10 May 2013

Finding out where you stand as a freelance translator

This has been a fantastic week: I may have been a little slow to write, but I have done lots of research and come upon some great stuff I am now ready to share with you!

I have given a lot of thought to where I stand as a freelance translator. I have been doing this for eight months now, and while I hugely surpassed my own expectations from the start, I appear to have stabilized since then.

I did not actually set out to assess my position. It all started quite indirectly. I came across New York University's online M.S. in Translation and thought that might be a good medium-term plan. So I emailed NYU, looked at the brochure and then emailed them again to clarify exactly how much the programme cost. It seemed ridiculously expensive, but I got lost in per course fees and thought I might as well ask for the real figure. And NYU staff told me it cost 57,000 dollars! Yes, no typos: 57,000 dollars!!!

The good thing about such a staggering amount, of course, is that I couldn't even feel tempted! Once I got over the shock, however, I went about finding out two things.

The first thing I wanted to know was how much a decent translator can hope to make per year. I mean, if there are people willing to spend $57,000 on a two-year Masters programme, there must surely be translators (hopefully those who did the NYU masters at the very least!) who are making very serious money from the profession!

My research (actually the ATA's) showed that the average US-based freelance translator makes about $60,000 per year in pre-tax income. A non-US-based frelancer makes around $56,000 per year, the ATA says.

This put the NYU figure into perspective, but it showed I am light years away from that average! So I made the most of a LinkedIn debate to ask ATA colleagues when I, or any other newcomer, might hope to reach that level. I got a reply from no less than ATA director Corinne McKay, so let me quote her here because I found her answer hugely interesting:

"I think that everyone probably has their own metric, but I normally say to expect an intense startup phase of 6-12 months, meaning that you're marketing most of the time without a lot of work necessarily coming in. After that, I think that it takes most people 1 1/2 to 3 years before they're fully established, meaning that they have a good base of regular clients and are earning at least what they would be earning from a 'regular' job."

I am so thankful to Corinne for those numbers! It really helps to know where you stand.

The second thing I wanted to know was whether there were any reasonable alternatives to the NYU Masters programme. By reasonable, of course, I mean cheaper! Or, to put it more elegantly, I mean real value for money.

I set out to look for an online Masters that I could afford and which gave me a good specialization in finance and a title from a reputable university that people would acknowledge anywhere in the world. I asked around and heard about the University of Texas at Brownsville and the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona, among others, but nothing really suited my needs. These were cheaper, of course (eg. 4,200 euros at the UAB), but they were not what I was looking for.

So I switched to looking for specialized non-degree courses rather than Masters. And, to make a long story short, I wound up back at NYU. It turns out that they have a Certificate in Translation that is much more affordable (6 courses, at $695 each) and that would allow me to focus entirely on financial translation. So it is cheap (anything looks cheap after you read $57,000!), I can do it online at my own pace, it is from NYU and so is recognizable around the world, and it allows me to really focus on what I want to specialize in. Bingo! I am hoping to start within a few weeks.

In line with this, I want to mention the most exciting piece of advice I got this week, courtesy of Marta Stelmaszak. The post is actually a few weeks old but I only read it now. Marta blogged on specialization, and wrote something I found simply brilliant:

"There's something I do for money (legal), something I'm skilled in (business), and something I really enjoy (IT). That's a good starting point, and I have the balance I need."

For me, this was a real eye-opener, a fantastic wake up call to really focus. So I filled in the brackets for myself and thought that, when I grow up, I will translate financial documents for money, business because I'm skilled in it and Social Science because I love that.

I told you I was in a position to pack this post with food for thought for an aspiting translator! Enjoy!


  1. Thanks for the post, Veronica! I too settled on the NYU certificate program as the best fit for me, but I want to mention the online Master's at the University of Illinois. It is brand new -- first cohort starts this year -- and a lot less expensive than NYU's Master's. Their website is www.translation.illinois.edu.

    1. Thank you, Rachael, for taking the time to read the post and to comment! I will definitely bear in mind the Illinois programme, particularly as it gets established, although I think the NYU certificate is what suits me best for now.