How to make a living as a conference interpreter: Part 1 – Understanding expense

Daily fees for simultaneous and consecutive interpreting need to be based on real data, not just pulled out of the air.


Photo credits: © Stuart Miles

Everyone works to make a living, hopefully a decent one. A steady job brings a steady income and certain benefits (health insurance, pension plan contributions, etc.). A freelance, however, is on her/his own. Planning is essential; if you spend everything you make in a good month, you'll have nothing put away for a poor one. Plus, you have to plan for the future. “Not easy," you may think – but not all that difficult either.

Some years ago we formed the German Profitability Working Group to delve into what we needed to do to make a profit. Let's take a quick look at some of our conclusions, moving from expenses to fees.

What we spend

After studying various scenarios back in 2010, we concluded that a self-employed person has to cover the following annual expenses:

  • Old-age/retirement provisions: 10,000-12,000 € (twice the amount if you have to provide for a partner).[i]
  • Insurance: 7,000-10,000 €.[ii]
  • Operating costs: 15,000-25,000 €.[iii]

By deducting these costs from your gross annual income, you get your taxable income. Insurance and old-age provisions, however, are not always (or completely) tax-deductible in Germany; German fiscal authorities define part of such expenses as “costs privately incurred", i.e. they have to be paid out of your after-tax income. Other “costs privately incurred" include:

  • Personal consumption (food, housing, clothing, telecommunications, leisure activities, education, etc.). According to the German statistics office, in 2008 German households spent an average of 26,940 € or 2,245 € per month (single-person households 17,016 €/year, couples with child(ren) 36,204 €/year) on personal consumption.
  • Capital reserves set aside for use in slack times. (The amount recommended is 5,000 € or about twice the monthly amount usually spent on private consumption.)

For example, if you have gross income of 80,000-100,000 € and 30,000 € in tax-deductible expenses [iv] your taxable income will be 50,000-70,000 €. Tax on this amount in Germany would range from 13,554 € to 22,396 € for a single person. Assuming that additional non-deductible amounts of 5,000 € are set aside for old-age provisions, non-deductible insurance costs and capital reserves respectively, you'll end up with a net after-tax income of between 21,446 and 32,604 €.

Note: In order to compare your income to the annual salary of a staff interpreter, you will have to consider your net after-tax income minus all non-deductible outlays such as those mentioned above.

Fees and working hours: How much do we charge for the lifetime we invest?

If you work 40 hours a week with five weeks of holiday and two of sickness, you'll end up working a total of 1800 hours per year. About a third of them (600) will not be remunerated directly by clients; this is time dedicated to administration, tax matters, publicity/advertising/marketing, networking, seminars, reading, etc.[v]

That means you will have to earn between 67 and 84 € for each client-remunerated hour (1200 per year) in order to reach the annual gross income mentioned in the model calculation above. These numbers must be taken into account when calculating daily fees.

For example, if you were to charge 750 € for a 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. assignment with two hours of travel and four hours of preparation time (i.e. a total of 13 hours), you would be earning 58 € per hour. In the unlikely case that you didn't need to prepare at all for the job, that would go up to 83 €. But if you needed five hours to prepare and working hours were 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., you would be down to only 47 € per hour. In order to reach the hourly rates mentioned in the previous paragraph, you would have to charge between 871 and 1,092 € per day for this job (based 13 hours).

In another scenario, consider that just one hour of consecutive interpreting usually involves about 4 to 5 additional hours of standing around, traveling back and forth and talking to the speaker beforehand. In addition you have to consider preparation and organisation (preparing a quote, consulting/negotiating on the phone, etc.). If the latter do not exceed another five hours, a daily fee of 880 € would represent 88 € per hour.

Conclusion

Sometimes the going rates for full-day assignments just aren't profitable. We are seeing a trend toward longer workdays, denser agendas, and more technical topics. As a result the number of days per meeting is decreasing, while each conference day requires more hours of preparation and we get fewer days paid.

