Rates and career structure

Visit translators’ forums and Facebook pages and you will invariably find discussions around the Catch-22 questions of how novice translators can gain experience and start specialising without being exploited, whether they should offer initial low rates to the dodgier agencies in order to gain precious experience and so on.

This dilemma has hardly changed for the 30-odd years I have been in the profession because inexperienced translators will always need time to learn on the job.

What’s the solution?

We could start by looking at other comparable professions and see how they tackle the problem of training.

Writers, revisers, editors and proof-readers are in the same situation as most self-employed translators. Their career structure is more fluid and there is little or no differential between rates as professionals become more experienced.

Now that any suitably qualified language professional can apply to the CIOL to become a chartered linguist (a person who has gained a specific level of skill or competence in a particular field of work, which has been recognised by the award of a formal credential by a relevant professional organisation), we could look for guidance to other chartered professions, such as accountancy or engineering. Their career structures are hierarchical and include a training period when the new accountant or lawyer earns less and is guided by experienced colleagues. This seems to be a fairer system for all concerned if we could achieve it.

Rates are a thorny problem. One view – let’s call it option A – is that we should be driving rates up as high as we can for the good of the profession, i.e. we should take what is generally agreed by other translators to be a fair rate as our starting point and plough forward regardless on that basis.

Then again, a yardstick based purely on a rate per word, page or line fails to take into account a multitude of other factors, including the amount that can be earned per hour, job satisfaction, work continuity, translator-client relationship, language combination rarity and the law of supply and demand.

A common-sense solution – option B – is to work backwards instead and think about how much we actually need, want or deserve to live on, then calculate the best and most feasible rate to achieve that level of income based on our individual circumstances. The bottom line is that we need to ensure we have enough to pay the rent. Option A needn’t necessarily be incompatible with option B.

So what help are we getting with the knotty problem of rates and career progression from our professional organisations and the universities who are turning out hundreds of new translation MA graduates each year?

Professional bodies offer scant guidance with one rates survey every blue moon and no rate recommendations. The ITI has even repeatedly given its ‘Corporate Member’ award to a translation company that pays its translators about GBP 0.065–0.07 per word. Is this a sign of ITI’s central organisation being out of touch – or cronyism? Whatever – it’s not helpful.

So what about universities – surely they should at least ensure that MA graduates emerge from their courses with a good portfolio that they can use to find work and overcome the initial dilemma of no experience and no specialisation?

After four or five years as a part time tutor and external examiner for two long-established translation MA courses, I’m confident that this is usually not the case – with regard to subject matter or volume of work. Weekly course assignments are quite short (250–300 words) and too often based on journalistic articles culled from the internet. Longer assignments are only 2000 or so words with generous deadlines. Students don’t tackle really long texts of 10–12,000 words until they do their dissertations and the subjects will generally not be useful as part of a portfolio. The first shock facing MA graduates is that to earn a living they might have to translate several thousand words a day and the subjects will be completely new to them.

For MA students to start work with a truly useful portfolio, they should have to translate the length and variety of texts that they will be offered when they start work: contracts, patents, pharmaceutical regulatory affairs, EU/UN documents, websites, tourism and so on. The problem is that lecturers on translation MA courses often aren’t competent to mark such texts and don’t have the time.

Tools of the trade are another problem for novice translators. Most graduates starting out as freelancers are quickly faced with the dilemma of whether or not to invest in an expensive CAT tool and other software. This is a tough call because they have no spare cash at this point and not enough experience in using such tools at university to be able to decide which to buy.

It would be much better if students had the opportunity to use a range of CAT tools and other software such as voice recognition, quality checkers and so on as an integral part of each and every translation assignment during their course, where possible.

Manufacturers could offer cheap or even free licenses that would cover the MA year and the first few months of work and charge for full versions when the novice translators are earning enough to pay for them.

In any case, is a translation MA even the best way into the profession? A translation MA is not a requirement to gain Chartered status or to work as a professional language service provider according to the translation standard ISO 17100:2015. Since one of the main problems facing new translators is how to achieve specialisation, it could be much more useful for them to take a degree in another subject or gain experience working in a certain field and then move into translation. My first degree was in Biology and I’ve found that and my background as a scientist working in the health service to be an invaluable aid when doing medical translations and even engineering. I think like a scientist, not a linguist.

Back to the problem of gaining precious experience: in the past there were more in-house positions where novice translators could hope to have their work revised by a more experienced colleague. Now the tendency is for work to be assigned by project managers who don’t translate themselves and are not really qualified to act as a useful interface between translator and client or offer translators any practical guidance.

One way round this could be for experienced translators to offer short, paid internships to novice translators.

I’ve found this works well by personal experience: for a few years running, I took on one MA student each year on the course I taught for a short internship during the summer after graduation.

A time-frame of about 4-6 weeks was usually fine. The students came into my office nearly every day, learned how to use CAT tools, built up termbases and were able to ask questions about setting up their own businesses. They got feedback on their work, added the experience to their CVs and were able to give my name as a reference.

I paid them a reasonable intern rates and definitely wasn’t out of pocket because I got through more work than normal, even factoring in the time for explaining and correcting. It was also fun to work with someone else for a short period and I’ve stayed in touch with all my interns, often passing on more work to them.

Short internships might not be feasible for everyone, but might be one answer to the perennial Catch-22 problem of how new translators can gain experience and specialise.