in translation, and over the course of a couple years she established a loyal client base. In order to get higher-paying jobs, though, she knew she needed a well-defined area of expertise. She invested on her education and has taken a number of university-level courses on law and legal translation.
After 5 years she started to get more and more legal projects, and has since started to provide post editing of machine translation (PEMT) services as well.
Between regular translation and PEMT projects, she is busy most of the time. Last year she made 48,000 $ from translation only, and an additional 25,000 $ from her post-editing clients. Total for the year was therefore 73,000 $ – roughly 6,000 $ per month.
More importantly, she did some math and found out she’s making 20% more per hour when working on post-editing projects, and is actively looking for more PEMT-focused clients to make the same money while working less hours.
Scenario 2: Simon
Simon needed longer than others to break into the translation industry, as he started out without a degree in translation.
10 years later, he has built a very successful translation business, mainly focusing on a lifelong passion – video games.
Over the past 5 years, he has been getting jobs from direct clients in the field, mainly through word of mouth from previous clients and recommendations from colleagues. At the end of year 8, he had basically stopped taking projects from game localization agencies.
Now he’s mainly working with two game dev studios that pay him 75$ per hour for editing other translators’ work and leading teams of 5 to 20 translators. This is something he absolutely loves, as it gives him the time he needs to concentrate on the finer details. But he’s still actively translating for some small mobile game publishers.
Last year he dedicated 20 hours per week to his two main clients. Meanwhile, he localized 180,000 words across 6 additional games, which netted him 23,400 $ at a rate of 0,13 $/word. For the first time ever, he broke the 100,000 $ mark – he is now a six figure translator!
Scenario 3: Steve
Steve loves translating contents, but there’s something he loves even more – spending time with his children before they leave for college in three years.
Steve knows time is not running backwards, and after working long days for 15 years, his priorities have shifted.
As he realized he wanted more time for himself, Steve built a network of translators in his language pair and area of expertise, and right now sends them most of the jobs he gets. When he gets the files, he checks the quality to make sure it meets his standards, and provides feedback to his colleagues.
He thought this would significantly decrease his income, but it turns out that was not the case – since he now has a network of colleagues, he can accept a higher number of projects, and clients who picked up on that started sending him more work than ever.
In 3 years, Steve will be an empty-nester. He has always been the entrepreneurial type, and is considering starting a translation agency once he has more time.
For now, though, he’s perfectly happy as he is. After all, making 80,000 $ per year working 10 to 15 hour weeks is not that bad.
The simplest way to make more money as a translator
You act on the three key factors.
Get more clients than you can serve
If you are starting out in the industry, this is the easiest way to make more money. Keep adding new clients and they will send you more jobs, till you are booked all the time. You can find those clients on freelance platforms or on one of the many websites that offer translation jobs. Once you reach that point…
Raise your rates
Raising the rates you charge existing clients is difficult. It’s the human brain – we don’t want to pay more for the same thing. It makes us feel dumb.
So how do you raise your rates as you become a better translator? By applying your improved rates to new clients first. Wait till the new clients start sending you a steady stream of projects, then you can inform your lowest-paying (older) clients. Either they pay you more, or you’ll have to move on.
Not all clients will accept that. Some won’t want to, others just could never afford the new rate. But they may be able to offer you something else – e.g. quicker payment terms, or a guaranteed threshold of words per month.
If they have always been a good client, or you particularly enjoy working with them for any reason, you can accept those new conditions. But know that sooner or later, if you are at the higher end of their pay range and they are at your lower end, you’ll part ways.
Make more without charging more
Last, but not least, there is a way to make more without charging more – increase your productivity.
The more words you can translate per hour, the more flexible you can be with your rates. That might involve learning to type faster, or delving deeper into your area of specialization so that you no longer have to research any term. But the effort will pay dividends for years to come.