2018: A year in the life of a literary translator

Poring over spreadsheets

I wonder how many literary translators do regular statistical analysis of their output. If you do, I’d love to hear how you go about it, as I’m rather feeling my way here.

I’ve just spent a few hours doing looking back and analysing the work I’ve done over the past tax year (March 2018 to March 2019, roughly from one London Book Fair to the next), and I think it’s helped me get things straight in my head. After a period of frustration about the ratio of work done to income, I think a bit of spreadsheet gazing has helped me gain a little perspective again.

I’ve been through a maelstrom of feelings about my work lately:

  • amazed and happy that I’ve been so busy and that I’ve had such wonderful books to work on
  • exhausted at managing so much work in such short working hours (due to small children)
  • confused that I seem to have earned so little (just over £19K and I’ve worked much longer hours than I can sustain long-term; of course, to some this will sound a lot, but it’s less than the UK average salary and translation is a highly specialised skill, and also I left a full-time job 10 years ago where I earned £29K)
  • frustrated that I work so hard and *yet again* haven’t reached what’s become my holy grail of £20K a year (although thankfully my income has crept up gradually every year that I’ve been freelance since 2009. It was *really* low in the first years)
  • determined to work out what I’m doing wrong and find a way to sneak my rates up
  • genuinely surprised that I did so much stuff that I’d forgotten about
  • keen to reassure myself that this was an exceptional year, that I did a lot more unpaid, career development stuff than I will ever do again, that things are going to get easier in future years, that I am a professional with dignity and some earning power, I just went a bit crazy this year with marketing and extra-curriculars. But now I’ve identified this, I can totally rein it in next year. Right?

An exhausting mix of emotions! But that’s what’s been spinning around in my head lately, and a day with my accounts spreadsheet and some very basic data analysis has helped me make some sense of it.

I’ve attempted to capture everything I can remember doing this year and break it down into days per activity. My spreadsheet of what I did this year lists nearly 50 items. Broken down by theme these were:

Translation: 16 projects

I worked on 4 full-length books (1 literary novella, 1 middle grade novel and 2 nonfiction books – one history, one nature), and of those 2 were co-translations. One book, the literary novella which was the only longer translation from Arabic, took a disproportionate amount of time for its size. Richly metaphysical and metaphorical, and that takes time!

Then there were 4 picture books (3 for kids and 1 adult gift book)

There was 1 essay and 1 short story, and 6 sample translations of between 900 – 8000 words. The samples were a mix of paid and unpaid.

My total earned from translation was approx £16,500 over roughly 180 days worked (36 weeks), which was just over £90 per day. I would like to earn more than this because obviously there are many days when I’m doing unpaid admin etc and the translation days really need to earn enough to cover them. That’s something I’m working on. All the translation work I’ve done this year (and most since I began specialising in literary translation in 2013) have been paid at the TA ‘observed rate’ of £95/1000 words, or above, and yet my experience generally shows that it’s nowhere near enough to cover my time. And I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly slow translator.

I tend to charge by the source text, although that effectively means I do myself out of potential earnings as my languages are all relatively concise ones which result in a longer translated text (and not just because I’m verbose!). The character count is often similar, but the English version will have a greater word count than the German/Russian/Arabic. And yet I prefer to charge a fixed fee outlined in the contract and not have the fee dependent on the resulting word count, so the challenge is to find ways to present clients with fair and persuasive payment options which are also fair to me.

The total number of words translated (English word counts): 212,062 words in one year! Blimey. I’m not sure, but I suspect that’s a record for me (in 15+ years of regular translation work). Also, they were amazing books. I still can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to get all these commissions.

And over 180 days, that was about 1,200 words per day, which sounds about right, factoring in editing time too.

Editing: 4 projects

This was editing other people’s translations, from German, Russian and Ukrainian, and amounted to about 12 days total, and just over £1200, so just over £100 per day. I’ve also included editing in this category when it was a co-translation where my role was mainly as editor. Interesting to see that I charged more favourably for editing than I did for translating, suggesting – as I always suspect – that I should indeed charge more for translation.

Events: 11 listed

Events listed included ones I attended as an audience member, and ones where I was speaking, but in both cases I spend time on them for the sake of networking, supporting the translation community, CPD, or just out of passion for languages/books/translation.

I should probably break this category down more usefully into events I’m paid for, and events I pay to attend, but lumped all together, they included my first Society of Authors/Translators Association committee meeting, 1 book launch, 1 symposium on how to deliver creative translation workshops in schools, 3 panel discussions, and 5 translation workshops (me teaching rather than attending, not all paid). I spent a total of 8 days on these and earned £350. All expenses paid but in terms of actual earnings, that’s £44 per day, or if I only include the 5 paid translation workshop days then that’s £70 per day. Hmm. Happily, the Warwick Translates Summer School where I’m leading the Arabic group in July 2019 is paid so I look forward to that balancing out the stats.

With the panels, it’s hard to reduce them to a fee or not-fee-paying category when, even if they’re not paid, I benefit so much from them in terms of development, networking, ideas, inspiration, reputation… not to mention free entry to London Book Fair. I’m grateful to Amazon Crossing last year and Literature Across Frontiers this year for inviting and funding me to take part in seminars at LBF. The Translating Gay Identities panel at the British Library (thanks Jen!) was life-changing in terms of the colleagues I met through it and the research I spent time delving into, helping me to develop a personal interest in LGBTQ writing into something more like a professional angle.

Writing: 8 items listed

I don’t (yet) see writing as a professional paid activity for me, but rather as an opportunity to write about what I love, market my books, myself and the energetic initiatives of friends and colleagues, so a figure can’t capture the beneficial impact of the time spent. And yet the time spent on it impacts on my working hours and therefore my potential earnings.

