Macro/Micro: The wages of translation

Raising the minimum wage could be America’s ticket out of poverty, or that’s what proponents of the politic are saying, while opponents claim minimum wage increases merely move the bar on what poverty means without improving conditions for those living in it. This is the debate the United States started having long before federal minimum wage requirements entered law with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). Almost 100 years of debate, and still humanity can’t agree on how much those who take the jobs the rest of us don’t want deserve to be paid for them.

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour to $10.10. A year later, after the change hadn’t happened, he told Congress, “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, try it.”

Whether or not Congress can agree on the appropriate amount for the minimum wage today, I hope we all would agree the conditions that prompted the FLSA — Dust Bowl images of Ma and Pa Joad having to hand their full earnings straight back to the company store — needed change. The United States was coming off the Great Depression, and if you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, you know just how depressing working in America at the time could be. Since the birth of minimum wage, the idea of a living wage has now risen, with many government requests for proposals (RFPs) requiring respondents to sign affidavits affirming that they don’t just pay the minimum wage, but that they pay at least a higher, living wage instead. Compared to the minimum wage, a living wage is based on what a person needs to, well, live. And while how we each define life may vary, what this means in a legal and economic construct is the ability to pay for basics — food, water, shelter. The fact that the minimum is lower than living is morally appalling to many. But as Steinbeck himself wrote, “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

And requiring a minimum wage is something governments do all around the world. There are 193 members of the United Nations, and while the way these wages are structured varies widely, 192 of those members do have federally-mandated minimum wage requirements in place.

We here in the United States should not be ones to complain about obnoxiously varying government structures. As I mentioned earlier, our federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. And that’s exactly what you’ll earn per hour at a minimum wage job in my home state of Kentucky. Come to the District of Columbia, though, where I now live, and minimum wage is $9.50, the highest in the nation. In Wyoming and Georgia, though, it’s only $5.15. Don’t ask me how this can be lower than the federal rate — even I, an American, don’t understand. It just is.

Granted, while none of us like to think about the negative results of one job paying more than another, as a people we consider the positive results a virtue. Why, of course the boss should make more than the bossed. She has more stress. Why, of course a salesperson should make more than a project manager. He brings in the revenue. Why, of course I should make more than you do. I’m smarter and work harder. All these “of courses” become a mighty slippery slope, which together come down to one thing: everyone wants their due. Find a story in the Bible full of angry people, and it’s Christ’s Parable of the Vineyard, where regardless of what time the farm laborers began, at the end of the day the vineyard owner paid them all the same amount. It’s human nature to want more if you do more work.

Perhaps this is why we never think about minimum wage when it comes to translation — because you get paid for exactly what you do. Translation, after all, isn’t billed by the hour, it’s billed by the word. The construct allows translation purchasers and sellers to pretend time is analogous. In fact, the translator community advises precisely that: the new translators determining what to charge should continue the per word model and, as translator Corinne McKay blogs, “figure out how many hours [they] want to work… Then convert that into an hourly rate, figure out how fast [they] usually translate, and that will yield [their] target per-word rate.” McKay isn’t the only one with similar advice online, and at American Translators Association conferences you’ll also hear the same from hundreds of other freelance translation leaders. We agree to work by the word, but at the end of the day, the reality is that translators still have to make so much an hour, just like everyone else.

But is this per hour above the minimum wage? According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10% of translators and interpreters in the United States make under $23,570 a year. Assuming a 40-hour workweek, that’s $11.33 an hour. This is above minimum wage ($7.25), but it is below the living wage that translation companies pledge to abide by when submitting bids to federal, state and municipal governments.

The trick about Bureau of Labor figures, though, is that it takes all sorts of translators and interpreters into account when developing its $45,430 per year (or, $21.84 per hour) average — in-house freelance; higher-priced languages, lower-priced languages; even those who translate for the government itself. But when we think about wages for the type of translators most MultiLingual readers work with, we’re looking at a very specific subset of this data: The freelancer. What does she make?

An even better question — and the answer to the question I just asked — is what do clients pay for translation? Those of us on the language services provider (LSP) side have long felt the pressure declining rates has put on our industry. It’s understandable. Client costs have gone up in other areas, tech disruption has lowered the cost of business in other industries, and translation must compete and compare to the realities of a modern business budget. As Steinbeck put it, companies “breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat.” Economics are real for our clients, especially those in medical devices who have more taxes and regulation costs levied against them than ever before. And when companies like One Hour Translation and Gengo sell translation to them at $0.14 a word, what were perfectly reasonable average rates of $0.24 a word suddenly look like a rip-off, even if they’re not.

What you get for a bottom-basement price is an entirely different article, but the point I want to make is that what you don’t get is a whole lot of money to pay people with. Take a cent or two away for marketing and sales costs. Pull another cent off of that for other overhead, like keeping the lights going and the server humming and the phone line turned on. Give two more cents to the government in taxes, and suddenly you’re left with $0.09 a word — before leverage discounting, mind you — that must be used to pay four people or more: the translator, the proofreader, the project manager and the CEO. The percentages these four receive are certainly not equal, but just to make the math easy we’ll divide $0.09 by 4. That’s $0.0225 a word — again, all before leverage. With the average translator translating 2,000 to 3,000 words daily, that’s $5.63 to $8.44 an hour. And suddenly you are below the minimum wage — and again, that’s not even reducing yet for leverage discounts.

Of course, leverage discounts mean available translation memory, which translates into the ability to process more words an hour. But as the rate for these new words can be discounted by as much as 90%, the difference may just be a break even. Which is better for the wage earner: To translate 100 words at .10 a word or 1000 at .01?

Of course, part of how One Hour Translation, Gengo and other companies that charge lower rates do so is by automating project management. By cutting out the project manager, this is one less person needing to be paid from the pie. Whether that means more money for the actual translator in the end, though, is a question only they can answer. And also to these companies’ credit, many also contract with translators in countries where a dollar goes a whole lot further. Minimum wage in the District of Columbia is higher than it is in Kentucky for a reason: it costs more to live in DC. But I can’t shake the feeling that their translators could make more money, well, making shakes at the drive-thru. And ethically, I just have a problem with that.

I get that clients need to balance budgets, and I get that we as an industry need to find better ways of doing this in order to bring those prices down, but I don’t get how certain clients and LSP owners can agree with Obama socially, saying the working man deserves more, then go into work the next morning and pay their translators so little. At some point you have to do the math and think. But the danger of that, as Steinbeck warned, is “You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff.”