Translator Salaries: Top Translator Salaries by Language and Where You Should Live to Make the Most Money Translating

This article is all about translator salaries and after reading this, you should have a good answer to the question, “how much do translators make.”

But first.

You probably have one of two motivations for becoming a translator:

  1. It’s likely that you enjoy languages
  2. I’d guess you also want to make some money in exchange for you knowledge of those languages

Doing translation work fills the first need; becoming a successful professional translator fulfills the second. Of course, first you have to decide if becoming a translator is worth it.

That’s what this post is about.

Maximizing your potential for making money as a translator or language professional.

First, let’s talk about translation languages.

One of the most important factors determining how much money you make as a translator is your decision about which language(s) you should learn and translate to/from.

Let me be honest here.

In general, language combination affects translation salaries.

If you choose a poor language combination, you won’t be making as much as you could had you chosen a better language pair.

Translation Employment Outlook

Before getting into specific languages, though, let’s look at the general job prospects for translators in the United States as a whole.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-2015 Edition, over 60,000 people in the U.S. were employed as translators or interpreters in the 2012.

According to the report, this number is currently set to grow 46% by 2020, when the projected employment for translators and interpreters will get to just under 93,000.

The average projected growth for all jobs is only 11%, so the 46% projected growth for the language field bodes well for translators and interpreters.

Translator Salaries

It’s one thing to know about projected growth in the industry which points to more job opportunities for beginning translators and interpreters. However, it doesn’t say anything about the kind of money translators and interpreters can make.

For that we can look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics which was published in May 2014. These statistics provide a more complete breakdown of the translation and interpretation industry in the United States, complete with salary data.

First, look at the annual mean wage of translators and interpreters by state in May 2014:

Translator salaries
Annual Mean Wage of Translators and Interpreters by State, May 2014

The darker shade of blue, the higher the annual mean wage. The five highest states, with their annual mean wages for translators and interpreters, are the following:

Translator Salaries: Top Five States With Highest Mean Wage for Translators and Interpreters
Top Five States With Highest Mean Wage for Translators and Interpreters

One thing to notice about this data is that the states with the highest annual mean wage are not necessarily the states with the highest population, which you might expect at first.

In fact, this is most definitely not the case. Check out the graphic below:

Translator Salaries: Employment of Interpreters and Translators by State, May 2014
Employment of Interpreters and Translators by State, May 2014

The top 5 states with the highest employment of translators and interpreters are the following:

Translator Salaries: Top 5 States With Highest Number of Translators and Interpreters, May 2014
Top 5 States With Highest Number of Translators and Interpreters, May 2014

Out of the top 5 states in each category above, Virginia is the only state that has one of top 5 annual mean salaries as well as with one of the top employment numbers.

This is all fine and good to know, especially for in-house translators. In looking at the fine print of this data, we read the following:

Estimates for detailed occupations do not sum to the totals because the totals include occupations not shown separately. Estimates do not include self-employed workers.

It makes sense that if you’re an in-house translator, you will probably find higher employment numbers and higher mean wages in states that hire increased numbers of translators for both federal and state governments.

But what if you don’t want to be an in-house translator tied to a specific location and would rather work for yourself as a freelance translator?

Well, freelance translation, by its very nature, allows people to live where they want and then work globally. If that’s what you want, then, it shouldn’t matter where you live. You could live in a cabin in the woods of Montana or in the heart of New York City. If your clients are remote, they don’t care where you live, either.

Translator Salaries by Language

If your marketing is good and you can approach clients and sell your services well, and don’t forget the three lies about becoming a translator, one of the most important factors that will affect translation salaries is your language combination.

Choose wisely.

Here’s why.

Not all language combinations are created equally.

Some combinations earn more than others. Some can even earn up to $0.10 a word more than others. That’s a big difference in translation salaries over the long run and can really add up.

Take a 3,000 word document. If you’re earning $0.10 a word, you’ll earn $300. However, if you’re making $0.20 a word, you just doubled your earnings on that same document, bringing in $600.

Of course, translation salaries don’t always work like this.

Earning money from translation depends on two things:

  1. Supply of translators with your language combination
    1. It’s simple economics. The more translators there are for your language combination, the less those translators (and you) will typically earn. The scarcer your language combination is, the more you can charge per word.
  2. Demand of your language combination
    1. Being able to translate from Xhosa into Uyghur might enable you to command a high price per word; however, there probably aren’t that many clients out there needing documents translated between those languages.

