Money / Geld

We know that all translators earn at different rates. Literary translators translate stuff like Finnigans Wake and supplement their income by selling matches on street corners. Technical translators are locked into CAT systems and forced into dwindling returns for repeats as a result. Financial translators charge £500 per page for glossy brochures on stock-exchange startups but take several weeks to research them. And then there are those freelances who charge £15 per 1,000 words and make £300 per hour because they employ harems of audiotypists.

On a German translators’ mailing list, u-forum, there is a heated discussion on this topic (a euphemism for a bit of a free-for-all, with all sides accusing each other of ruining the market). Should I be amazed at the vitriol?

It’s focused on an article by Luis Cerna, based on rates in Germany, in which he says you should not work for more than 2000 hours per year for the sake of your health (what health?), and only 1000 of those hours will be translation, as opposed to acquisition, bookkeeping, organization etc.

Bei u-forum gibt es eine Diskussion auf Deutsch über Übersetzereinkommen für Freiberufler in Deutschland. u-forum findet man in dieser Liste bei Alexander von Obert.

Es geht zum Teil um diesen Artikel von Luis Cerna (deutsche Version).

LATER NOTE: The ADÜ-Nord’s survey on translators’ rates has now been published in book form. There’s a summary (in German) on the ADÜ-Nord website.

5 thoughts on “Money / Geld

  1. “. . . in which he says you should not work for more than 2000 hours per year for the sake of your health (what health?), and only 1000 of those hours will be translation”

    Indeed. There are several “shoulds” and “should nots” in the article, such as the statement that a “translator should not place him-/herself below [a] minimum figure [of] 51,130 Euro per year.”

    Were I writing a similar article in the U.S., I’d be much more circumspect. I might say instead of “should not work more” that “a reasonable person may not want to work more than X hours” or the like. One reason would be to stay clear of anti-trust law, by avoiding the impression of an _exhortation_ to limit work hours. And if I were discussing it on a forum with people in the same business or profession, I’d absolutely avoid anything that smacked of “accusing [anyone] of ruining the market.” “Don’t ruin the market” sounds very much like “don’t charge less than I charge,” and thus like an attempt at price-fixing.

    That’s not just an American sensitivity, by the way. The French anti-trust bodies have held that it’s illegal for bar organizations to tell their member lawyers that they “should not” ever charge prices that are too low to be sustainable in the long term. The French bodies noted that sometimes a truly competitive environment requires a seller to sell at a short-term loss, e.g., to get business even at a loss in order to become known, or just to stay afloat by having some income rather than none. They even condemned arguments about protecting “the public” by ensuring that market prices will not be so low as to drive many competent workers into other work. Is German (or EU generally) antitrust law so much less strict than the French?

    But leaving aside the _how_ to talk about it issue, the approach of the article doesn’t appear exceptionable. Everyone has a limited number of hours in a year that they’re happy working. Everyone has some expectations about what they want to earn. It is perfectly reasonable to do *some* kind of calculation that says “X is the number of hours I want to work, after giving myself a desired number of vacation days, sick days, and so on; Y is what I want to make; Z is my typical throughput in some units per hour; Q is the proportion of work hours that are directly productive rather than overhead in accounting, marketing, etc., and P is the average rate per unit I might expect; so unless XxZxQxP>Y, I’d be better off doing something else (or trying to find a way to change one or more of those numbers).” Some may choose to forego vacation days they might expect as an employee in some other field; others may choose to adjust their expectations about how much to put away for retirement or to spend currently; others may try to adjust the factors in the calculation; and yet others might decide to treat the equation as a guide to the question “would I be better off doing something else?”

    “Don’t sell yourself short” is good advice, and everyone can decide for himself what is “short”; but “don’t sell your skills similar to mine for less than I would or do” could be a problem.

  2. Michael: of course you’re right that the general approach of the article in calculating available and maximum hours is sensible – it was the specific details in this one that I found a bit odd. There was an article a few years ago by Herr Stellbrink comparing what a freelance should earn to be in the same position as an employed translator that did this very well, but it’s probably not online and not available in English.

    I think the law is similar in Germany (but I don’t know if it’s enforced so strictly in this area), but the cry of translators (as opposed to professional associations) ‘X / Y / Z is ruining the market for me’ is very common. I can’t remember anyone expressing sensitivity as you do about uttering this, except on the basis that it doesn’t make economic sense. I will add a note on the ADÜ-Nord rates survey; I think the BDÜ may have held back from such a survey for fear of falling foul of the law.

    Translators who work for the courts in Germany are paid either EUR 1.25 or EUR 1.85 per line depending on the difficulty of the text, and that is something where there is a lot of pressure to force the court offices to pay the higher price, as the statute is new and precedents need to be established. I presume that such arguments are permissible?

  3. >>And then there are those freelances who charge £15 per 1,000 words and make £300 per hour because they employ harems of audiotypists.

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