A day 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 (roughly LBF 2018 to LBF 2019), and I think it’s helped me get things straight in my head. After a period of doubt and growing frustration about the ratio of work done:income, I think a bit of spreadsheet gazing has helped me reclaim a little dignity as a professional.

I’ve gone through a cycle of feelings lately: amazed and happy that work’s going so well > exhausted by so much work and such short working hours > confused that I seem to have earned so little (just over £19K and I’ve worked my flipping ass off this year) > cynical and 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’s going on > genuinely surprised that I did so much stuff that I’d forgotten about > more able to accept that this was an exceptional year, and that I did way more unpaid, career development stuff than I will ever do again > it’s all OK and it’s going to get easier, and I am a professional with dignity and some earning power, I just went a bit OTT with marketing and extracurriculars. But now I’ve identified this, I can totally rein it in next year. Right?

That emotional cycle was quite a mouthful. But that’s what’s been spinning around in my head lately and a day with my spreadsheet and some very basic data analysis has helped me make sense of it.

Here are some breakdowns.

My spreadsheet of what I did this year lists nearly 50 items. Broken down by theme these were:

Translation – 16 projects
Of this, 4 were full-length books (novella, middle grade novel and two nonfiction books), 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.
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.

Total number of words translated (i.e. the 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. 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 charge *much* more for translation. We OK with that, lovely publishers?

Events – 11 listed
These included my first TA committee meeting, 1 book launch event, 1 symposium which was effectively a day of training/CPD (creative translation in schools), 3 panel discussions, and 5 translation workshops. 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. Hmm. I feel I need to work out how to charge for the workshops which I’m doing too often for free. Happily the Warwick Summer School is paid so I look forward to that balancing out the stats! With the panels, I can’t possibly reduce them to a fee or not-fee-paying category, when I benefit so much from them in terms of development, networking, ideas, inspiration, reputation… not to mention free entry to LBF. I’m deeply grateful to Amazon last year and Literature Across Frontiers this year for inviting and funding me to take part! 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 LGBT writing into something more like a professional angle. All worth so much more than a session fee for participation.

Writing – 8 items listed
Likewise, these were all opportunities to write about what I love, market my books and myself and the energetic initiatives of friends, so a figure can’t capture the beneficial impact that I got from the time spent. The writing category included articles and interviews for In Other Words, New Books in German, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators blog, European Literature Network, Pulse UK, and many 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 harshly financial terms, I could justify those roughly 12 days 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, as I do find it hard and I’m extremely slow!

Other items included…

Assessment – 2 projects as an examiner where 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 items
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!

Admin – 6 items but ha! I probably spend 10 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.

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.

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 about right, but in fact those hours I clocked up were spread over school holidays and term-time alike, and there were only about 2 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. And to fix our decrepit bathroom.

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

But what does it all mean?

Hmm, yeah – what does all the above tell me about how my career is going? And what 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 45 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 guess 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 entire world from German, after all. That was large. The split 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’m still hopeless at negotiating anything much higher). I am led by passion to an extent, of course, but I also have (try) to be practical. 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 for translation alone it was mainly German.

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, and which are coming out in 2019, see here. More pictures on that post!

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