So you want to be a web novel translator…

You’ve read the novels or seen the online scene mentioned in media interviews.

You, too, cut your teeth on fantastical Chinese dramas with beautiful leads and flashy special effects.

Or did you give yourself nearsightedness by sneaking old wuxia books under the covers when it was past bedtime?

Maybe you’re already in the translating profession and are excited to share these sometimes 8D novels with the world.

‘ey there. I’m etvolare (more about me here) and I’ve been around the Chinese web literature scene for roughly four years. Kernels of ideas for this article have been floating around for quite a while, and a behemoth of a future monetization announcement from the leading web novel platform finally galvanized me into action.

I’ll be sharing thoughts based off personal experience in the scene, starting from when there were no companies present. Other caveats include my background: US-centric and a previous finance career.

So. You want to be a web novel translator because…

…you like the novels and have some free time on your hands.

Do you also like digging holes? 😀 Translation is very much like digging holes, and an endless amount at that.

I first encountered this particular metaphor for translation by the founder of Wuxiaworld, Ren Woxing, way back in 2015. It’s stuck with me since because it’s so vivid and so true.

When you embark on the dao of being a web novel translator, you’re making a commitment to the readers, the author, the publishers, and yourself to see it through. Whether life gets busy or you hate the current arc, the translation must go on!

These days, the standard release schedule is 14 chapters a week, or two chapters a day. If you’re fully bilingual and can jump right in, that’s wonderful! You’ve already got a leg up on many other aspiring translators.

Or, you might be like me, an ABC with a decent enough grasp of Chinese…

…completely poleaxed when faced with the actual nitty gritty of translating.

Chinese idioms? Popular culture references? Slang? And to have them make sense when translated into English?? I almost quit a few times in my first year of this new hobby. No, we cannot just skip whatever it is we don’t know. No, close enough is not good enough. XD

So, given that my first year of this new hobby was as much translating as it was really learning Chinese all over again, I’d give a conservative estimate of taking three hours per chapter.

This also includes post-translation editing, because my creative writing skills had declined an appalling degree since college. Good writing skills are critical, because a mess of grammar/conventions/style in the most humdrum tone is a chapter no one wants to read.

For more on the technical difficulties of translating web novels, please check out this write-up I put together. If reading that is difficult, please do reconsider and save yourself the agony of digging all those holes.

This means if I were an aspiring translator now, I’d be dedicating six hours a day to wading through a chapter of 3,000 Chinese characters, Chinese and English dictionaries in hand, and trying to figure out how to make something like ‘Explode Star Point’ sound like the badass martial move it is.

Six hours a day.

Man. That already sounds more like a chore than anything else.

It really is. Day in and day out, trudging through chapters, battling Chinese and turning it into English. The allure of sharing stories of hot male leads or epic battles wears off after a while, and what’s left is the chore of translating daily. Tough, continuous work like digging holes.

The holes need to be dug, everyday, regardless of how you feel about them that day. Most schedules tend to block in recharging and socialization on Friday – Sunday, work or studies from Monday to Thursday. Now, add in another 6 hours of daily hole digging, and those holes don’t go away if the previous day’s quota was missed.

If that sounds painful, that’s because it definitely can be.

It can feel like a drag even if your novel gets a foothold into mainstream popularity, because Chinese novels are long. One of mine called Sovereign of the Three Realms has 2,374 chapters. I’m only just now wrapping it up after four years! (Granted, that was because I started off as a hobbyist fan translator at 2x a week.)

Are you ready to dedicate years of your life to translating a novel? This isn’t crazy talk, truly. Remember the commitment one makes at the start of picking up a novel.

And what if your novel doesn’t take off? What if…

etvo! I’m just in it because I like the novels! I don’t want to do anything crazy like dedicate six hours a day, seven days a week of my life to it! (and earning some pocket money while I’m at it is also nice)

Sure thing, so three chapters a week AKA nine hours a week sound much better, right?

Are you ready to have no readers? Because that’s what will happen. (‘course there are always exceptions, but… please don’t go into this betting on that.)

Almost double digit hours worth of work a week for a few hundred pageviews, if even that. I’ve seen translators put out 5x a week and get less than a hundred pageviews per chapter. In fact, there was a period of time when one of my novels got ~400 views a month for each chapter.

There were 300+ chapters already translated in that novel, meaning a year’s worth of work.

In ad rev terms, that’s less than $100 a month. So after a year, I had barely any readers and sure as heck wasn’t earning much pocket money. Honestly, getting good at League of Legends and becoming a paid booster would be much more fun and pay better.

Slow release schedule = no readers = low motivation = fewer chapters translated = slower releases = a fantastic negative feedback cycle.

