Learning of which language pays more?

I would like to be a translator of some more exotic (I´m from Europe) language which I would have to master from scratch. Which one would be better? Which one would afford me to earn more money? ^^

Some of mine propositions:

Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Islandic

Personally, Hebrew pays me the most out of those languages. But, not in money.

“Do you guys take Shekels? I just got back
from a trip in Israel, and all I’ve got
is a fistful of Shekels.”

Not Chinese. They have some of the lowest salaries in the world and you are up against stiff competition from natives who are prepared to work for peanuts.

I have been working as a translator and interpreter for about 17 years now. Even though I do not work in any of the languages you have listed, I know people who do.

First of all, let me say that whether we like it or not, English has by far the biggest share in both the translation and interpreting market. As long as you combine English with any other language you should be able to at least find a decent amount of work.

Whether this work is paid well enough to allow you to live on it depends on several factors. As strange as it may sound, I think Marianne10 is right when she says that with Chinese you may not be choosing a language offering you a lot of economic prospects. Especially not if you think of translating into Chinese because the prices are extremely low compared to what you would normally be paid for any translation into a European language.

But even within Europe prices vary greatly. Translations from English into German generally are much better paid than the other way round. This may be due to the fact that German speaking countries have higher costs of living or to the way the work of translators and interpreters is perceived by the society at large. More prestigious jobs tend to be paid better. I know from my own experience that the average rates in North America, Australia and the UK are considerably lower than the ones we get paid in Austria (or Germany, Switzerland).

Another thing you have to take into consideration is the demand for a language. When the Iron Curtain fell many people expected Eastern European languages to be some sort of a gold mine for translators but these hopes were crushed. I work for quite a few lawyers and a couple of large international companies (on a freelance basis) many of which do business in Eastern Europe. ALL of them have all their contracts written in English (sometimes only in English and sometimes in English and the local language). These contracts are then translated into German.

You may find more work in the languages listed by you if you work in the countries where these languages are spoken. I don’t know of any Arabic translator here in Austria for example who gets enough jobs on the free market (meaning without being hired by a company or working for an international organisation). I think the same would be true for all the other languages you have mentioned.

The bottom line is that adding any of the languages you seem to be interested in to your portfolio certainly will be a great asset but I would never leave out English. My working languages are German, English, Italian, French and Spanish, with English accounting for about 60 % of my work and all the other languages TOGETHER for the remaining 40 %.

If you plan to work as a translator you should also make sure you choose a language you are really interested in otherwise I don’t think you’ll be able to get through those times when your jobs are boring or extremely demanding. These are two extremes that will occur in your professional life with a certain regularity and you need to be able to tackle both of them (just like in any other job I guess).

Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts, Robert. I’ve also been thinking about pursuing this kind of career path some day. I think I would probably always be translating into English from whichever language I end up learning. I don’t quite understand these comments about Chinese though. Logically, I can only see the future (particularly business) need for Chinese → English translations increasing. And if it’s a business or organisation from one of these English speaking countries that needs the translation, I expect the pay to be relatively good and the competition to be far less than English → Chinese (unless the Chinese → English translators are based in China. Globalisation, arg!!) . And I can’t imagine them using Chinese native speaker translators for Chinese → English jobs unless their level in English is extremely good. Mind you, I don’t know THAT much about the industry, so I’m happy to be corrected.

I’ve noticed that a lot of Chinese* translations are just terrible. Basically every electronics items I’ve ever bought has contained something which had me laughing while reading it. So, I’d imagine that for areas where a quality translation is needed, there is still a good market.

Edit: *Chinese to English


interesting input there from your side. I have heard somewhere that people who can translate Chinese novels are in extremely high demand and are very well paid indeed. Here in China I am always amazed by how poor the Chinese - English translations are on public signs, even on airports where money for the service should not be an issue. I am also surprised at times at the poor quality of the live translation feed on BBC or other news channels to English from various languages for example Arabic, Russian, even German interpreters sometimes leave a lot to be desired I think. I guess it is not so easy of a task.

A question to you: In the past there were some TV interviews on the BBC were the person being interviewed spoke in his language and the reporter was using English and the exchange seemed completely interactive and natural with no time lag between questions and answers. I had no idea how they did the translation, I could see no in-ear monitors. One of these interviews was with former German chancellor Helmut Kohl and the BBC’s Tim Sebastian. What is the state of the art way to do the translation these days for such an interview situation?

