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What does the translation cost? Is it by word count, per page, per document? This is a question we get sometimes from new clients and the short answer typically is: it depends on your needs. For customers who have never had any experience with translation or who are used to getting translation cost by the word, this may be a hard sell. Why can’t you give me transparent pricing that I can base on a unit or document? Let me explain why you may not want to look at translation costs in this way.

Let’s be honest. Our industry has not done a great job in providing a good value statement for translation. On top of that, many disruptive technology such as Machine Translation or even Crowdsourcing has put the perception of translation even more into a commodity value. We know plenty of translation vendors that charge by the word count alone and it has set the expectation that we can simply divide all projects by word count to get the translation cost. It makes absolute sense: more words, more to translate, so higher the translation cost. Word count is often seen as the only fair way for a translator to charge for their services and it’s been the most common way the industry has standardized the way they do business.

spotlight shining out from city with question mark in lightAsk yourself: why call an Agency?

However, when you contact an agency to do the work for you, what exactly are you asking them to do? If you want your agency to be your trusted partner to make sure you are providing accurate translations, on-time and cost effectively, does the quoted translation costs by word count cover all those needs? What about, for instance:

  • Finding, qualifying and maintaining qualified and consistent team of translators. Do you trust that your agency is always working with high quality and a consistent team of translators? This is not just the costs of doing this work, but also the fair wage that is being paid to the translators for their work. You can have the most qualified translator in the world writing your content, but if there is unclear terminology, or questions need to be asked, researched and implemented, will translators burdened with low price per word compensation care to spend time into research? If they do now, chances are likely that your most talented translators will walk away as soon as there is a better offer. Trust us, we read it all the time on blogs from translators unhappy with the compensation from flat-fee agencies. Our most trusted translators have been with our company for over 15 years and always go the extra mile for us.
  • Technology management. Translation Memory and Terminology technology should be basic infrastructure that agencies purchase and maintain. However, how well that technology is used is not easily measured by word count. Whether you manage a 20,000 word project or 200 word projects, your Translation Memory Management may be just as complex. Ensuring that your content is well maintained with proper meta data is a task. Data hygiene is a major challenge for companies managing large databases, but a good translation agency will make sure that your Translation Assets are up-to-date. This leads us to the next point:
  • Brand Management. Guess what, your agency could very well be your only advocate for (brand) consistency and management in other languages! A simple 400 word campaign may consist of brand messaging that may not translate well or cannot be applied without some consideration towards current and future implementation. Who is going to take the time to work through these issues beforehand if they work by word count alone? And even if you have someone in your organization reviewing materials to ensure brand consistency, more likely than not these review cycles turn into conversations with the translator, which turns into terminology review, which turns into Terminology Memory Management if terms get updated. And when we’re not working hard keeping terminology up to date, how do we ensure that we maintain consistent teams that understand the brand, have read the brand messaging and can use the technology to leverage terms consistently?
  • Reliable Quality Service. Ever hear someone say “You can’t put a price on good service”? Well, you probably should! Let’s assume you work on an immediate need and just need something done. Good service may just mean that you handle the request efficiently and cost effectively. Then, that need turns into a regular need. Then, there is an expectation and growing need… Ask yourself: How confident are you that you can talk to the same person, the same agency every time and when you need it? Will your vendor even remember last year’s project and get up to speed quickly, ask the right questions and work with the same team of translators who are familiar with the content? When clients start with their first translation project, this may not be on top of mind, but it takes an investment in people, processes and technology to be able to deliver consistent service. This pain point often does not become clear until clients experience it and it’s typically the number one reason for clients to start switching over.
  • How will your Agency handle challenging work? As with any flat fee or per-unit service, challenging work is simply not as attractive as regular standard work that fits the compensation. Take support in website localization for instance. When you need budget support for a website project, you’ll want to understand the variables involved in translating a website. From simple word extraction to a more automated workflow, you’ll want to know from your agency where the cost drivers are and what the risks are for each approach. How that upfront consultation is fitting into any cost per word count model is a mystery.

These activities are not simply overhead costs as agencies and translators have plenty of that going on anyways. These examples above are costs for work that can make a difference in the quality of the translation and should be considered by any organization willing to invest in translation.

