The European North-South divide in translation

by Dimitra Stafilia


Il est effectivement bien connu que les tarifs des traducteurs du nord sont beaucoup plus élevés par rapport à ceux de leurs collègues du sud.

Cette différence, due au coût de la vie spécifique à chaque pays, est également connue par nos clients, qui ne payent donc pas le même prix pour un même document à traduire du français vers le suédois et du français vers le grec.

Nous ne pouvons donc pas vous proposer un tarif que nous acceptons avec un traducteur de langue scandinave, ou allemande…”


It is well known that the rates of translators in the North are much higher than those of their colleagues in the South.

Our customers are also aware of this difference which is due to the cost of living in each country, therefore they pay different rates for the same document to have it translated from e.g. French into Swedish and from French into Greek.

We cannot offer you a rate that we accept for a translator of Scandinavian or German languages…”

This is a reply a colleague received from a French agency when she quoted a rate of 8 cents/word for the language combination French-Greek, which is an average-to-low rate in the industry. The French project manager claimed a difference in the cost of living between North and South to justify rejecting the quoted rate. He effectively repeated a rather ignorant belief that in the North the cost of living is expensive and in the South the cost of living is cheap, hence rates should be dependent on that factor, and not e.g. on language combination, type of document, field of expertise, timings, i.e. all those components that truly determine translation rates. Mind you that the above argument is contradictory in itself, since the said project manager talks about language combinations and not about place of establishment, as if e.g. all translators for German live in Germany, and all translators for Greek live in Greece.

As preposterous as this email may seem, it is not a first. Unfortunately translation companies across Europe use the North-South divide to drive rates down for specific languages (not even language combinations) and cheat colleagues out of proper compensation for their hard work.

The North-South divide refers to the difference in wealth between the “richcountries in the North and the “poorcountries in the South. It is not uncommon for the translation industry to repeat this stereotypical-bordering-racist-view, despite the fact there has been a convergence between North and South, in terms of economies and social indicators, albeit at different speeds at different sectors.

The recent financial crisis in a number of EU countries meant the imposition of severe austerity measures that shrunk disposable income and annihilated purchasing power, without freelance translators being able to adjust their rates in order to offset this loss in income, namely due to the inelastic nature of the translation industry, which is accentuated by the acquisition and merger wave witnessed in recent years and the outsourcing of large translation contracts based on purely economic criteria. It also reinforced the false concept that weaker economies mean weaker rates. The translation industry was quick to jump on the bandwagon of exploiting professionals in those hard hit countries. Trapped between the Scylla of increased financial burdens and the Charybdis of blackmailing translation agencies, faced with the psychological angst created by those conditions of financial insecurity, freelance translators in the South were left totally unprotected to fend off an attack on their livelihood and professionalism.


Let’s set the record straight. In Greece, freelancers have no tax-free allowance as in most other European countries, meaning that they are being taxed from their very first euro. Considering the high taxation rates (starting at 29%), the solidarity levy (starting at 2.2%), the annual fixed tax on trade of €650, the 100% income tax prepayment for the coming financial year(!) and the burden of social security contributions to the overwhelming percentage of 26.95%(!!), around 60% to 70% of their hard earned income is returned directly to the state. Let’s put the above in figures that an average project manager would understand: considering an average translation speed of 300 words/hour and a rate of 8 cents/word (yes, the ridiculously high rate requested by our colleague), this translator’s gross hourly income is 24 euros/hour. After taxes and self-insurance contributions, this comes down to 7.2 euros/hour (or less). Obviously the lower the rates, the lower the net hourly income. Even at 8 cents/word, this amount would barely allow any high-skilled professional to cover their cost of living and other non-tax business obligations, not counting the fact that they would have to survive the slow days or months, when income is not generated.

Apart from the fact that populism in political discourse seems to spill into the professional sphere, the above project manager also perpetuates another misconception. That he is actually the one imposing the rates, and therefore his put-down attitude stems from an ill-perceived sense of authority, of him being the employer and the freelancer being the employee.

Again, let’s set the record straight. A freelancer by definition sets his/her own rates, business hours and place of work. This means great flexibility in terms of work models, e.g. part-time or full time single or multiple contract work, business owner or 100% work from home etc. It also means that when your rates are not accepted, you can pitch your offer to the next interested client and stay clear of those who do not appreciate your service offering. As a professional and a freelancer, do not allow yourself to be conditioned that you are not in control of your work. Freelance translators need to resist this commoditization and highlight the unique properties of their services. They also need to denounce practices like the above mentioned and show solidarity with their colleagues through their membership in organised groups, i.e. associations. The European North-South divide in translation exists only in the minds or ignorant project managers and unscrupulous translation agencies. Next time someone attempts to play this card, don’t just dismiss it. State your ground and defend your work.

Dimitra Stafilia is PEEMPIP’s President since 2012 and FIT Europe’s Treasurer since 2014.

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