Less work usually means less money.

Take a look at this awesome graph I drew up in 13 seconds:

Competition and Demand for Translators
Competition and Demand for Translators

Guess where you want to be as a translator?

Yep, one of the top two sections:

a) High Demand + Low Competition
b) High Demand  + High Competition

But first, let’s talk about the lower two sections.

Without demand for a given language combination, you are not going to make any money as a translator for those languages.

The Xhosa – Uyghur example previously mentioned would fit into the Low Demand + Low Competition category. Despite there being no competition, there is also no demand. You’re not going to get rich.

OK, so as a person thinking about learning a language and becoming a translator, you’re going to want to be in one of the top two quadrants, but preferably the top left one with high demand and low competition.

The question then becomes how to figure out which languages are going to be located in this quadrant.

Unfortunately, there isn’t that much data out there for you to figure out how to logically choose the best language for earning the most money.

Luckily, though, there are some metrics we can use to make some discoveries.

This is where oDesk comes in.

For those unaware, oDesk is a platform like eLance, where skill providers can bid on potential jobs posted by clients. While these types of websites aren’t ideal for translators (they stink, actually), they can provide some metrics in determining which languages are more in demand and which languages have more or less translators. (This definitely affects translation salaries.)

So here’s what I did. I took the top 9 most used languages (along with Swedish) on the Internet globally (Internet users by language), and then did a quick search to see how many jobs were needed for those languages.

Then I did a quick search to see how many translator providers there were for those languages.

Here were the results:

Languages (+English)# of Jobs# of Translators

I then normalized the numbers so they would be weighted equally and plotted them on a graph, overlaid on the demand and competition graph from above.

Here were the results:

Graph of Top Ten Internet Languages
Graph of Top Ten Internet Languages Correlated to Translation Demand and Competition

As you can see, Spanish and French top the list of the languages with the most competition but also the highest demand. At the other end of the spectrum, you have Korean and Swedish with lower demand but also with lower competition among translators. The sweet spot between all ten languages seems to be Chinese and Japanese.

Of course, it’s important to remember that these results come from a single data source and only include nine languages.

In addition, the data source is not one that is used by most successful translators. Most professionals that are pulling in good translator salaries are either doing in-house translation work or are working with direct clients.

Very few are bidding for jobs using online job boards.

But this metric can be useful. If you interested in becoming a translator but aren’t quite sure which language to pick, looking at this graph could help you decide where you want to place your efforts.

Are you OK with more competition but more demand? Choose Spanish and French.

Don’t want to fight over translation jobs? Japanese or maybe even Korean might be better suited for you.

ATA Language & Translation Data

Another source to look at when it comes to figuring out which language combinations command the highest return is a survey by the American Translators Association that it conducted in 2008.

ATA sent out an email survey to 8,700 ATA members and nonmembers in 2007. There was an %11 response rate, with ATA receiving back 979 completed surveys.

The survey attempted to extract demographic and translation-related information from the participants. One piece of information is especially relevant to this discussion.

Here is the paragraph from the report:

At an average of $0.19 per word, the language combinations commanding the highest rate per word were English into Arabic and English into Danish. At an average of $0.12 per word, the language combinations commanding the lowest rate were English into Italian and English into Portuguese. The highest average hourly rates by language combination were English into Chinese ($74.92) and Chinese into English ($65.79).

Both Arabic and Chinese are on the high end of translator salaries spectrum while Romance languages Portuguese and Italian were on the low end.

Of course, different translators have different experiences and there are plenty of anecdotal stories from translators claiming that one language combination is better paying than some other language combination.

The Effect of Specialization on Translation Salaries

OK, so we’ve talked about locations in the United States and corresponding translator salaries. We’ve realized that location can be important, but is not as important as language combination.

However, there’s one more thing to consider when trying to decide which language pair to learn (in order to maximize translator salaries), and that would be your area of specialization.

While having a language combination in the upper quadrants is a must for any freelance translator trying to make significant money, another important thing you can do is choose an area of specialization that is in high demand.

And what are those specializations, you might ask? Well, going back to the ATA compensations survey, we read that out of the nearly 1,000 survey respondents:

The most common areas of specialization reported were business/finance (57%), law (55%), medicine (47%), and industry and technology (38%). Uncommon areas of specialization included entertainment (18%), natural sciences (16%), and pure sciences (8%).