Learning one and the rest on the list, Vonk. :smiley:

ad peter: (…) English translations increasing. And if it’s a business or organisation from one of these English speaking countries that needs the translation, I expect the pay to be relatively good and the competition to be far less than English → Chinese (unless the Chinese → English translators are based in China. Globalisation, arg!!) (…)

Let me try and give you an example. A client of mine for whom I have been doing a lot of work over the past years needed a Chinese translator (from German and English into Chinese). So, he asked me if I knew people who could do that. As a matter of fact, I have a Chinese colleague working here in Austria and who was willing to do the job. He submitted his offer and it was rejected.

After having compared prices the client said that he could get the translation like for half the price in Shanghai. For translations into English the same client however refused to hire translators in China because he was afraid they would not be up to European standards.

So, he was willing to pay Western prices for translations into English but obviously not for those into Chinese. However, he has the translations from English and German into Chinese proofread here by some Austrian translators because there is always a risk that a translator misunderstands the source text. Paying the Chinese translator AND the Austrian proofreader obviously is still cheaper than hiring a translator living in Austria and doing the translation into Chinese.

If you have an English translator living in China he may also be able to offer translations at much lower rates since his costs of living are lower (and I guess his tax burden as well).

I mostly work for lawyers and so far have not had any problem with jobs being outsourced. I have studied some semesters of law and used to work for the European Patent Office for more than 10 years, so I have some experience in that field. I guess this is the reason why so far I have not had to fear any low-price competition (although low-price does not always equal low quality).

There are fields where high-quality translations are an absolute must (like law, medicine etc.) and if you can offer the quality required chances are you will not be out of work.

There are clients for whom the quality of translations seems to be of less importance. Colleagues of mine and I once submitted an offer to the manufacturer of notebooks for the translation of their manuals. They found our offer to be much too expensive and made a counter offer which was ridiculously low. When we replied that they won’t find a qualified translator for that kind of rate their answer was: Our customers don’t buy our products because of the manual. They buy it because it is cheap and works.

Interestingly enough the company went bankrupt two years later (probably not because they hired other translators but because of many other decisions they had taken and which might not have produced the desired results).

I have seen quite a lof of work into English being “outsourced” from the Austrian to the English market because translators there have considerably lower rates. However, at the same time I have found the number of jobs from English into German to remain stable with no reduction in rates. Obviously there are fewer price differences between German speaking countries than there are between English speaking countries.

At the end of the day it also depends on the kind of relationship you have with your client. Price is definitely not the only factor. Availability, strict observation of deadlines, confidentiality also play an important role and so does - at least for most people - quality.

The more serious the potential consequences of bad translations, the more likely people will be to hire a qualified translator and pay adquate rates for his work.

ad Friedemann:

Simultaneously interpreting live discussions on TV is a very challenging task. Even for interpreters who are used to working under a lot of pressure the thought of millions of people watching the program and judging your work from the comfort of their home can be quite intimidating. But you are definitely right, sometimes there are big differences in the quality of the interpretation (some of which cannot really be justified).

I have seen the kind of interviews you are referring to as well and those are not live. The “interpretation” is done afterwards. They do that on Austrian TV too.

If those interpretations were live there would have to be some sort of time lag, even if it is only a very short one.

In these cases the person interviewed is given a list of questions beforehand and provides its answers. He just waits for the interviewer to finish the question and then he starts speaking. It is not a real dialogue but rather a “staged” one. I have seen that a lot with England’s former prime minister Blair.

The answers are then translated. To me this is like some kind of dubbing and no real interpreting. I have never seen anything like that during a live discussion.

You can tell the difference also by the fact that all of their sentences are always grammatically correct and completed. I have yet to work at a conference where the speakers always complete their sentences, never make any pauses or never make any grammatical mistakes themselves. After all, we are all only humans :slight_smile:

I always enjoy your posts on translating and interpreting Robert. Thanks so much! It’s been a dream (fantasy) of mine fom the age of 15 to be able to translate or interpret.

Is it true that to be able to make a living translating, you need to have a “hard” language in your repertoire, many languages, or specialized knowledge (law, medicine, etc.)?

In my experiences the people within companies who decide on translations often do not care if the translation is particularly good. For example I have seen brochures being translated into over 10 languages and despite of the fact you tell the marketing lot the quality of the translations is poor, they still choose the same poor translators. This has to do with time, short-notice needs, and already existing relationships and also at the end of the day, is a (European) manager really going to bother that much if the Arabic is not quite up to scratch. He is not being judged on that, as long as the brochure is there He cannot read and does not really “feel” the consequences. I have seen this tons of times.
Translating literature though is another thing.

