Estimating literary translators’ earnings penalty: A cultural economics approach to translator studies

Leila Mirsafian, Hossein Pirnajmuddin and Dariush Nejadansari


Seeking to fill the gap in economics-related research in the subfield of translator studies, this article aims to identify the best approach to estimate the earnings penalty and forgone income of Iranian professional literary translators. The data were collected through interviews with 118 Iranian professional literary translators. A multiple regression analysis done to estimate the translators’ annual income equation shows that male Tehran-based literary translators who have no other jobs and spent less time on higher education earn more than their colleagues who are female, do not live in Tehran, have other jobs, and spent more time on higher education. However, the multiple regression analysis for estimating the average forgone income equation of the interviewees indicates that the more experience and the fewer award jury/editorial board memberships female non-Tehran-based literary translators have, the more they suffer from earnings penalties. Building on these findings, the article highlights the implications of cultural economics research for translator studies.

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Forgone income, or “opportunity cost,” is the difference between the low income earned by an artist (in this article, a literary translator) and what could be earned from the best-paid alternative occupation (matched in terms of skills and abilities) (Withers 1985, 291). This can be reported as an earnings penalty. However, translators have rarely been studied from an economic perspective that goes beyond a descriptive account of their rates of pay. When Chesterman (2009) suggested translator studies as a branch of Translation Studies, he mostly focused on sociological approaches. He did link the sociological to the economic in naming the translation market as playing a decisive role in the first of three strands of a translation sociology, namely the “sociology of translations,” “sociology of translators,” and “sociology of translating” (16). A focus on economics in the “sociology of translations” is evident in several influential areas of work in Translation Studies. Heilbron and Sapiro (2007) have investigated international exchanges of translations, emphasizing the specificity of the economics of translations as symbolic goods, thus setting translations apart from more general categories of goods just being bought and sold. In their more recent work, Heilbron and Sapiro (2016) refer to the scarcity of studies on translation from an economic perspective, and expand their research on the global system of translation, approaching it from both sociological and economic perspectives. They compare how economists and sociologists view the logic of the global system of translation and find that while economists generally consider a rational calculation of costs and benefits, sociologists rely on a multidimensional approach integrating cultural, political, and economic aspects of the (power) relations between languages. Perhaps predictably, Heilbron and Sapiro (2016) prefer a sociological approach as it more comprehensively explains the structure of the global system of translation as well as the uneven exchanges between its central and peripheral languages.

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