Lessons from a Graduate Student in Translation: Market Overview

As the semester draws to a close, it may be beneficial to look at one of the most relevant elements of any career — and one that has been on every one of my classmates’ minds for some time: salary. While translators and interpreters are no starving artists, all but the most prominent ones cannot boast six-figure salaries. The task of calculating language professionals’ incomes is further complicated by the fact that a great many of them are freelancers. This means that most studies that attempt to chart income distribution cannot take into account the number of hours and weeks worked per year. Still, some data are available, and they are a good place to wrap up my first semester as a graduate student in translation and interpretation.

Translation, while not particularly lucrative, allows language professionals the freedom to dictate their working hours and conditions. Translations are typically priced on a per-word basis, with a translator working through 2,000 to 3,000 words each day, and prices vary depending on the language combination. Arabic and Chinese garner the highest price per word, while Spanish and French are found on the lower end of the spectrum. Rush jobs and technical or scientific translations garner the highest per-word price.

Interpret America, in conjunction with Common Sense Advisory, has compiled a text that examines the interpreter marketplace in the United States and includes information about interpreter demographics and salary. Most of interpreters polled in this study work into and out of Spanish, are female, and are between 38 and 57 years of age, with most having over 20 years of work experience. These demographics are consistent with the overall interpreter market, sustained success in which demands a thorough education and consistent networking, as well as numerous years to build up a client base.

According to Interpret America’s study, interpreters are most typically paid by the hour (66.6% of those surveyed), with the use of daily rates coming in at 25.6%. Interestingly enough, over 20% of those surveyed indicated that they made less than $10,000 from interpreting work in 2009, while approximately 10% found themselves in each of the next few brackets, which went up incrementally by $10,000. The median for freelance interpreters, however, hovered around $33,000 for 2009. For more information about Interpret America, as well as a treasure trove of interpreter data, please visit their website.

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