No surprisingly, this is also where the biggest demand for translators lies. If your area of specialization falls within the categories of business/finance, medicine, or industry and technology, you will be much better off than someone who either a) has an area of specialization so focused that there is no demand for it, or b) has no area of specialization at all and only focus on general translations.

Of course, it would be nice to have access to the raw data to do some additional queries. For example, do most Japanese/English translators work in a certain specialization? Drilling down to that level of granularity could give us even more information when choosing not only a language combination, but also an area to focus on.

P.S. Making an informed decision on language and specialization choice is the first step. Implementing a viable translation business is the next. For that, read about what you need to succeed as a freelance translator.

37 thoughts on “Translator Salaries: Top Translator Salaries by Language and Where You Should Live to Make the Most Money Translating”

  1. Michael W Sprouse

    What about American Sign Language?

    1. Good question. I’m not very familiar with the pay scale for ASL professionals. I’ll do some research and post it on the site.

    1. Glad you liked it. It’s eye opening at least and something not a lot of would-be translators think about.

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  3. Cho Claire Youjin

    wanna become Korean medical interpreter in the states. I’m living in Seoul, South Korea and don’t know how competitive in that job field and wages per hour. Do you have any idea of this?

    1. You’ve got a great opportunity with Korean. There are nearly 2 million Koreans living in the United States. If I were you, I’d start by taking a look at this page on Wikipedia – a list of U.S. cities with significant Korean-American populations. Look for hospitals in those areas that hire Korean interpreters and reach out to them. That’s how I’d get started.

      1. Washwill

        As a Korean English Interpreter & Translator in Maryland, the field is cramped, the standards are low, and the demand is not consistent. There is the belief that in order to work as a Korean linguist, one must be Korean and the market accepts very low standards of English. In fact, be it interpreting or translating, the quality of the linguist hardly matters as long as one is Korean. Koreans have immersed themselves in a third Pidgeon English popularly known as Konglish, a hodgepodge of mispronounced English and Korean. When one is adept in using both correct English and correct Korean, the limited English proficient Korean is disappointed and impeded a bit in that their Konglish is not recognized. The current state of the Korean language itself is riddled with overbearing grammar and borrowed word problems. Most foreign words being used cannot even be expressed correctly using the Korean phonetic characters due to the lack of its consonants and vowels and combinations thereof. The field is dominated by immigrants with significant impediments in the English language usage and culture. Koreans living in America all want to believe they are adept at English and that the Konglish they use in the Korean sub-cultures throughout the US is understandable by all Americans; that is until they find themselves in the courtroom or in the hospital. The current state of the Korean language reflects the disunity not only between North and South Korea, but the political and cultural disunity within South Korea among South Koreans themselves.

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  6. Napoleonnette

    Although the article seems to say that location matters little – I would argue that in some cases it makes a world of difference. If you translate into your native language (say English), you will stand out a lot more in non-English speaking countries and possibly be able to charge a higher price if you market yourself right. Take for example France- there is a huge demand for French to English, specifically in business. Despite the fact that there are thousands of French to English translators in the world, there are few French to English translators living in France (especially native English speakers). This means that if you network and meet people, you are much more likely to get hired than some random person on the internet, even if you are more expensive than the UpWork freelancers.

    1. Good points. I should say that location matters now less than it used to. Email, social media, and internet phone calls of today are cheaper/easier/more convenient than their counterparts of yesterday.

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  11. DiplmaticTiger

    I’m about to finish my English-Spanish career, but I’m not sure how to start working. Should I apply to a translation agency or is it better to start as a freelance translator?

    1. Ramón G Castañeda

      Which one is it, Tiger? Are you about to “end/finish your career”, which means you’re about to retire or go into a different profession, or are you about to begin a career? Are you perhaps misusing “career” when you really mean “schooling” or “studies”?

      We’d also need to know what country you’re in before anyone can anser your question. In the USA, most commercial agencies will exploit you, pay you peanuts and delay payments. Consider initial full-time employent with a government organization, then branch out on your own when you know the market. if you feel that’s what you need.

    2. Victor Andrade

      la palabra carrera no se traduce a career en este contexto. Tiger means hes about to get his bachelors degree.

    3. Eva Finn

      Why don’t you get in contact with some indie English writers on Amazon?

