Do you want to become an AV translator?


Think long term
In many countries it is common for AV-translators to start out as students, and work part-time for low fees. Some never thought they would keep working as translators for very long, but still find themselves doing it after ten years or more. However, rates and conditions that seemed acceptable for a student are likely to be insufficient a few years later, which explains why it is important to take your job seriously from the very beginning!
The more people are willing to work for little money, even for a short time, the easier it is for clients to keep pushing the rates down. This road leads to worse working conditions for all of us. Even if you are prepared to work for a little, someone else may be prepared to work for even less, and in the end none of us can really make a living. In many countries, working conditions for AV-translators are already very harsh. This is why it is very important for AV-translators to stick together, so that we can make sure that it possible for all of us to do what we love and still have a decent income.

What is a good rate?
Rates, like median income and standard of living, differ wildly between different European countries. In order to determine if you have been offered a decent rate you need to be aware of the time necessary to finish a job. In our view, the ideal conditions would look something like this:

  • Subtitling
    Documentary or hour-long episode of a TV series (52 min): 1 week
    Feature-length film (100 min): 2-3 weeks
  • Dubbing
    Hour-long episode (52 min): 1 week
    Feature-length film (100 min): 2-3 weeks
  • Voice-over translation
    26-minute program: 3-4 days
    52-minute program: 1 week

From there you can do the math and figure out what should be a feasible rate in your country. In reality the actual work can be done significantly faster than this (and clients will be quick to point this out!), but keep in mind that as a freelancer you always have a lot more work to do than just the translating that you actually get paid for. The work load is sometimes difficult to predict. Most of us do our own bookkeeping, we have to deal with tax authorities, communicate with clients, apply for new jobs, plan our work, do proof reading, manage our software and so on. Some jobs are more difficult than others and may require many hours of extensive research. What this adds up to is that nobody can translate effectively 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, so you shouldn’t expect to be doing that.

The precariat
Have you heard of the term “precariat”? This is us! The vast majority of AV-translators are not employees and have virtually no job security, yet many of us are de facto working as if we were employed by those who are formally our clients – only without the rights and conditions that an employee would have. In most countries freelancers do not have access to (or have to pay a significant amount of their income for) such things as social security, health insurance, and unemployment and retirement benefits. There is no guarantee of how much work you will have in a given month and you only get paid for what you get done, not the amount of hours you put in.
On the plus side, of course, as a freelancer you have certain freedoms: you get to work creatively, you are your own boss and often you can work wherever and whenever you prefer. However, these upsides of freelance life are of little use if you cannot make a living wage.
Remember that there is no law of nature saying it should be like this. In France, for example, the situation for AV-translators is better than in most other countries, in great part due to a strong national association. If freelance translators come together we can be a force to be reckoned with in any country. Our working conditions in the future depend on what we do today: together and through our national associations and unions we can improve our situation immensely.

Know your value
Your job is part of a collective effort to produce a film or a TV program. Translation is an essential factor in making the work available to the audience. A bad translation can ruin the experience of watching a production in a foreign language. Remember that your work is paramount to this process!
As an AV-translator you are an author. This means you have certain rights, which you should be aware of. Authors’ rights differ between countries. In many countries clients will make you sign away your authors’ rights, but there is really no reason to accept this. For more information on authors’ rights, click (you are an author link).

Translate into your mother tongue
Many people are not aware that serious translators only translate into their mother tongue (or in a few cases a language they have learned so well that it resembles mother tongue proficiency). You don’t need to be bilingual to be a translator, what matters most is your skill in the target language, i.e., the language you’re translating into. Therefore the best ally of a translator is culture. As a translator it is important to know the great authors of your language, read extensively, learn how to manage a rich vocabulary with ease, and practice your writing skills.
Also, for the sake of quality one should avoid translating via a third language (i.e. translating an English translation of a text that was originally in Spanish into Polish). This is not always possible, but it’s a good rule of thumb. Translators taking on jobs into a language that is not their mother tongue or through a third language will take jobs away from colleagues who are better suited for them, which will eventually undermine the quality of our work and lower the status of our profession.