Ahen I recently completed the translation of a Malaysian author’s novel from English and wrote the bill to the publisher, I found once again that my translator’s fees for the standard page of thirty lines of sixty characters each had not changed in twenty years.
In these twenty years I have asked for a euro or two more per page for each translation than the publisher originally wanted to pay me, and each time I have been told that I am already at the top end of the scale and that no more can be achieved with the best will in the world . Except that this amount has remained the same since 2001 or, at best, has increased by one euro. The only thing that has been added over the years is the profit-sharing fee, which – which may also be due to the fact that I have translated authors such as Proust or Paul Bowles, but not bestsellers – never amounted to more than double-digit sums.
Now I’ve finally decided to investigate it a bit, because it’s starting to seem strange to me, not least because of the current galloping inflation. Either I’m underpaid, or the entire profession of literary translators is underpaid, or more clearly: shamelessly exploited.
Two thousand pages minimum per year
I translate from French and English, two common languages for which there are many translators, and it’s not my main job. In twenty years I have translated maybe two dozen books in addition to my other work. But if I convert my line fee into an hourly wage for the more complex and difficult texts, I just about get the legal minimum wage. And you can’t translate Proust, for example, for eight hours at a time, before that your head will burst.
I know from an acquaintance who works full-time as a translator from English that he has to translate around two thousand pages year in, year out in order to achieve an annual turnover (not earning it, mind you) of 45,000 euros. If such amounts don’t reflect on the quality of the work, then at least on the enjoyment of it. At the thought of having to translate two thousand pages of thrillers or light fiction a year in order to earn a gross income of 3800 euros a month, everyone should reconsider their romantic notions about the beautiful, rewarding and meritorious work of a literary translator.
On the website of the professional association VdÜ you can read that the standard page fee in 2019/2020 was an average of 18.73 euros and has thus lost almost 16 percent of its purchasing power since 2001. When I compare my personal data, I see that a five hundred-page paperback by me cost seventeen DM in 1995 and fifteen euros in 2020, an increase of around one hundred percent. In the case of bound books, the development over the same period is about the same: from 25 marks to 25 euros. Even if you take into account the adjustments between the mark and the euro and only take the development of consumer prices since 2001, you arrive at an increase of more than 30 percent, whereas gross wages rose by as much as 40 percent during this period.