Translator Salary – What languages pay the most

Posted on: January 18, 2021   in: Chinese

Which Languages Pay the Most, what is the a good translator salary?

When I tell people I run a translation services company, one of the first things people ask me is, “Which language is the most ‘profitable’?”  I can only speak for translation and interpreting, but when you look at the breakdowns of the average wages within the industry, the results are striking.

The T&I industry includes something like 15,000 companies round the world, of which the vast majority are small operations. About 3 billion USD is spent within the industry each year. That turnover is about the same as ONE SINGLE airline, and yet manages to feed the hundreds of thousands of translators and interpreters worldwide. There are many studies looking at the pay for different language combinations, and they generally show similar trends.

I myself speak Mandarin Chinese (both Traditional and Simplified) and at conferences I’m always told by French-speaking colleagues that “I must be earning a fortune, Chinese is so difficult”. Maybe that’s just a subtle way of getting me to pay for dinner, but it also shows one common misconception. It’s harder to learn Chinese than French (for an English speaker), so people expect that we get more pay for our work. We can dispel that myth right now.

Bulgaria is a country full of Bulgarians who speak Bulgarian. Many of them also speak varying degrees of English. In fact, Bulgarian is regularly cited as one of the most over-served languages. There are numerous Bulgarian translators chasing relatively few assignments, so competition is very strong and the pay is low. Bulgaria is a classic example of how linguists can only earn good money when there is plenty of other industry to work with. Pay goes down significantly when translators and interpreters outnumber the available jobs.

Various translation forums publish data on our income and it varies wildly with skill and experience as well as qualifications etc. I’ve linked here to a fairly entry level one, which doesn’t quite ring true to me, but it gives an idea. The ITI do a good salary survey in the UK but it’s only published for members. The Proz one I have linked to is open to anyone, hence all the noise and strange data.

Some countries respect the need for professional linguists more than others. In my own experience, the Swiss and Germans seem to have their act together when it comes to foreign languages. They’ve got strong institutions and regulate the industries tightly. The English on the other hand, are vaguely aware that Franz needs something written in German, so they’ll give it to their brother’s neighbour who once went to Berlin on holiday. When I quote a fair price to an English client, the first reaction resembles a dog seeing a card trick for the first time. But it’s ONLY French, how can you charge so much to make something FRENCH.

If you are an American and decide to work as a Somalian translator, there will be work around, and perhaps the rates will be reasonable. However, all of your clients will be American, and work will be somewhat limited. Compare that situation to an American working from French. They can work for any virtually any French business as well as their American clients. The difference is that French companies can afford to pay an American translator a good amount of money for the translation, whereas many Somalian businesses cannot. This situation also affects other languages like Mongolian, Indonesian, and Chinese (at the moment anyway), which is why I’m not yet the millionaire my colleagues expect me to be. You will get less work if the country which speaks your other language cannot afford to pay rates which are normal in your country.

It’s good to be Scandinavian. That’s what I’ve been told, although I’ve never tried it. Certainly if you are a linguist, it might be a good choice to be born in Scandinavia if at all possible. They have a good respect and awareness of languages, they are rather rich, and they have plenty of industries which sell to the world. Even back in 2001, UK-based Norwegian to English translators charged 115GBP/1000 words, almost double the average.

The main trend is that linguists, as it were, are worthless! What companies need are lawyers who can read and write contracts in Greek, or engineers who can write building plans in Italian, or translators who can read and understand business publications written in Spanish. Languages are much more valuable when used in combination with another skill. I get something like 30 resumes per week from linguists who just completed studies in a foreign language. The trouble is that they can’t understand technical, legal, financial, business or regulatory environments. For any specialist document, there will always be words and ways of speaking which are unique to the industry and which require a strong industry background.

Best Paid Language Combinations for UK Linguists

  1. French <> Swedish 0.15GPB/word
  2. Greek<>Swedish 0.126GBP/word
  3. German<>Swedish 0.125GBP/word

Worst Paid with lowest Translator Salary

  1. Greek<>French 0.035GBP/word
  2. English <> Greek, English <> Welsh 0.05GBP/word
  3. German <> Polish 0.055GBP/word