The writing category of my spreadsheet included articles and interviews for In Other Words, New Books in German, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators blog (Words and Pics), European Literature Network, Pulse UK, and several posts for World Kid Lit blog. And 1 reader’s report. I was paid for the report and 1 of the articles, earning me a total of £200 last year for my research and writing.

In crudely financial terms, I could justify those roughly 12 days (probably much more!) spent doing all those pieces as effectively my marketing budget, but really I do value these opportunities for much more than that. I write because I hope I’m contributing to something bigger: this treasured community of creative translators and readers who review, support, promote and make translated literature happen. It’s giving back to the community that helped me to have a career in this sector in the first place. But maybe next year I need to rein in the writing ever-so slightly, given how slowly I craft each piece and agonise over it.

Other items in my spreadsheet …

Examining/Language assessment: 2 projects

I earned £1000 for 12 days’ work. I tell myself this will be more efficient as I get more familiar with the process (third year of work for this particular exam board), but until I speed up a bit this seems shockingly badly paid considering how specialised this work is.

Optimistic thought: maybe I miscounted the days?

Language consultancy: 4 projects

Little things I helped publishers with – mostly making sense of Arabic phrases that pop up in translated literature. I only charged on one of the 4 occasions, but in total this sort of thing added up to less than a day and it was good for my client relationships. I hope! Plus I usually get a free book, and given how much of my income I spend on books that’s not to be sniffed at.

Admin: 7 items, but hard to say how much time

I probably spend 10 or 100 times as long on this as I realise…

Things like doing my tax return, a vague guesstimate of how long I spend on invoicing, contract negotiations, administrating the Russian Literary Translation Network, blog updates and also one frivolous day on this geeky spreadsheet summary of how I spend my working life. Several days of unpaid but pretty essential business maintenance, I guess. Oh and wonderful things like posting Charlotte’s #TA60 history of literary translation articles on the 60 years of translation blog. I can’t reduce such a project to a day’s work, because it brings me joy that far exceeds the amount of time spent on it! I only wish I had more time to spend publicising it because Charlotte’s history of 60 years of great translations are marvellous and should be more widely read.

Stuff I haven’t included because I don’t even know how to quantify them: Twitter, emails, time spent reading and responding on ETN and Facebook translation forums. Guess I’ll call them my hobbies, then. They’re parts of my working day that I absolutely couldn’t live without. Translation would be a lonely job for a chatty person if it weren’t for social media. I know it looks like I spend my entire time on Twitter, but in fact the days I’m on Twitter the most are the days I’m working the hardest; I just have a LOT of tea breaks in between intense bouts of translation.

My year in summary

And how many days did I work in total, judging by my spreadsheet? Roughly 230 days, or 46 weeks.  And of those, about 36 weeks were spent on translation (and editing my translations). Sounds plausible, although perhaps an underestimate. Those hours I clocked up were spread over school holidays and term-time alike, and there were only 2 or 3 weeks when I actually took the whole week off and didn’t check emails or think about work projects. I need to do this more – for my physical and mental health, for my friends’ and family’s sake.

This year’s plan is to have 6 weeks off over the summer with my boys, and to make that my work routine long-term. Wish me luck.

But what does it all mean?

So, what does all the above tell me about how my career is going? And what do I need to change to get a better balance?

I absolutely love my job and am still thrilled to bits about the authors and publishers I’ve worked with. But behind my seemingly tireless enthusiasm, in truth I’m exhausted and this spreadsheet helps me quantify why. I suspect anyone would be exhausted by all this – especially if their working hours were 9am-3pm and 8pm-10.30pm most evenings, plus the occasional panicked catch-up weekend. That’s what I most of all what to change.

I’d like to shift from working 46 weeks a year (and around 40 hours a week) to my children’s school routine of 39 weeks of 30 hours a week. That could mean much less translation and reduced earnings, but it could also potentially mean almost the same amount of translation, if I didn’t exhaust myself with all the other slightly peripheral, but always tempting (fun but badly paid!) stuff.

I suppose my goal is 9 weeks of *other stuff*, and just 30 weeks of translation, during which I’d be happy if I managed even half of what I did last year. Well, so far I’ve got two short books lined up, but I’d gladly fit in another wee one.

And the languages?

As for the language breakdown, overall I spent nearly three quarters of my translating year working on German, which is no surprise to me. Jess and I did translate the history of the entire world, after all. That was large. The split over all was 20% of my time translating Arabic, 72% German and 8% Russian. But in terms of income, the balance shifted to 10% Arabic, 83% German and 7% Russian. This fully supports my impression that I’m faster at translating German and can earn better from it, and it’s also the reason why I generally turn down more Arabic translation commissions than I accept: I simply earn more translating German when I charge similar rates (usually the TA ‘observed rate’ because I still struggle to negotiate anything much higher). I am led by passion to an extent, of course, but I also have (try) to be practical for my family’s sake. I hope I can use all this evidence to work out a way to charge higher rates for Arabic, to help me justify spending more time on it.

Considering all kinds of work together, there was a more event split, as I did a lot of Russian and Arabic workshops, and editing Russian co-translations.

But where are the pie charts?

One day soon I might sit down with my stats expert husband and try and make some pretty charts. And get him to check my formulae aren’t complete nonsense.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering what the books and projects were that I worked on in 2018-19, you’ll have to work it out from my publications list! Roughly speaking, if it came out in 2019, I translated it in 2018.

Thanks for reading and good luck with your number crunching if you give it a go.