@Marianna10: "is a (European) manager really going to bother that much if the Arabic is not quite up to scratch. "

If it deals with making or losing money or anything legal, then you bet it matters.

You’re talking about brochures, though, which is a very small part of the overall translation market.


Hrhenry - That is where our company spends its money. I reckon we spend about 300k a year but that includes interpreters for events. Maybe not that much in the grand scheme of things

I see this question regarding which language will make the most money in translation often enough. It’s such a misleading way to think about the profession, really.

The way to earn more money is in specialization. Sure, the language is important, but it’s not THE most important thing to consider.

First of all, it takes years to get a language to a level that would be useful in the translation field, so what may be considered “critical” or “in need” now, may not be so in the future.

That said, I make most of my money translating two romance languages into English, specializing in legal and business (mostly contracts). There’s definitely a need for good translators in European langauges. Hint though: proz.com and translatorscafe.com aren’t the places to find this type of work and expect decent pay.


ad aybee77: (…) Is it true that to be able to make a living translating, you need to have a “hard” language in your repertoire, many languages, or specialized knowledge (law, medicine, etc.)? (…)

Well, there is no easy answer to that question. I don’t believe you need to work with a “hard” language if by that you mean what most people would call a rather “exotic” language (excotic for Western standards) such as an Asian language or one with very complex grammar such as Russian.

I have decided to work in 5 languages because that certainly helps me get jobs which would otherwise not be available to me. I have to say though that I only translate into my mother tongue (German) except for some legal texts which I also translate into English (they are then proofread by my client who is an American lawyer). This has to do with the fact that my client had problems with native speakers of English not being sufficiently familiar with the Austrian legal system and its pecularities. However, I’m sure there are lots of English, American etc. translators out there who have a very good knowledge of the Austrian legal system as well and would therefore be equally qualified to do the job but my client simply prefers me doing it (and I certainly won’t try to convince him otherwise ;-).

Specialized knowledge is a BIG plus. The ideal situation would be for example if you had studied law, medicine etc. and then went into the translation business. You’d be in extremly high demand then.
I have specialized in legal and commercial texts. I rarely accept any technical translations (even though I used to translate thousands of patents for the European Patent Office) and never even dream of trying to translate philosophical texts and/or art-related texts. You need to know what you are good at and accept the fact that there are topics you may not understand well enough to produce a satisfying result for your clients. I guess I would still be able to offer some reasonably good translation in the fields mentioned before, but I just know I can deliver really high-quality work in the fields I have been focusing on during the past 17 years or so. There are colleagues who excel at doing technical translations so why should I try to compete with them?

By way of summarizing, I’d say that you either have to have a really good background in one or preferably a couple of fields (such as law, medicine etc.) or you need to make sure you can offer services in a larger number of languages. Since I only have a degree in languages (with a few semesters spent at the faculty of law) I decided to learn more languages and to focus on legal texts. So far this has turned out quite well.

As for interpreting, the situation is slightly different. I normally won’t accept assignments that are extremely technical but I do work in all my 5 working languages in both ways (into my mother tongue and into the foreign language). This is a must on the so-called free market while some international organizations will only let you interpret into your mother tongue (but they then expect you to have at least 3 working languages unless you are able to interpret in one of the rather rare languages it is hard to find qualified interpreters for, such as Maltese).

ad hrhenry: (…) Hint though: proz.com and translatorscafe.com aren’t the places to find this type of work and expect decent pay. (…)

proz.com may be a good place to establish contacts with fellow translators and if you need help with a tricky translation since you can post questions and ask for advice. But it is a terrible place if you are looking for a decently paid job. Jobs are routinely assigned on the basis of the lowest price with quality and experience of the translator playing a minor or no role at all. You won’t find a lot of serious and quality oriented clients there. Most people use proz.com to get a quick and cheap translation without caring about the outcome of the work. The working conditions are also quite appalling in most cases. So, again, I’d not recommend anybody to use these sites to actually get a job (unless you want to be treated like a “slave”) but they do offer a lot of useful information regarding the trade as such, in particular for newbies.

lovelanguagesII, it sounds like a place for someone who’s got no experience to get some. So long as you’re not depending on it to pay all the bills, that is. I wouldn’t mind trying it out at some point and seeing how I go with this whole translation thing. Being thrown into a full-time translation job with high expectations is not going to be good for someone who’s never done it before.

Thanks a lot for your insights, Robert and others. I’ve saved this page for future reference, as it might come in handy later :slight_smile:

Thanks so much Robert!