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Fuschia Hutton

How much does translation cost?

Once you realise you need a professional translation, the first question on your mind is likely to be: ‘how much does translation cost?’

Professional translators rarely publish their rates online, so it can be surprisingly difficult to work out how much a translation will cost just looking at their website. Sometimes we just want to consider our options without feeling pressured to work with a particular professional.

Some translation agencies publish prices, but you may be surprised at the cost, or it may be a caveated ‘from…’ price.

Finally, you may have heard that there are online marketplaces where users offer translations for the price of a cup of coffee. So how do you work out if the price you are quoted by a professional translator is fair on you as a customer?

Read on for the lowdown on translation cost and pricing.

What you need to know about translation cost

In the vast majority of cases, translation cost is priced per word in the original document (source text). For languages such as German, it may be by line, and for languages such as Chinese or Japanese, it may be by character. In Italy there is a traditional of charging by the cartella, around 1,500-2,000 keystrokes depending on who you ask.

The advantage of basing the cost on the original document is that if you have a finalised source text that is ready to go, then the quote you receive before work begins won’t change.

Per word is a better gauge than per page, because a page may contain images, different font sizes, and other items.

In the UK, translators tend to quote the price by 1,000 words. They’ll often charge a minimum fee, which accounts for time spent on admin such as communication, formatting, and invoicing.

What affects translation cost?

If you spend time with translators (or copywriters, or web designers, for that matter), you will get used to hearing the phrase ‘no job is quite alike’. There are so many factors which can affect translation cost, which is one of the reasons we don’t publish rates online.

Which languages do you need to translate between?

The less commonly-spoken the languages involved, the more expensive it is likely to be. If your document is in a particularly rare language (for your country), or you need a translation into a rare language, your text may need to be translated into another, more common language, first.

I once worked on a project where the main intention was to translate Italian to Hakka. The client was unable to find a professional translator with native Hakka and fluent Italian, so I translated the Italian into English. Following this, a Hakka translator translated the English into Hakka. Of course, this solution involved working with two separate translators, which had an impact on the overall project price.

What file format is your document?

If your file is near-illegible doctors’ notes, then it will take the translator much longer to interpret and then convert into a translatable format.

Most translators also work with Computer Aided Translation Tools (CAT Tools), which speed up the process and ensure consistency of style. So, if your file is not compatible with a translator’s CAT Tools, this will take time, and push up the price.

This isn’t usually a problem – most major file types are usually supported, including Microsoft Suite, HTML, Adobe, Open Document, and XML.

If your file isn’t compatible with a CAT Tool, and your budget is low, then, depending on your resources, you may save money by converting it into a compatible format yourself.

Is your subject matter technical, or do you require specialist knowledge of some kind?

The more specialised the subject matter, the more expensive translation costs. And rightly so – you are not just paying for someone to convert your words into another language. You are also paying for their expertise, often built up over decades, through keeping up with the industry, and taking specialist courses.

And beware! Although marketing material may seem straightforward and ‘easy’, you’re better off hiring a specialist to translate your carefully crafted copy and communications.

I recently heard an analogy with medicine. If you needed an operation on your eyes, you would go to an ophthalmologist, not your local GP, and not your local cardiologist either.

How quickly do you need your translation?

Do you need a fast turnaround for your translation? If so, then your chosen translator may need to move some projects around to accommodate your project. This all takes time and admin – they will already be committed to other deadlines, so this is likely to add a premium to the cost.

Translation tends to be one of the last stages of a project. In many cases it might be an afterthought, or something extra added to the project as it progresses…. ‘Actually, we need to reach the German/French/Spanish market, so let’s translate our English-language materials’.

Try factoring the translation into your project timeline before you begin your projects, and add time buffers in case the earlier phases don’t go as quickly as planned. This will ease pressure on your end and could save you money.

Finally, decide whether your project really is that urgent that you need 24- or 48-hour turnaround. Is it so urgent that you’re happy to pay a higher price?

Why don’t translators publish translation costs online?

It comes down to one word: commodity. Publicly publishing how much translation costs encourages a race to the bottom. But translation is not flour. Or sugar. Translators all come with different experiences and strengths that make us suitable – or less suitable – for a particular job. So we want to urge our clients not to shop on price alone.

Instead of thinking about how cheap you can get a translation, I would encourage you to think about the value an accurate and culturally-sensitive translation brings. What price can you put on catering to the Spanish-speaking market on your website? How important is it to have clear and accurate usage instructions in French so that you prevent accidents?

When you consider the value translation can bring, you’ll realise there are more important factors to help you decide which translator or agency to work with.

And what about the marketplaces and freelancer sites?

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned much about online marketplaces so far. Us translators can bang on for hours about job postings offering $99 for translating a 30,000-word book attracting 35 bidders. Or clients offering $1 for translating a 500-word article.

It’s true, there are online marketplaces where you can find translators charging very low prices. And yes, some of them are genuine translators. You may be lucky and find them. But these sites tend to operate on a ‘cheapest offer wins’, and after fees, the hourly rate would work out far below minimum wage.

At such a low rate, it is unlikely that translators will be able to spend an appropriate amount of time to produce a translation that is fit for purpose. Translation doesn’t just involve typing, but research, many many checks, proofreading, and more. And remember: professional translators usually translate into their native language (or dominant language).

If you do use one of these sites to find a translator, I would urge you to review each translator bidding on your project based on their suitability for the job, expertise in your field, and reliability rating. If you base your decision simply on price then you’ll likely live to regret it!

Hopefully, this has helped you to understand why translators don’t tend to publish their rates, and why every project really is different. If you have a project to translate, I would recommend doing a bit of research into which translators work in the languages you need to translate from and to, and the field the text is related to, before contacting the translator .

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