      1. Great idea, Eva! The trick with any type of entrepreneur is to continually think “outside the box.” Think of ways that you can get your business in front of the right clients. There are millions of books on Amazon. Even if only 0.01 percent of people want their book translated, that’s more than enough work for you.

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  13. tried&tested

    Sorry for being anonymous…loved your article! I am 31 and stuck with a career of well 9 to 9 work schedule!! I have post grad in management…and I believe after 6 years of working in corporate arena I am nowhere and my downward career graph reflects that indeed! Am I too old to become a language translator?I used to enjoy writing essays while I was a kid and always felt I am a good communicator…all I can do now is opt for a diploma course and be sincere about only worry is my age and the time it might take to create a ground for myself…looking for some insights!!

    1. You’re never too old to become a translator. You’re never to old to make a change. Will it take time? Yes?. Will it take a concerted effort? Yes. Here’s what you need to do. Find your first client. That’s all you should focus on. Once you find one, then find another. Repeat the process as many times as you need to.

      1. tried&tested

        Thanks! I will start from the scratch…and begin to learn a new language…I know its hard for you…but can you provide a time frame in which I can start to earn while I learn…because learning is a continuous process…so if I am targeting Japanese and starting to learn it from the next month…how long would it take to earn something for my survival…i know its relative and depends on the individual…still some idea…

      2. I can’t give you an idea. I have no idea what you’re capable of. I don’t know what kind of drive you have. Do you really want it? Or do you only say you really want it? Only you can answer that. If you’re serious, you could be up and running in a year.

      3. tried&tested

        Appreciate your reply…all these adds up to my final judgement & decision so your replies are valuable & yes indeed I get your point!don’t want to drag this like a counselling session and annoy you but just need to know whether this freelance jap-eng translation market is usa centric or not..simply does bulk of the project goes to usa for being native speakers of English…or its evenly distributed worldwide and solely based on quality.
        Thanks in advance

      4. The translation market is a global market. That’s one the benefits of being a freelance translator. You can live in one place, and work on projects from all over the globe. In the end, you’re only limited by your willingness to work and get what you want.

      5. Cabeza de Chorlito

        Thanks a lot, both of you! Believe it or not, tried&tested, I’m going through quite a similar stage in life. English is my second language though (Mother tongue is Spanish) and I’m aiming at becoming a Japanese to English/Spanish translator as well. I thank you because you have asked just what i had in mind, and I truly hope after these six months you found your path and are working hard for it. And Clint, thanks for being so encouraging and downright honest with your answer.

  14. Kenneth Black

    I completely agree with your assessment. I know a lady that had a business degree, and was hired as a international business liaison. She is making around $200,000 a year. She said the biggest factor that helped her land that job was that she could speak Chinese fluently.

  15. Mega Tokyo

    So I’m 16 but I’m currently learning French as a second language and English as my first. And I was thinking about being a translator as a back up plan or side job if gaming art designer job didn’t work out when I get older. So I found this article to be helpful in my decision about being a translator. Do you by chance have advice about what other language I should learn that would help me later on or that might just serve as another language that could help me simply speak to more people of other languages. I know any language is a canidate and they are all pretty interesting to me and I would like to speak a wide variety of languages but I don’t know where would be best to start after I finish learning French. So if you have any advice I’d love to hear it. If you reply and I don’t answer you could always contact me from my gmail. Thanks in advance!

    1. Eva Finn

      Check Tim Ferriss he has lots good insights about learning languages. Bonne chance!

  16. Arnab Bhowmik

    Thanks clint. I loved your article. And the others who have given their views or asked queries. I thank them all.
    I am 28 years old and currently working as a chemistry teacher in a high school. I have completed a 5 year course (certificate though) in Japanese. And passed upto JLPT N2. Next year planning for N1. I also teach Japanese as a private tutor.
    The thing is i have started as a freelance jap-eng and eng-jap transltion career but i dont get constant clients. It has been a year since i started working as a translator. Most of the clients i have worked so far are 4 only and all of them are from leather companies. Recently a small project is underway with a mining machinery company.
    My question is how can i maximize my clientele? I mainly specialize in science and technology. In science (physics, chemistry and biology) and in technology any machinery type of document or computer related work or even chemical engineering.
    I am really clueless about how to move forward. The above jobs I got from my teacher’s recommendation. But that will not work in long run.
    Any kind of suggestion or advice would be great.
    Sorry to make you read this long winded text.

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