This is the sad barrel a translator will be staring down at if the novel that flops. A lock into years of hole digging and no audience. It goes without saying how incredibly demoralizing and depressing that prospect is.

…because you hate your future career path/current job.

Sitting at home and earning money banging on a keyboard sounds great, and it is! But… significant sacrifices are made in the form of employee benefits and relating to others if you hop into full-time web novel translating.

Remember the current standard of 14x a week? Let’s go with that, since one needs to maintain that schedule to even have a hope of making this a full-time job. As a general rule, slow releases = no readers.

Two chapters a day, all day, everyday. Whether rain or shine, sickness or good health, vacation or getting stood up on a Friday date.

You could take the weekends off or go on a break for vacation. You just have to dig more holes on remaining time or forgo the earnings. No work = no pay.

Just opting out of pay is kind of not an option when it pertains to a job, so on a recent family vacation, I booted up the laptop every night when we got back to the hotel. I was translating on the plane and during trip downtimes. The alternative was to dig even more holes beforehand so I could vacation without work.

Incidentally, this standard was 5x a week a few years ago, then 7x a week. It was a definite struggle to scale upwards when the standard progressed beyond a chapter a day. Ideally, it’s good practice to translate more than one’s daily releases, for those inevitable sick days, off days, and vacation time. So when the standard is 2x a day, I should at least be doing 2.5x a day. Thankfully, translation speeds eventually improve so that I’m not locked behind a laptop 8 hours a day for 2.5 chapters.

That’s just time, let’s also talk compensation and the whole package.

In web novel translations, there’s no such thing as annual reviews, raises, promotions, or a career path. You, your novels, and you. That’s it.

In most jobs, employees get 401(k) matches, annual bonuses, health insurance, vacation days, and sick days. Jobs can also offer some sort of pension/portfolio advantage/ESOP/related, employee discounts at affiliated brands, points for usage of company credit card, company parties/retreats, and others.

Fully loaded, the entire package is a lot more than just the salary figure, and all of that goes away when becoming a full-time web novel translator.

There’s also the intangibles that I feel are a very important part to consider. Like it or not, we function in a society. Being a translator usually means working alone, and becoming disassociated from society is an entirely real thing. That can do a number on one’s mood and self-worth as an individual.

For example, the translator schedule is completely different from a typical working professional’s. One can easily go an entire day without human contact. There are numerous topics that translators no longer have in common with their social circle (crappy boss, annoying clients, inclement weather affecting commute, etc).

When peers are making senior manager or vice-president later in life, the translator will forever be ‘just’ a translator. I’ve come to expect comments such as, “Wow, it’s such a shame you gave up your former career,” or “Don’t you feel like you wasted your education and work experience”?

…because you want to make the big bucks.

Wot, did that earlier section not scare you off yet? Alright, alright. TL;DR: web novel translating isn’t the key to striking it rich.

Let’s look at some numbers.

Whether you already have a job or are looking to enter the workforce for the first time, 99.9% of web novel translators are contractors, meaning that monthly expenses look different from a 9-5’er.

Taking the wildly successful novel figure from WW’s future monetization post, a translator can bring in $5,000 a month for luckily having their novel take off. This is not the norm, at all. Given the type of person who can translate Chinese into English (please refer to the translator section below), it’s likely they live in a first world country.

Federal tax @ 22% (singles rate) = $1,100
State tax @ 9.3% (California) = $465
Health insurance (21 yr old @ ValuePenguin): $221
Car insurance (@ The Zebra): $143
Rent (SoCal @ Rentcafe) = $1,469
Utilities + internet (Daily Press): $150

Income left after monthly recurring expenses: $1,452

Gas isn’t included in this rough estimate. This is it. For food. Clothes. The pair of glasses accidentally crushed one night which the catastrophic insurance plan doesn’t cover. Anything for entertainment and fun. Christmas presents for family. Charity and contributing to the local community. Saving for retirement. As this was for a young, healthy single, it can easily go into the red when kids and elderly parents are thrown into the mix.

The monthly paycheck is always an unknown in web novel translations.

My numbers are a daily obsession for a gauge of the current month’s take-home. Are they cratering because of a slow arc? Are they shooting back up because it’s a holiday? Every month is a surprise, and it can be quite frustrating to have results be wholly irrelevant to effort.

In my previous 9-5’s, health insurance, retirement savings, on-site daycare, mileage reimbursement, plenty of discounts and tuition subsidies were included. There were raises and annual bonuses. The neighborhood web novel translator has to pay for everything out of pocket, from a pot that we’re never really certain of how it’ll shake out.

What about other compensation methods?

Some platforms take the uncertainty out of the equation and offer flat pay for chapters. Sounds wonderful, until you realize this also places a cap on your earnings when royalties are taken out of the picture.

