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How much does translation cost?

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Tim Branton

Tim Branton

PureFluent CEO

Ian Gilchrist

Ian Gilchrist

PureFluent Roving Reporter

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September 27, 2019

Our latest topic is one of the most frequently asked questions that arises regarding translation: just how much will it cost?

Ian:This is obviously a key question for most businesses undertaking translation projects – can you outline some of the key factors that will influence the cost?

Tim:Whether you’re considering using a professional translator or an amateur translator is probably the first key factor as regards costs. A professional translator is someone with a translation degree, versus someone who simply knows both languages, and you would also consider the level of experience the translator has.

At the top end you’re talking about someone who is a highly skilled professional who probably has a decade or more of experience in your field, and these people are of course an expensive talent. If you want this level of person working on your project it’s going to cost a lot more than hiring a student who’s looking to earn some extra money, and there’s a whole range of people working in the industry.

There’s a big difference between a student looking to earn some extra money for a night out and a professional translator who has a mortgage to pay and for whom translation is a full time job or a career. The way that these two individuals are approaching how much they need to earn is very different: a bit of extra money for a student versus someone who has to get to an annual income of €40,000 or €50,000 to support a family.

Ian:There’s an important discussion going on in our culture at present about the amateur versus professional employment model and the gig economy.

Tim:Absolutely, and most people working in the translation business are working as freelancers. Customers generally find it difficult to make the translation (no pun intended) from how much something costs per year to how much time the translator spends on a project, who the translator is is, what the translator’s expectations are, etc. To go from “here’s how much a translation costs per word” to “here’s how much a translator earns in a year” is a tricky calculation for a customer to make.

A skilled translator might expect to be earn something like €40,000 – €50,000 per year, and like the rest of us they also need to take holidays and save for their retirement. People with skills are not in unlimited supply, and they rightly demand a certain rate.

Working backwards from the expectations of a skilled, experienced and qualified translator who expects to be earning something like €40,000 per year, and then looking at the rate per word and how many words a translator can do per day while also factoring in that everyone needs to have holidays and personal time gives a different perspective on how much that person needs to earn. It’s humans who are ultimately behind or at the root of this process. People with skills and are not in unlimited supply, and they can demand a certain rate once they have acquired experience and a solid reputation.

To put some numbers around this: on the low end, say an unqualified student translator, might be earning something like 4 cents per word. Someone right at the top end doing really skilled work that is essentially recreating copy in the target language could be earning 15 – 20 cents per word. Because there really is a massive difference, it’s very hard for people to judge whether it’s worth it for them to pay four times more for a professional translation than they would pay a student to do it. In the end though, a judgement has to be made based on the quality of the work.

Ian:We’ve talked previously about accuracy requirements around the technical and legal jargon and terminology of some industries versus the copy requirements of creative industries; I guess this is an important factor influencing translation costs?

Tim:Yes, one of the crucial elements is domain expertise, which includes everything from the more technical end of spectrum such as legal, medical, and technology-related subjects. Knowledge of terminology and concepts is key with more specialist subjects, as it’s more difficult to find translators who are conversant with these subjects.

Translators who are good at writing creative copy are one of the most difficult type of translators to find. In the creative realm a translator either has the ability or doesn’t.

However, translators who are good at writing creative copy are one of the most difficult type of translators to find. After spending considerable time and effort honing copy for the marketing pages of your web site it can be quite challenging to find translators who are good at recreating that quality of copy in the target language.

On the technical end of the spectrum where elegance of copy is less important than the accuracy of your terminology you can compensate to an extent with machine translation and a rigorous QA process. In the creative realm a translator either has the ability or doesn’t.

Ian:This is a good point to discuss the impact on cost of the inevitable comparison of human versus machine translation.

Tim:A key element now, but which was much less important even 5 years ago, is to what extent machine translation is going to play a part in your translation. The more technical a subject is the more there will be repeated text within the copy; and the more syntactically simple your content is, the more likely machine translation could play a useful part in your strategy.

At the far end where you wind up with the very best results MT can reduce your marginal costs of translation down to almost zero (see our recent post on machine translation). This widens the range of options even further, going from the highly skilled, specialised translator earning 15 to 20 cents per word to almost nothing with machine translation, making it harder again for a customer to decide the appropriate cost for their needs. It’s simply not enough to look at two possible extremes and deem one really cheap and the other really expensive – you need to make an informed judgement about what approach you’re going to take for a specific type of content.

Where you have the ability to introduce machine translation as a part of the process what you’ll do is post-edit the machine translation. A human translator will go through the machine translation looking for obvious errors and polishing up the syntax as required, and while this doesn’t provide a full quality human translation, most people reading it won’t notice the difference and this will bring down the cost quite significantly compared to a human-only translation.

Ian: ‘Tiny’ versus ‘substantial’ projects is an obvious cost measurement for many people, but what constitutes small in some creative areas doesn’t really apply to translation through an agency does it?

Tim:Every project irrespective of length has to be set up, linked to a translation memory and a term base, and it has to be assigned to a translator and a proof reader – that’s the basic project initiation process even if a translation involves just one word. We generally deal with these fixed costs by having a minimum number of words for each project, and other agencies may have a fixed project fee which covers the initiation process.

Every project irrespective of length has to be set up, linked to a translation memory and a term base, and it has to be assigned to a translator and a proof reader. Even a 100 word translation takes time to get set up.

This also effects the timeline, and customers are often surprised that a very short translation still may require a day, and the reason for is simply that we don’t have people sitting waiting for small translation jobs. While in practice a 100 word translation will take a good translator twenty minutes to do, the reality is that the process of finding a person to do it and getting her to bump a job to the top of her priorities takes time.

