Hardly a day goes by without someone complaining about dwindling translation rates on Proz or a translation group on some social network.
I’ve been in the industry for close to a decade now. Not anywhere near as long as some of my more experienced peers, but enough to say such claims are nothing new. When I started out, people were already complaining about how they kept receiving translation job offers at insulting rates, MT post-editing projects disguised as proofreading tasks and the like. If you spend too much time reading such posts, you may start thinking that, at the pace things go, we will soon have to pay for the right to work.
It’s quite possible there’s a part of truth there. Translation rates may well be decreasing with time. But how significant the phenomenon is, and should you be worried about it? To my knowledge, there are no authoritative studies about translation rate evolution over a significant period.
Still, let’s try to put things into perspective. Although I lack the hard data to back my ideas, I sincerely think translators shouldn’t be too worried about their future.
A perception issue?
When you are in the bad part of the feast and famine cycle, or just getting established, it can be frustrating to receive yet another job offer at $0.01/word (the language pair doesn’t really matter at that point) or some dubious “proofreading” project. These get more annoying with time, once you’ve built up a clientele and got more experienced. No time to waste for bottom feeders.
Worse still, you may get the occasional mass email from one of your regular clients informing you about they won’t be able to pay your current rate anymore or that they have a new ridiculously harsh TM discount grid. Some agencies will put pressure on their translators pretty much by principle. If translators accept their terms, it’s only beneficial to them, if they don’t the agency can always look for new partners. If this can give you any relief, I recently heard about a low-paying agency actually raising the rate they offer to their new translators because they had overused the above technique.
These frustrating moments may lead you into believing the translation world is only made of sharks waiting to bite into your salary. Yet, when I take time to think about it calmly, I don’t feel average rates have been significantly decreasing over the past few years. Clients come and go, and generally it’s just a matter of refreshing your client base, dropping low payers to better welcome more understanding ones. The thing is that you need to keep marketing your services to protect and ideally improve your income, and this holds for any industry.
Also, always remember: YOU set the rates. If you stay calm and courteous, you might be able to negotiate better rates than you’d imagine.
Are you targeting the right clients?
Most of the time, translators complaining about rates are the ones working mostly or exclusively with agencies. In fact, I’ve never seen a translator working only with direct clients complain about rates. And, if you listen to the most talkative ones, those rates pretty much match the ones some translators claim they used to charge “when translators were treated as professionals.” If you feel agencies are giving an unfair treatment, it’s maybe time to spend more efforts chasing direct clients. Easier said than done, of course, but no reward comes without hard work.
Not that I think there’s anything wrong with agencies in general. Some will reject the very idea of working through middlemen, but I like the stability and predictability agencies offer. There are lots of bad ones out there, but the good ones are plenty enough to keep me busier than needed. Thanks to them, I never get to the point of starvation during slow times. Once again, it’s all about picking the right partners.
I’ve had good success with boutique agencies, those that are mostly focused on one specialization field or language pair. They tend to offer better rates as their end clients are generally looking for quality rather than low prices. Some larger agencies will also accept very reasonable rates if you know how to deal with them. It’s often a mix of being specialized, putting your negotiation skills to use and talking to the right PM. It can be well worth the effort.
“Rates used to be higher, period.” What about your income?
I can’t tell whether rates are lower now than they were 10 years ago, but I have no doubt they were much higher 30 years ago. And I suppose agencies weren’t putting quite that much pressure on us to offer TM or MT-related discounts 10 years ago. Yet, it doesn’t necessarily mean translators are making less money now than they used to. Computers got much faster, the Internet became an incredible source knowledge if you know the right places, and in general there are many aspects of the translation workflow we can automate. Even if you focus on the last 5-10 years, CAT and productivity tools got a whole lot better. If rates ever went down, a smart use of the tools available should allow you to make up for it. Lifelong learning at work.
These technological improvements may be less relevant for the most creative specialization fields, but they also seem to be the ones that tend to resist the best to rate decreases.
In the end, per-word rates are just one of the many variables that determine how much you earn at the end of the month.
Back to my own case, I’ve seen my income grow steadily since I’ve become a translator, and there is no sign that this is going to stop anytime soon. Average rates may have been going down, but mine haven’t. Remember, the market is large and growing, and there are plenty of amazing clients out there. It’s only up to you to go find them.
And now, with machine translation…
One of my main specializations (IT, especially when it comes to documentation) also happens to be one the least creative ones (all things being relative). Understand one the easiest to translate for trained MT engines on paper. However, current MT engines are at a loss once you stray away even just a little bit from the patterns they’re trained for. The technology still has serious limitations, and I’m not the one saying it. Sure, the quality of machine translation has been improving over time, but it’s simply not there yet, even for relatively straightforward language pairs and fields.
I have covered this topic in length already, so I won’t expand too much here. Long story short: MT is improving and it is useful for a lot of things, but if you want to publish a professional text, just ask a human translator.
Once science hacks the human brain, maybe… but then we’ll probably have even more important things to worry about.
If you are worried about your future as a translator, stop right now. You can still make a very healthy living from your job. Stay calm, ignore insulting requests, cherish your good clients, always be on the lookout for new ones, and polish your skills. Things will just work out naturally if you stay focused.