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How Much Money Can I Make Copyediting in China?

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Undoubtedly, at some point during your stay in China, you will be approached by someone to copyread a document that has been recently translated from Chinese into English. In reality, what is often required is a complete rewrite or revision of the entire document from “Chinglish” into genuine English. To be even remotely successful at this kind of work, you will need the patience of Job and the cryptanalytic skills of a professional code cracker for the CIA.

Professional translators in China earn .1 yuan (1 jiao) for each word that is translated into English. This is the industry standard and often the starting negotiating point for paying foreign experts who provide this service. A single page of paper with one-inch margins, double-spaced, will typically hold about 250 English words. Depending entirely on the quality of the translation (which is also heavily influenced by the caliber and clarity of the original Chinese document) and the subject matter itself, e.g., general English in a brochure as opposed to a technical or scientific journal article, 250 words can take anywhere from a minimum of 10 minutes to as much as 20 minutes to revise. At 10 minutes and .1 yuan per word, a single page of copy editing would yield 25 yuan or the equivalent of 150 yuan per hour. In reality, it rarely comes to that much unless you are particularly quicker than most. Thus, the fee of .10 yuan per word should only be accepted if the translation is of a very good quality and the level of English used is simple and straightforward (even if the sentence structure and grammar are not). Obviously, if you need 20 minutes to decipher and revise that one page, then 25 yuan is not reasonable compensation for your efforts and you will need to adjust your fee accordingly.

Technical and scientific papers will generally require no less than 15 to 20 minutes per page in order to revise them into a paper that has a chance of being accepted for publication. Fees for this type of copy editing should start at .15 yuan and could be as high as .20 per word. If the company is not willing to pay you anything more than .10 yuan per word, then you should decline the project.

Before offering a quote for a particular job, you must make certain that you’ve been given the entire document to review and not just a “representative sample.” When I was first started out in this line of work, I made the big mistake of providing a “discount” quote to a colleague of .08 yuan per word based on a single, early chapter of a 20 chapter book. Unlike the later chapters, the earlier ones had been rewritten and revised numerous times and, therefore, the quality of English was considerably better than it was for the ones I had not been initially provided with (and, of course, this was quite deliberate on his part).

Never offer a fee quote until you have reviewed the entire document. In addition, if you are not doing this for a translation company but, rather, a colleague or “government friend,” write out a brief and simple contract clearly stating what you will do and what you are responsible for. For example, you need to be clear that for a fee of .12, for example, the paper will receive one reading only and that, with a single reading, you are not able to guarantee perfection. In the earlier example of the colleague who asked me to revise his 250-page book (whose earlier chapters were in much better shape than the ones written later), he actually demanded that I provide him with a free second reading as the publisher had found “30 errors” in the final manuscript. In fact, only five of those errors were genuine errors on my part (five errors out of almost 63,000 words) and the other 25 amounted to stylistic preferences in construction. I add a surcharge of 50% for a second reading, with an error-free guarantee, and only one project in four years has ever required that level of perfection.

Keep in mind then when you first start out in this type of work, you will necessarily be slower at doing it in the beginning than you will be over time. With a lot of practice, you will be able to recognize common errors in construction that seem to be “standard” in every Chinese to English translation. For example, Chinese translators never use the possessive form and their translations are almost always completely literal, which is to say almost always wrong. Instead of writing “Bill’s wife waited for 10 minutes outside the school’s auditorium,” they will write “The wife of Bill waiting 10 minutes by the outside of the auditorium of the school.” After a few months, you will be able to revise that construction quickly, but in the beginning you’ll have to reread it a few times to understand what was originally intended.

In the beginning, it will take you quite some time to properly decipher and correct Chinese to English translations, which is to say your overall hourly rate will significantly increase as you become more proficient at spotting and correcting common errors in Chinglish grammar and construction. With a good deal of practice, you should be able to earn between 100 to even 150 yuan per hour for working at your computer, charging anywhere from .12 to .20 yuan per word depending on the quality of the translation and the document’s subject matter.

If you’d like to break into this type of work, have a Chinese friend conduct an Internet search on international translation companies (in Chinese) and then send them your résumé with a sample of your copy editing work. You’ll hear back from about 25% of everyone you contact and, eventually, it could lead to ongoing part-time work that is not easy (by any means), but is nevertheless very convenient to do from the comfort of your apartment.

Until you build up something of a reputation, you may want to underbid the jobs until you establish yourself. In order to save .05 yuan per word, most Chinese translation companies will try the “new kid on the block” to see if your work is any good. If it is, i.e., if the client is happy, you will end up replacing the more expensive foreign copyreader and, eventually, you’ll be able to charge more for special projects.

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Experienced copy editors with degrees in the hard sciences should check out the ad by New Bridge Translation company.


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