Translation word rate: are we talking about the same thing?

21.03.15 08:57 PM By eloy


In the translation industry, translation jobs are generally charged per word. While theoretically this is a fair way of paying the translation effort, rate per word in itself can be very misleading.

When a potential customer requests our rate per word, there are a few factors that have an impact on the rate, mainly source language, target language, urgency, translation volume, formatting, and degree of specialization. But besides these factors which are quite clear to everyone, there are some other aspects that are not fully transparent to the client and can be misleading, like comparing pears with apples.

Word rate snags:

Are words counted from source language or from target language?

Today almost all estimates are made with the words from the source text but surprisingly there are still shops that bill by the number of words of the translated text. The difference in number of words between the original text and the translated text can be quite relevant depending on the source and target languages.

Repetitions, fuzzy matches, new words

Another concept that can be confusing is the number of billable words. Word counts between the different CAT tools (translation memories) may vary slightly but the customer should know whether the word rate includes discounts for repetitions and fuzzy matches as well as the matrix applied to the wordcount.

Processes included in the word rate

What are the processes included in the word rate? Each process or each additional step has a cost. The customer should understand clearly what word rate means: just translation or translation + reviewing by a second translator?

Human Resources

Ultimately, the most important factor in the word rate is the cost of the translator who does the translation. Experienced translators can work fast while providing good quality.There are also translation productivity tools that help to lower translation word rates. However, there are some limits in the productivity per hour and an experienced translator with a good knowledge of the subject matter won’t accept working below a certain word rate.

Processes alone do not guarantee quality

Even if established processes are followed, if the people that perform them do not have the necessary skills, the results can be far from optimal. For example, some translation business models are based on finding the cheapest translator for each project (i.e. using reverse auctions) and translators are fully interchangeable. I don’t believe these translation models can ensure long term quality even though established processes are followed.

Final thoughts

Translators need time to understand a customer´s terminology and products. Although paying a high word rate does not guarantee the quality of the translation, paying a fair word rate does help keep skilfull translators. And customers need to be aware that when word rates fall below a certain level, it is more than likely that one of the catches explained above is occurring.