Fast - Cheap - GoodTo many clients, the way translators and translation agencies calculate their rates must seem akin to Black Magic: you’re supposed to fill out a web form to “get a free quote”, and if you’re lucky, before long, you’ll get a number back. How the translation agency arrived at that number often remains a mystery. Is there a logic to it, or did they simply multiply your zip code with the phase of the moon and divide it by Pi?

It’s no wonder many clients are put off by the lack of transparency when it comes to the rates for quality translations and rather try their luck with machine translation or a sketchy low-price service — with predictably sub-par results.

How Translation Rates Are Calculated

A professional translation agency will take a number of factors in consideration when quoting rates — and the phases of the moon have nothing to do with it.

Language Pair

Translation projects are usually quoted by the word, and the source and target languages are key for the calculation of the rate. Certain language pairs are much more common and affordable than others. Supply and demand as well as the cost of living in the respective countries factors into the price. The translation community proz.com offers a list of average rates based on information volunteered by their users. Rates per word can vary wildly, from about $0.14/word for common pairs up to twice that much for more rare or difficult languages such as Icelandic or Swiss German.

Level of Specialization

The second most important factor in calculation translation rates for any given text is, simply put, the level of difficulty. A relatively commonplace text that relies on a familiar vocabulary and short sentences easily grasped by a general audience will be quoted at a lower rate than a highly specialized document that requires a lot of research or knowledge of specific jargon or context. Technical translations, medical or legal documents take more effort to get right and accordingly command higher rates.

Turnaround Time

“Gut Ding will Weile haben” is a German proverb that translates to “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” A quality translation can take as much time as it took to create the source text. Still, translators everywhere are all too familiar with clients who consider this process an afterthought — if they consider it at all. More often then not, this results in turnaround times that require long nights or weekends. It should go without saying that rush jobs at a high-quality level will raise the price tag on your project. As the famous diagram says: you can have it “fast”, “good”, or “cheap” — but you have to pick two of the three. Make sure you plan for a realistic delivery time, or get ready to pay extra.

Repeat Projects and Translation Memories

I mentioned earlier that more specialized texts can require a good deal of research from the translator to understand the context of a specific text and make sure technical jargon is used correctly. Cultural considerations and localization may also take extra time and effort. The upside of this process is that once this work has been done, subsequent texts in a similar vein can be translated more efficiently. Translators who keep working on a long-term, ongoing project can increasingly rely on translation memories and project glossaries, which cuts down on effort and price.

Other Considerations

Professional proofreading should be included in any translation quote, but a number of other factors can affect the price of your translation: are the files in a peculiar format that requires extra effort? PowerPoint presentations, XML document or InDesign layouts may add to your total. Audio transcriptions, software internationalization, the translation of web apps and other specialized services are almost sure to incur surcharges.

As you can see, there is no Black Magic involved in the calculation of translation service rates — but the factors involved can be as varied and as complex as language itself. That’s why a reputable translation agency won’t give you “one price fits all” quote without taking a closer look at your project and its specific requirements.

Taking the Guess Work out of Translation Rates
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