There’s a heavy cloud of guilt that comes with freelancing. An oppressive mist that hovers behind you throughout your day. The cloud doesn’t say anything but you can feel its eyes boring into the back of your skull. You need to work faster. You need to reply to those e-mails. You need to invoice that client.
The whispers of the guilt cloud hiss even louder when you’re not working. Why are you watching TV, you have so much work left to do. That deadline’s coming up. You didn’t get enough done today. You should be working.
You know you shouldn’t be working 12-hour days, and you know you should be relaxing and not thinking about work, but you can’t not do it. If you don’t work late, if you don’t work on the weekends, then you’ll never hit that deadline, you won’t make enough to pay the rent and bills and food. But if you keep working so much, you’re going to burnout. You’ve already burned out. You’re running on fumes. But you just can’t stop.
The Race to Muddy Stagnation
I moved in-house four years ago (has it really been four years?!) and although I no longer translate as a freelancer, I’ll never forget what it was like. Working as a freelance Japanese to English translator in the entertainment industry was a grind to say the least.
Translation fields like marketing, technical, legal, or commercial are generally a lot more lucrative than entertainment. The more experience you get, the more money you’re able to charge. People are willing to pay big bucks for high quality work, and experienced translators have more flexibility when it comes to finding the right clients. There are numerous webinars, talks, podcasts, workshops, and more, all about how a translator can earn over $100,000 a year…so long as they don’t work in entertainment.
Entertainment translation—basically anything to do with comics/manga, TV/anime, games, and novel/light novel translation—feels like a constant race to the bottom, or at least a race to muddy stagnation. The bottom feeding language service providers (LSP) will offer rates that are well below minimum wage. If you are able to work with a ‘major’ publisher then you will likely be paid more, but a single project is almost never enough to cover living expenses, meaning the average translator needs to take on multiple projects at a time.
So, you may wonder, why don’t you change to a company that pays better? We don’t like to admit it but raising your rate in translation means you run the risk of losing your client. Advice from those six-figure translators is often to cut your losses and find clients who pay better, but there are no clients who pay better in entertainment localization. At least within the Japanese to English entertainment industry.
There are three major manga and light novel publishers and a few smaller publishers. Video games are a little more diverse with a wider variety of language service providers, but not many of them pay reasonable rates. And anime…well, with Sony now owning Crunchyroll and Funimation…
If you want to work in entertainment localization—at least in the Japanese-English sphere—you’re pretty limited with your options. It’s often either take it or leave it, forcing you to stay on the same pay for years. And when you take inflation into account, that stagnation is actually a yearly pay cut.
Being bogged down in the muddy swamp of low pay is then compounded by feast or famine. As the term suggests, you might have lucrative work one month but nothing the next. Feast or famine plagues all freelancers but it can hit entertainment translators particularly bad. Even a single month with limited income can incapacitate someone, especially if they don’t have family support to fall back on.
And what do you do when your pay is poor and you fear you might not get work in the near future? You say yes to everything.
Towards the end of my freelance career, I landed a job with a client to do a light novel translation. This was a company I had been trying to get work with for years, so of course I jumped at the opportunity! “Yes, I’d love to do this project!”
I had never worked with them or even on light novels before. Trusting they knew what they were doing—they were a well renowned publishing company, after all—I agreed to translate a 300 page book in four weeks. It was, as they said, their “standard”. Had I stopped and thought about it or asked some colleagues for advice, I would have seen that this was not doable. If anything, it was outright dangerous.
300 pages in four week means translating at least 15 pages a day. If we say a page has roughly 300 moji on it, that’s a rate of 4,500 character per day. (Side note: the average Japanese to English translator should aim for 2,500-3,000 characters a day in order to have a healthy work-life balance. Literary translators translate an average of 1,500 a day.) This, of course, leaves no time to read the novel beforehand, let alone, edit it afterwards!
Not to mention this was all for $10 a page, or $3000 for one volume. Which meant that to make ends meet I also had other manga projects I was translating at the same time. $3000 is not a lot of money. It’s important to remember, freelancers have to cover their own taxes, healthcare, and other benefits.
I ran myself into the ground. And as I did, the pressure weighing down on me quickly formed into an oppressive guilt cloud hanging over me. You’re not going to get this done in time. This is so bad. What are you doing? You’re going to ruin everything with this client.
I felt immense guilt as I e-mailed this new client asking for a two-week extension to the deadline. The project manager took over a week to reply, all the while the guilt and stress was piling up and up and up.
I crashed. Hard. Pounding headache, lying on my bed unable to rest, I wanted to throw up. Burnout. It took me a while to recover and the whole time I felt guilty. Torn between “I should be working” and “I should be resting”.
Three months later a couple of a questions came back to me about the book—they had only just started editing it.
And Yet, We Hustle
Despite being over worked, exhausted, stressed, I still pushed on, saying yes to everything that came my way—even to that terrible client (although I negotiated for better deadlines.) I couldn’t afford to say no.
I kept working when I was on vacation with my family. I kept working when I was studying abroad with a friend. I kept working in the hospital room of my sick aunt.
The guilt I felt when I was hustling was compounded by the guilt I felt for doing that to my loved ones. I hated myself for doing it. But I still did it. I couldn’t afford not to.
In my first year as a full-time freelance translator, I made $12,000 (before taxes). In my second year I doubled that but did three times the amount of work. I couldn’t keep going at the rate I was. It was time to either change industries and move out of entertainment localization, or to find a job in-house.
It was pure luck that I landed an in-house job in game localization and was able to move to Japan.
The Hustle and The Guilt
It was only through stepping away from freelance that I could get a better perspective on what it was doing to me. You don’t notice the guilt and stress when you’re in it…or perhaps you learn to tolerate it as it becomes a necessary evil.
This unhealthy cycle of “low pay → over work → stress and guilt → brief cathartic release → stress and guilt and the need to work” all inevitably ending with burnout is one that many colleagues face—sometimes to the point where they’re forced out of the industry altogether.
This isn’t sustainable. Not for the individuals or for the industry as a whole. It’s a depressing fact that large corporations racing to the bottom impacts the health and wellbeing of the people who are doing the leg work. It also means poorer quality work, which is bad for the original creators or the consumers.
Yet it feels like there’s not much the individual can do. A healthy work-life balance is only doable if you have the income to reduce your hours. There are many translators who work in fields outside of entertainment translation, who have full or part-time jobs, or whose partners are the main earners of the household.
It’s easy to say “schedule your work hours”, “know your limits”, “negotiate deadlines”—this is advice I give people all the time—but I know better than anyone, it’s not that simple. The guilt builds if you don’t hustle, you can’t make a living without it, but burnout, stress and guilt from overwork is real. And you can’t live without the hustle and the guilt.
Happy International Translation Day