Don’t worry, this post isn’t a homage to gangsta’ rap. The title refers to the implements used by translators to shoot themselves – or, if they’re Italian, hoe themselves – in the foot where pay’s concerned (the Italian expression is “darsi una zappata sui piedi”. Another reason to avoid gardening). Following on from my last two posts – Translators’ pay: how much are you worth? and Job satisfaction… and the UK’s (surprising?) top job – on translators’ pay and rates, I thought it might be useful to give some real-life examples that illustrate how translators all too often undervalue their work and their service to clients. (Please bear with me, non-translator readers – this is relevant to other professions too, I think).
Scenario 1: qualified member of professional organisation, 20 years’ experience, legal and financial specialist
An agency I sometimes work with contacted me a few months ago asking if I could translate a stock option plan. The agency’s client was a corporate law firm, which in turn was working for an Italian company about to be listed on the stock exchange. The translation, of nearly 5000 words (about 23 translation pages), was needed the following day. I couldn’t take it on but found a translator – a qualified member of her national professional organisation with 20 years’ experience and specialising in economic-financial – who could. Her quote (agency rate) was £0.07 per word, which included an urgency surcharge of, by my calculation but I could well be wrong, around 8% on her standard rate of £0.065.
So that makes a fee of £350 (an hourly rate of £28-35, depending on time taken) for approximately 2 days’ work compressed into 1, and requiring the translator to set aside any existing projects or plans, to translate a complex financial-legal document. The company was duly listed a few days later and raised around $1 billion.
Scenario 2: translators with 5 to 10 years’ experience, no professional membership, no specialist expertise
A few days after this, I received some unsolicited translator CVs in my mailbox (I’m not an agency but get these “job applications” all the same). On average, the translators had been translating for 8 years and their agency fee per word was £0.65 – so the same rate as the translator above. They were all generalists. None of them were qualified members of a professional association. None of them had specialist degrees (eg in translation studies).
Scenario 3: local plumbers
Yes, I know, we always pick on plumbers: “It was a waste of time going to university, I should have trained as a plumber instead and I’d be raking in the money”. Anyway, we had a leaky tap a couple of weeks ago, at 6.30 pm on a Friday. The tap wasn’t just dripping, it was flowing. It was the hot water tap. And it was attached to the wash-hand basin in my daughter’s bedroom. So we needed to get it fixed.
I phoned around some plumbers in our neighbourhood and eventually found one – located 5 minutes away by car – who was available. He gave me a quote of £140, his weekend rate, to fix the tap. His standard call-out rate is £40, making a weekend/after-hours surcharge of (again, my calculation) 250%.
I eventually found another plumber based 5 minutes’ drive away, who came round promptly and repaired the tap for £40. No weekend rate (although I’d have paid an extra charge – just not an additional £100!). It took him about 20 minutes – so £40 for half an hour’s work including travelling time. Paid on the nail.
Let’s put all of this into perspective. Translator A has 20 years experience, has passed her professional exam and has specialist expertise in two difficult fields (fields in which people in other professions make LOTS of money). She charges the same as translators with less than half that experience, no professional membership or specific qualification, and no discernible field of specialist expertise. She applies an urgency surcharge of 8%, compared with an after-hours surcharge of 250% applied by a local plumber. Taking an hourly rate, she charges much less than the standard rate for local plumbers (who admittedly, for longer jobs, are unlikely to charge £40 for every half-hour worked… I hope). The translation she quoted for was required by a corporate lawyer to help a company worth millions of dollars become even richer (much richer).
What price career progression for translators? Any thoughts?
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By Marian Dougan