In Part 2 we'll take a look at further examples as we explore best practice for profitability.


The German profitability working group was created in 2009. Its current members are Julia Böhm, Angela Drösser, Angelika Eberhardt, Almute Löber, Oliver Pospiech, Anja Rütten and Klaus Ziegler. We would be happy to share information and experience with colleagues from other regions, so if you are interested in joining our informal network, just drop us a line (ruetten@sprachmanagement.net)!


[i] One common recommendation is to invest 15% of annual income in retirement accounts.

[ii] Health, occupational disability, third-party liability, accident, legal protection, etc.

[iii] [iii] These would include office, computer/phone, software, books and periodicals, continuing education, professional associations dues, tax advisor, publicity/advertising/marketing, work-related transportation, etc.

[iv] 2,800 € health insurance, about 22,000 € for overhead and operating costs, 5,000 € in old-age provisions.

[v] These figures are based on 2010 time-tracking trials in which various interpreters participated.



Recommended citation format:
AIIC. "How to make a living as a conference interpreter: Part 1 – Understanding expense". aiic.net. January 27, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2017. <http://aiic.net/p/7128>.


Message board

Comments 8

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Handan Bao

   

Wonderful work. It demystifies the renumeration structure for not only beginners, clients, curious/resentful lay persons, but surprisingly also for many veteran practitioners. Professional training programs will do well to include this as an crucial part of the business and ethics training.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Robert Martins OYEWOLE

   

Thanks for an insightful piece. This is an additional proof of the need for financial planning and "right" pricing for interpreting assignments so that we could all maintain a comfortable standard of living. Bravo!

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Julia POGER-GUICHOT DE FORTIS

   

Thank you for this article - this group has a good history of putting things in a very understandable and user-friendly way. I will make sure to point my students here, when they wonder what they have to take into account as aspiring business-people!

A word on savings for pensions and old age care: it will cost you a lot more than you think, and it will cost you a lot more to save for that future the older you are. One example: for every 10,000 euros/pounds/dollars in retirement income you plan for, you will have to save approximately 200 e/p/d per month if you start at age 20, and approximately 1000 e/p/d per month if you start at age 50 (Assumptions: 6% fund growth, RPI-linked annuity rate of 4.412%, 2.5% inflation, retiring at 65 years of age, source The Sunday Times 2009). Not to mention possibly paying for a care home, which costs an arm and a leg in some countries (in 2011 in the UK, the average cost was 55,000 pounds per year same source).

Total likes: 5 5 | 0

Sroda BEDARIDA-GAVEH

   

Very interesting and useful. Thank you.

Total likes: 2 2 | 0

Dominique LEVEILLÉ

   

The article is interesting, but I should like to point out that the 'common recommendation' mentioned in footnote (i) to invest 15 per cent of your annual income in retirement accounts is well below what is needed. I would argue that for a free-lancer, setting aside 20 to 25 per cent of your gross income (in various forms of savings) is a minimum if you want to have a decent income after retiring (and given the current trends in interest rates, people who are under 40 today will probably need to save even more). May I refer to my article from 2008, «Retraites : parlons chiffres», available on the AIIC Extranet [https://extranet.aiic.net/page/3029] for more detailed advice on that particular point.

Total likes: 2 2 | 0

Kevin SCOTT-CARROLL

   

I join you in congratulating our colleagues for this enlightenment. Well written, to the point, informative. Thank you.

Total likes: 2 2 | 0

Martín BARRÈRE

   

Congratulations on this outstanding and well-documented study! I had the chance of attending a time-keeping talk given by some of the members of this Working Group in Buenos Aires. Back then it was a great opportunity to understand how our fees can be calculated to our benefit. Based on the WG's reasoning, I trust we can all adapt the numbers to the different realities in our regions so that we can go on making a decent living doing what we like and enjoy. Thanks!  

Total likes: 6 6 | 0

Regina SCHMIDT RIO-VALLE

   

Congratulations on the excellent job.

Total likes: 6 6 | 0