It’s never a simple request

Technological innovation is helping a lot in providing us with tools to make things easier for us. But technology can also trick us into thinking that everything can be done autonomously without any human intervention. And if the extent of that human intervention is not made visible, how will we ever know the value? Let’s take the example of a “simple marriage certificate” translation for an individual client. The marriage certificate in Spanish is a scanned PDF and needs to be translated into English. How do we charge for this work?

We could charge by page, but how honest is that if one page is 200 words and the other is 800 words? We could charge by word count, but does that cover extraction of the text into translatable format, setting up the document to match the English, proofing format and layout of the translation? Can this be rolled into a simple word count price? Sure! Add 20% project management to each word and you are set, right?

I challenge everyone to take a scanned marriage certificate, birth certificate or any other official certificate and turn it into an editable Word document that is flows well without broken text that may reflow when replaced with translations. Record your time and let us know if it was easier, the same or harder than you thought it would be. In fact, that’s what  we did once with a client that wanted to know how much it costed if they provided us with a workable Word document. Even though we only charged a half an hour of our time for setting up a long form (legal) document with complex table format and I knew it would probably take most people much longer, he took the challenge. In return, I received a document that basically was a JPG export put in Word. When I explained why this wouldn’t work and that a simple OCR export would render the same response, he understood that getting this document to work for translation was out of his comfort level and the price became a non-issue.

Time is valuable, but do how do we value time?

Word "worth" highlighted on page in greenAs we have learned now, word count is not always a proportionate way for all services included, such as preflight or preparation, terminology management, formatting… We can process a 20,000 word job easily in our software (SDL Trados Studio) into a simple Word format without much human intervention. We have technology to take care of consistency before we get to Word and as long as the content flows without any restrictions (only if it is set up well in Word), we can do a quality review in probably just as much time as a 2,000 word brochure with complex tables that is typeset in InDesign. One reason for that though is our proficiency in Word.  We work very fast and we know how to format documents properly. However, based on word count, that 20,000 job is going to cost you more. This works great for larger organizations handling a lot of volume to make up on lower margins, but do you get the level of service and attention you may need when your needs may be less or more infrequent?

Another example is leverage. If you update 25% of the words in a 100 page document, you would simply be charged 25% of the full price, right? But what if those changes are made throughout the document? You can decide to manually implement translation changes, but how much time do you spend looking up changes in the English and find, translate and implement manually in the translation? Who is going to ensure it is done properly? You can use Translation Memory technology to highlight changes automatically, but who is going to make sure that the new content is going to flow correctly? Read more about updating translations.

Everyone can charge whatever they think their time is worth. In the end, we know that some way or another, we all need to make a livable wage for work performed. Beyond that, we know that attracting, maintaining, training, supporting and compensating talent, requires an investment that simply cannot be expressed in word count alone. And even though many agencies tend to do this every day, ask yourself what kind of service you desire from an agency and evaluate how that agency is keeping its promise. Evaluate your customer or employee feedback on the translation. How much time do your Account Managers spend in managing vendor expectations? How often do you find yourself reworking materials? Does translation management become an internal pain? Take our online assessment to find out where you are on our Maturity Model.

Translation: Cost vs Value Relationship

What makes a good value driven relationship? We wrote earlier about our Ideal Customer Profile and the need for any vendor-client relationship to be a good fit. When you consider contacting an agency to handle your translation needs, think about what your organization needs are, and if you are unsure about it, can you rely on your vendor to look out for your needs? There is no standard Agency approach to translation costs and if they do, how do you know whether these costs cover those needs?

On our end, we are always happy to explain how we work every day to ensure that we provide the highest quality, on-time and in the most cost-effective way. If your need becomes a regular need, find out what metrics really matter in Translation Management. On-time delivery is only valuable when the content is accurate and relevant all the time. If you are looking to rework a lot of materials then that should be an indicator of poor translation management. Meaningful goals could include reduction of preparation work on files for translation through more automated workflows. Some organizations may benefit from reducing the need for in-country review by managing glossaries to gain acceptance. How much money can you really save by looking at your whole translation workflow, rather than looking at translation costs alone?hand drawing a triangle of cost, value and risk to illustrate translation cost

These are some of the questions that typically don’t come to mind when starting out with translation, but it’s never too late to start thinking about it before translation management becomes too important of a problem to ignore. Choose a language service provider that can be a partner in your success.