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6 March 2019

Are you paying a fair price for your translations?

Picture of people shaking hands

We all love a good deal. But good translation isn’t cheap. And yet, it isn’t rare for someone to promise stellar results at an unbelievable price and to get it to you as quickly as possible.

How is that even possible? Should you go for it? And if you can’t verify the quality because you don’t speak that language, how can you know if the price is fair?

Let’s look at this real-life example of a translation agency that demands low rates from translators. When they receive an order from a client like yourself, they check which translators on their database could provide the translation. Then, three of those translators are invited to bid for the project, using a timer-style auction system: the price goes up (slightly) until someone takes the job.

Auction clock

If none of the three translators accept the project, then three other translators are invited to bid. But here’s the catch: the maximum price is capped, and it is capped at rates that are generally considered to be unacceptably low. The tool is ironically called “Fair”, probably in the meaning of a marketplace – but that’s another story.

What is more, none of the bidders get to see the content of the document. That means they have to provide a low-ball quote without knowing exactly what the job entails. Not the road to a quality result.

For several years now, translation has been increasingly treated as a commodity instead of as a service. This is partly because the cost of a translation is often priced per word.

This does have its advantages: it allows the translator and client to reach an agreement on fees over an extended period, it makes negotiations easier, and it provides a workable yardstick to compare translators on price.

However, this system can also be abused. That happens by pushing the price per word down as much as possible and applying little tricks to reduce the number of words that are effectively counted in the final price.

When a rate-per-word is used as the only measure, quality-enhancing steps such as researching terminology or thinking about style and audience go out the window.

Sure, there has to be some price objectivity throughout the supply chain. But as in your own business, no two projects are the same. Texts differ in complexity, and some materials take more time and effort to translate than others. Treating translation as a commodity ignores all that and puts a fixed price on a service that involves a different level of effort every time.

It’s a free market. Translators can set their own rates. If a translator wants to compete on price at the bottom end of the market, who’s to stop them? But if you’re looking for excellent service and added value, just remember it’s pretty rare to get a Ferrari for the price of a Ford.

The less you pay, the worse service you will get. If the price is too low, you’re better off not going to a professional at all and using Google Translate. After all, the quality will only be marginally worse than that provided by a low-cost amateur translator.

But how low is low-cost?

Let’s say you have a well-crafted press release of about 2000 words for translation. You have briefed the translator on what style and tone you are looking for.

An experienced translator can translate that for you in about 6 working hours. If you add proofreading by a second translator, that’s another 3 hours. Let’s say there are no major problems with communication and the admin takes another hour.

Imagine that a query pops up during translation. Despite your efforts, something in the source text is not quite clear after all, or there is a major inconsistency in your text. Now add an extra 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how long the line of communication is.

About 10 to 11 billable hours in all.

But remember, freelancers have to cover their own costs out of that: tax, holiday pay, sick leave and coffee (to name a few). Plus there is a mark-up if an agency is involved. The wage cost per hour of your staff gives you a good point for comparison.

How does this compare to what you usually pay for a translation? Does it match what you would pay for the services of another professional? If not, you should ask yourself why.

A low service price (or should I say “price per unit”) unsurprisingly leads to cutting corners. Translators who have to churn out a thousand words per hour to have some hopes of a normal income might not care too much about the audience you want to reach. They might not want to spend precious time asking you questions about unclarities in the source text, let alone flagging up mistakes.

And the agencies that promise a very low rate and turnaround times that are almost too good to be true probably won’t offer you the added value you need.

Contracts, press releases, technical instructions… your texts are valuable. You should not risk getting sub-par results for the sake of price alone. You owe it to yourself to pick someone who works with you to create the best possible message for your target audience. A translation you can proudly refer your partners and customers to takes a decent amount of time to craft.

Ultimately, you get what you pay for. A fair price is not just about being sustainable for the translator. It is just as much about getting you the result you deserve.

Don’t let your customers think you’re cheap. It’s not worth it.

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