This article is based partly on information from relevant authorities and partly on two surveys conducted by the Swedish Association of Professional Translators, SFÖ (Sveriges Facköversättarförening), published in 2007 and 2011. To that, I have added my own experience and knowledge about the Swedish translation business as an established member of said association, as well as a member of the FIT Standards Committee and a travelling translator, who has met and discussed with colleagues from many parts of the world.
Translator associations in Sweden
Sweden has three prominent translation associations; besides the SFÖ, there is also the Federation of Authorised Translators (FAT) and the Literary translators’ Chapter of The Swedish Writers’ Union (Översättarsektionen1), all founded in the 20th century. A translator may well be a member of all three organisations, but as they are all based on members’ partaking in the association’s development, most translators are members of two at most. To become a member of any of these organisations, you need to pass a test (for FAT), provide sufficient references for your language combinations (for SFÖ) or have translated two published books of a certain size (for Översättarsektionen). Both SFÖ and FAT are members of the International Federation of Translators, Interpreters and Terminologists (FIT).
Codes of conduct and first language
The SFÖ and the FAT have their own Codes of conduct2 that members have to follow. They include statements about confidentiality and general conduct. Nowhere does it say that a translator should work into their first language (often called mother tongue), but it can be considered an unwritten rule to translate either to or from Swedish, not both. State-licensed translators in Sweden are authorised to officially stamp translations from English to Swedish or vice versa, but not both.
Employers and agencies
Many multinational translation agencies, or language service providers (LSP) as they are called nowadays, operate in Sweden. The most famous are probably Lionbridge and SDL, but there are also some companies that focus on the Nordic market, such as AAC Global, CBG and Semantix. All of them focus on profitmaking, and not always on delivering high quality translations. They often give the client what the client demands instead of enquiring about the services that the client actually needs and explaining how translation and other language services can work and what they can include. However, there are still quite a few smaller agencies, owned and run by translators or other language professionals, that keep the quality banner flying high and proud, and they do get a share of the market.
Most authorities and large companies these days use the public tenders system for translation services, and only have very few, if any, translators employed on a permanent basis. Most employed translators work from Swedish into English, as that is the most needed combination. There are occasionally shorter assignments in other language combinations for smaller companies advertised in newspapers or on job-search websites. Literary (fiction) translators also work as freelancers for publishing houses, and book translation assignments are virtually never advertised publicly; publishers usually contact the relevant translator association (or Översättarcentrum, a partly state-financed job-search portal for published book translators) to look for a suitable translator, if they don’t already know with whom they want to work.
Surveys conducted by SFÖ for non-fiction translators
In 2007 and 2011, the SFÖ conducted two surveys3 to get an overview of the Swedish market for non-fiction translators. The surveys focused on language combinations and rates, and divided the answers into different categories. Amongst others, there were questions about the differences in what translators demand from agency clients versus direct clients. It’s clear that the neighbouring languages, Danish, Norwegian and German, are the most popular, and the respondents mainly translate into Swedish. In both surveys, English into Swedish was the most popular combination, closely followed by Swedish into English (!). However, even though they were the most popular combinations, neither was the lowest paid; in the 2011 survey, Spanish into Swedish was paid at a lower rate than any other combination.
In neither survey was the lowest per word rate below 1.00 SEK (currently approximately 0.11 euro), not even for agencies. A survey today could possibly show a different number, but hopefully not. A majority of the respondents also said that they use a minimum fee, which in the 2011 survey was, on average, 375 SEK for agencies and 439 SEK for direct clients, and a majority also apply a surcharge in particular circumstances such as rush jobs, weekend jobs or pdf conversion.
Administration and business
To work as a freelancer in Sweden, you have a few options. You may ask to be hired by the hour by agencies, but then you would have to only work for agencies, as direct clients may not wish to go through the fuss of employing you for a five-hour assignment. You may also ask a special invoicing company to help out; that way you get a salary, as if employed by this company, and they deduct a small percentage from your invoices. If you feel that you have nothing to lose (as unemployment benefits are only available to those who put their own company ”on hold” or ”stand-by”), you start your own company4. The easiest form is called sole trader, “enskild näringsidkare” in Swedish, and means a sort of mixture of private person and company. You are treated as both a private individual and a company by the authorities, and you can register it under your personal name if you don’t have time to come up with a business name. If you have an expensive computer and perhaps some other expensive tools, you may choose to start a limited liability company (“aktiebolag” in Swedish) and include them as a part of the start-up investment, which has to amount to about 5,000 euros (50,000 SEK). These two company forms are the most common among freelancers at the moment.
As a company, we pay our VAT (Value Added Tax, which freelancers always need to pay in Sweden) and preliminary tax either once a year, once every three months or every month, depending on either income or preference. We also have an annual tax return, where we either pay the extra amount that has been re-calculated after the year’s end, or get some tax money back, if we paid too much earlier. The amount of tax depends on what kind of company you have, where you live, and how much you earn – but since most freelancers are sole traders, here’s an example of how that works:
Example: If I send a Swedish client an invoice of 800 Swedish kronor (SEK), plus 25 per cent VAT (for fiction or poetry translations the VAT rate is six per cent), the client pays me 1,000 SEK. If I have had no expenses for this, I need to pay slightly less than 50 per cent of the amount before VAT, so I will pay around 380 SEK to the tax authorities. If I bought a specific tool, say a technical dictionary, for this assignment, I deduct that first. If the dictionary costs 200 SEK, then I only pay tax for 800−200 = 600 SEK, which means I will eventually pay around 285 SEK to the authorities.
However, for these taxes you get 480 days of parental leave per child, during which you get 80 per cent of your salary for 390 days (up to 946 SEK per day) and 90 days with only 180 SEK (approximately 20 euro) per day – money that you have to pay tax for. You also get fairly decent roads, which only cost extra in the two largest cities, you get subsidized dental care and healthcare, and free education – both at compulsory school levels and university courses.
To anyone thinking of moving here, I’d suggest using an invoicing company (“faktureringsföretag” in Swedish) to begin with, as that’s the easiest way to get started, and then talk to the Tax authority – as long as you show them you want to do the right thing, they are (actually) friendly and helpful.
In short, it’s probably slightly more cumbersome to have a freelance company in Sweden than in many other EU countries, but there are ways to work without having one. Rates are usually over 0.11 euro per source word, even for agencies. However, income tax is something you are responsible for yourself, and there are of course other obstacles, from xenophobia to getting your degrees accepted if you want to follow a university course if you are a non-Swede who would like to move here. As a EU citizen, it’s of course much easier than as a citizen from anywhere outside the Union. If you want to know more about translation in Sweden, I suggest you get in touch with one of the organisations, or maybe come here for a conference (any FIT member pays the conference fee that a Swede pays, which is usually not that high) to talk to colleagues yourself.
1 Only in Swedish.
2 For SFÖ: http://www.sfoe.se/sidor/yrkesetisk-kod.aspx, for FAT: http://www.aukttranslator.se/sv/kammarkollegiets-translatorsforeskrifter – both in Swedish only.