Ian:Can you talk a bit about language combinations and how that impacts the cost?

Tim:This isn’t something that should surprise anyone. Norwegian is a good example to illustrate this point. Consider how much a beer costs in Oslo, and guess what – Norwegian translations are bloomin’ expensive! Norway is a wealthy country with a small population, which always makes a difference. As a rule of thumb Scandinavian countries’ translations cost significantly more, as do Northeast Asia, Korea and Japan. The Dutch are famously skilled linguists, with many of them speaking a minimum of four languages, but hiring good Dutch translators is expensive.

Looking at poorer countries at the other end of the spectrum, a good example is Brazilian Portuguese translation. You might expect to see a straight line reduction in the cost of translation, but you don’t – in a poorer country fewer people have achieved the level of education that enables them to translate your content effectively. Spanish is however significantly cheaper in terms of what the translator gets paid, somewhere in the region of 30-40% less than a Norwegian translator, something which isn’t completely in line with the relative wealth of the two countries.

Ian:Tell me a bit about the circumstances requiring bridge translation.

Tim:Direct translation is what happens in the vast majority of cases, such as English into Norwegian, Chinese into English or French into German, but with some of the more unusual language combinations the translations are not direct. If you want to go from Norwegian to Malay, you’re not going to translate directly from Norwegian to Malay, and you’ll translate via a bridge translation.

In this scenario you’ll translate from Norwegian into English and from English to Malay. As this is two entirely different translation projects it will add a significant amount to this type of translation’s cost, but in most cases, you’ll need your content in English. In the majority of cases you wouldn’t just be going from Norwegian to Malay anyway, so the impact will be on your project timeline rather than on the cost of the translation.

Ian:We’ve touched on this comparison many times in our discussions: does the translation of marketing copy cost more than translation of legal or technical copy?

Tim:If a medical translation requires the involvement of a translator who has professional medical qualifications such as a Medical Doctor this will dramatically increase the cost per word.

Ian:In the case of a medical translation of documents that are to be used by medical professional it seems obvious that it’s crucial that the translation is absolutely ‘correct’.

Tim:Getting a medical translation right is very important but getting the translation right rarely means using a doctor do the translation – you can use a medical translator to do the translation and then have a doctor review the translated text. We have a process called client review which involves someone on the client side reviewing the final text to ensure that it is accurate and appropriate.

Ian:When a translation involves culturally sensitive content, whereby the client is conscious of not offending cultural sensibilities, what’s the impact on cost?

Tim:For example when content includes a humorous element that’s very hard to reproduce in other languages you are undertaking a transcreation process, which is more expensive and is typically charged on an hourly rather than a per word basis. With content of this nature you can’t simply look at the number of words, because it’s an iterative process which involves a lot of to and fro with the customer to determine the right approach.

Ian:Can you outline the cost breakdown between the agency and the translator?

Tim:I’ve talked about translation costs ranging from 4c to 15/20c a word for a translator to carry out a translation, but that per word fee is only what the translator is earning, not what the translation agency charges in total. An agency adds a lot of value to the process for the customer, going through the process of putting together the right team, making sure everything is set up correctly and managing the translation memory and term base and putting each project through a QA process.

An agency will ensure that queries that arise during the translation process are answered effectively and are implemented by the team, and deal with a whole range of technical aspects including document layout and web formatting – all things that translators do not deal with. There’s a big difference between employing a translator directly, in which case the per word rate I’ve discussed applies, and employing an agency where there are a range of systems and services that are supported by the fees charged.

I understand why clients question the higher fees involved when using an agency. As in any industry, the translation agency is a middle-man between the customer and the service provider, and any middle-man has to be able to justify his role and extra cost. Typically, the cost of the agency will be equal to the per word rate of the translator, so a 20c per word charge to the customer will be 10c for the translation cost and 10c for everything that the agency does in the middle. This varies depending on the language combination and specialisation, and the volume is important, as the larger the volume the more likely that the agency will trim their margin.

While it seems an obvious statement, it’s still worth saying that the agency always has to earn something on top of the actual translation fee, and the customer does have a choice he can make. He can achieve the “buy price” of 10c per word if he’s prepared to go through the entire process of managing the translation, having IT and translation systems in place and having all the administrative infrastructure available to manage the process – but if he does have all that he’s effectively setting up a mini translation agency within the company and taking on those fixed costs. Some large enterprises such as Microsoft or Apple do this, and they still use external agencies as part of their mix. It could be a valid choice, but you shouldn’t underestimate the capital and overhead costs!

About the authors

Tim BrantonTim Branton

Tim Branton is PureFluent's CEO and a passionate advocate for the role of technology in the language industry. He has 30 years of business experience across the chemicals, telecoms, business services and software sectors in the UK, Singapore, Japan, China and South Africa.


See all posts by Tim Branton
Ian GilchristIan Gilchrist

Ian has worked in music and home entertainment product development, marketing, and journalism in the U.S., Canada and the UK, where he currently lives, for over 30 years.

In that time he's has aided and abetted an eclectic array of artists including Alison Krauss, Talking Heads, Madeleine Peyroux and Slade, and has worked for a diverse range of labels and companies including Universal Music (Canada), Pioneer LDC (Europe), Milan Records (France), the British Film Institute (BFI), Rounder Records Group (Canada) and BMG (UK). In his guise as a film journalist Ian's interviewed many renowned and influential people, including director John Carpenter (Halloween), actors Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and Tom Hardy (Venom), director Roman Polanski (Chinatown), and many more.


See all posts by Ian Gilchrist

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