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.