Words for Sale?

When providing a quote, a translator often gives a per-1,000-words rate, a rate that confuses clients more that it enlightens them. This has been the norm for decades and, sadly, few individuals question whether this works for them and/or their clients and fewer still dare to challenge the system. But before becoming a translator, who understood what a thousand words was? I certainly didn’t. So how can we expect clients to understand? Charging an hourly rate is clearer and fairer for the client and the translator alike.

Translators, like editors, proofreaders, etc. like to know the word count of the text so as to get an idea of how much there is to work on. But this is only a vague measuring tool. If the word count was enough to gauge how long it was going to take, we wouldn’t need to see the text before quoting. There are many criteria a translator needs to take into consideration before accepting the work and agreeing to a deadline, such as the area and level of expertise required, the quantity and complexity of the terminology to be researched, the style of the text (straight forward or needing much thought and polishing for a sophisticated result?), and so on. A word count does not take these into account.

The per-word rate can be adjusted, precisely because of the time a particular translation is likely to take. However, this involves a few calculations and is less transparent than charging for the actual time itself. A per-word rate also gives the impression that the translator is making it up, with each project incurring a different rate. An hourly rate only changes once a year – with inflation.

You can never know exactly how long a text will take to translate because each text is unique, with its own combination of challenges. A complex document of 3,000 words may take as long as three days in some cases, while a simpler one of 5,000 words may take two days only. So a per-word rate does not work. When I quote, I give an estimate of the worst case scenario and usually invoice for less. By giving a hard quote based on a word count, translators turn their skilled work into a mere commodity.

Accountants do not charge by the digit, plumbers do not charge by the turn of the spanner and lawyers do not charge by the letter sent out or argument uttered in court. So why should a translator charge by the word? Translators do not sell words. We provide a professional service.

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9 thoughts on “Words for Sale?

  1. Charging by the hour also means giving any productivity gains to the client. My hourly earnings vary from USD 60 / hour to USD 178 / hour (I just finished a job at the latter rate yesterday). Average is 90-120/hour. Why give those hard-won productivity gains to the client? They’ll never pay my hourly rates, while my per-word rate is perfectly within industry norms.

    I guess giving them a “black box” maximum rate is possible, but many will still be comparing to a per word rate, not true?

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    • Hi Tom,

      Interesting take on the issue. The variations you mention in your hourly rate demonstrate that word count rates are not a reflection of the time translation takes and could seem rather arbitrary, especially to someone external to the industry. As clients, we all go for an element of trust when buying. So if a rate makes sense, it could be better than a cheaper one that doesn’t.

      I also think that per-word rates push our work further into the “commodity” category, alongside machine translation – a bit of a shot in the foot, in my opinion.

      Having started with per-word rates like everyone else, I can only say that charging by the hour works out much better for me and that clients find it easier and simpler too. When I used to give a per-word rate on the phone, I could tell by the initial silence and hesitation that it made no sense to them. Now when I give my hourly rate, their reaction expresses understanding and agreement. I’m all for making things easier for them and for myself 🙂

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  2. Another option is a per-word scale which takes linguistic complexity, specialization and formatting issues into account. This is formidable technical challenge, and one which the agencies seem to have little interest in solving – they seem to prefer to outsource production costs. I think that solutions will be forthcoming over the next few years…..

    On the client end, you still get the lump sum end price, which is what everyone understands. My clients in Russia would be shocked if they heard my hourly earnings….these things are tricky.

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    • I agree that a per-word price scale would make things even more complex both for us and the clients. As you said, the total cost is of course what matters ultimately.

      Even if we may not all agree as to how to break it down, I think it is worth having that debate at least so we can question the system and ensure it works for us and our clients rather than accept an old-fashioned status quo.

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  3. I think you are right about an hourly rate being simpler to calculate and easier for many clients to understand (though agencies would probably prefer a word rate as that is what they are accustomed to). But I have kind of the opposite of Tom’s problem – as a fairly new translator I am still working on improving my speed and I don’t think clients should have to pay more because I work more slowly than others! I suppose this could be dealt with by lowering my rate accordingly but that brings its own problems too. It’s not an easy question to answer.
    At the moment I’m experimenting with a flat project rate (or flat page rate) which people seem very happy with.
    The downside is my actual per page hourly earnings vary and sometimes come out way too low but this is what I’m experimenting with right now.

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    • Hi, Katherine. We all go through this in the early days. I think the way around it is to quote and charge what you think would probably be standard for a more experienced translator to achieve. If it takes you longer because you’re new, so be it, and with time you’ll soon catch up. However, don’t think that you take twice as long as a more experienced colleague or that you will one day manage 10,000 words in 2 days, including checking and proofreading. It won’t happen – not at the detriment of quality, anyway.

      Now, the standard output for a seasoned professional is not that easy to gauge since each text is unique. My suggestion would be that, if you know a more experienced translator working from the same language as you (and even better, into the same or a related language) as well as in similar specialisms, they may be happy to have a quick look at your documents (providing there is no confidentiality issue, of course) and tell you how many hours they would expect to spend on such an assignment and you could quote accordingly. You will soon get an idea of what is acceptable.

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