For a while, there was an influx of new translators in the scene because some platforms offered ~$40 a chapter. Folks saw that as an opportunity to run chapters through Google translate, edit it up some, and collect easy money for quick work.

That’s absolute bollocks for long term career stability. It’s how one’s reputation gets trashed, readers not touching anything the translator puts out because it’s frankly awful, and that $40/chapter quickly dries up when the platform realizes the novel isn’t bringing any readership/money in.

Some translators join teams and turn in work to a head translator. That can go hand-in-hand with a lighter schedule and fewer holes to dig. It’s sometimes viewed as all of the payoff with none of the responsibility, as someone else is on the hook for mistakes. However, this also doesn’t get one far in this scene as it’ll be the head translator associated with the novel, and pay going through one more middleman.

Web novel translating isn’t the path to big bucks, it really isn’t.

…because you’re already a translator.

If all the uncertainty hasn’t deterred the translators reading this write-up, the actual skillset required might. Reality is rarely what’s imagined, even for those with experience in the field.

Being part of the largest translator groups in Taiwan, I’ve had the opportunity to take a close look at the lives of professional translators. I field a lot of questions from interested hopefuls, so I get this, I really do.

Aside from those who have consistent, long term cases (such unicorns), the downsides of being a translator include dealing with horrific clients, shifting deadlines, subpar source material, and constant uncertainty with not knowing where the next case will come from.

Thus, peers are always curious about this different world, interesting subject material that bring up childhood nostalgia, or something that’s simply a different pace from their usual.

As we’ve established already, unpredictability is such a huge thing in this field. It can be exceedingly stressful to not know how well your novel will do, how much you’ll earn this month, and having to keep digging the holes despite all that. Incidentally, the skillset needed here is different.

You don’t need a PhD in Chinese literature. You don’t need decades of experience teaching Chinese. In fact, classically trained translators don’t have an automatic edge over everyone. The first two were once two separate applicants to volare, and I failed applicants with translation degrees all the time because:

English writing ability is crucial.

This may come across as nonsensical, because right, we’re translating from Chinese into English. Of course we need to know how to write in English.

But do you know how to write a novel in English?

Or let’s take a step back, because original writing isn’t on the line here. How are your creative writing skills? This is the requirement for a good end result, not straight 1:1 literal translation into English.

In my view, readers need to get lost in the story, not the foreign-ness of the written word and how weird it reads. They should experience the same emotions we did when reading the Chinese, and feel just the same sense of wonder, curiosity, or fury. For more on translating web novels, please click here (write-up is in Chinese).

I am firmly of the belief that it is sufficient to master just enough Chinese to understand the original text. More of the focus should be on how to recreate that literary world in English. To this regard, widely read English writers tend to end up wielding significant advantage over classically trained or highly experienced translators who haven’t touched web novels before.

Okay all of this is depressing and sounds like a shitty job, why did you quit finance for it?

Haha alright, despite the absolute wall of text up to here, here I am, four years into the scene. Even with all the drawbacks, I chose this path and stuck with it.

I’m absolutely blessed and lucky that my passion puts food on the table.

That’s the long and short of it. Having seen some pretty impressive stuff in my past life as a M&A consultant and corporate banker, it was definitely a gamble to distill that experience and move into another field with it. Thankfully, the bet paid off, even though I still have close family members who scoff at what I do and mutter about getting a ‘real job’.

It absolutely is a gamble. You never know if your novel will find mainstream popularity, or if an arc will be so boring it craters your monthly earnings into nonexistence. Maybe a new novel will launch on your publishing platform and it’ll distract your readers for a while. Or maybe another novel will host a huge event that draws all the eyeballs for a good couple of weeks. Even I find digging holes tedious at times.

However, every reader comment, breathless theories of things to come, fan art, and tricky passage that I get to sound just right brings a smile to my face. To be able to share these stories with a receptive and enthusiastic audience is this bookworm’s dream come true. I love what I do, and have found living through a developing industry very interesting. And that’s probably my ultimate answer to “so you want to be a (full-time) web novel translator”?

Make sure it’s passion that drives you, and make sure you’re able to put food on the table until it can sustain you.

Derp. I’d actually wanted to make this post about monetization in the scene. XD

4 thoughts on “So you want to be a web novel translator…”

  1. Spot on.

    People entering into this shouldn’t expect a high paying salary nor much growth. This is really a place where only the passionate and lucky can flourish. Even if any translator were to join WW or WN, their pay would still be sub-par for the number of hours they work (unless they are like the Flash).

    Everyday, I’m just grateful to the in the spot I have now with my site. I wish others will have success as well but we know that in most cases, that isn’t going to be the case.

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