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Money talk

What are we really paying for when buying translation?

If you've never bought translation services, the process might seem confusing. Especially since asking three different professionals will most likely give you three different quotes!

Not all translators calculate their rates in the same way. Some will apply a “per-word” price for the number of words in the source document (the file you need translated). Others will give you an hourly rate and an estimate of time the project will take them. Some people will simply provide you with a project rate. There’s no good or bad way to charge, and it’s a very personal thing. If one supplier charges per word and another per hour – it doesn’t mean one is better or worse from the other.

Regardless how high (or low) the number you see on your quote, it’s helpful to know what’s actually behind it.

Time spent on job vs time spent building up experience

Many assume that if a job takes a certain amount of time, that’s the time the client should be paying for. As a Twitter user @davygreenberg explained in a viral tweet from 2019:

The viral tweet from 2019, which is quoted below the image.

"If I do a job in 30 minutes it’s because I spent 10 years learning how to do that in 30 minutes. You owe me for the years, not the minutes."

The longer we do something, the quicker we’ll perform our tasks. Things will get easier with time, but behind it are years of experience.

When you receive a translation quote, think about its value for your company. If you expect to reach hundreds or thousands of potential customers, the translation will be very valuable to you. To reach your goal, you'll need a skilled professional.

Knowing what not to do

Professional translators don’t only translate words – they also read between the lines and craft a compelling text. Each sentence requires taking many decisions. It’s not just about knowing what word to use, but also which ones to avoid. For example, the language we use when talking about marginalised groups is really important. One has to be careful, as sometimes words that may seem okay to you might offend the members of the group in question.

Hands working on a pot on a pottery wheel

Same goes for any area: are you speaking to a patient or a medical practitioner? Are you aiming your text at a solicitor or a person needing legal advice? Terminology will differ depending on the assumed audience.

This knowledge is related to the previous point: years of experience. The longer the translator works in a field, the better they know how to translate your text effectively. And, of course, how not to do it.

The scope – more than translation alone

Employees get paid for time spent on answering emails, chatting to a colleague, and attending a company training session. Self-employed people don’t. We don’t have a paid holiday allowance, sick leave or performance bonuses.

Even though we may work eight hours a day, this includes many non-billable hours. Invoicing, answering emails, updating our website and social media channels so that our clients can find us more easily… These things take time and effort. When we get a new request from a client, we need to familiarise ourselves with the documents for translation. We have to prepare a quote and sometimes schedule a quick phone meeting. Apart from that, there’s quality control of the final documents, updating glossaries, professional development courses… The list goes on.

Of course, each client does not pay for all of this separately, so there’s no need to worry. However, when quoting, experienced professionals will consider admin tasks around the project, the level of required research and other factors. I, and many of my colleagues, have minimum charges to cover all the above tasks.

You can’t eat your cake and have it too

Some people think that it’s possible to find a *perfect* translator: one who will perform their tasks well, deliver the work fast, and won’t charge a lot. It’s unrealistic. If you try to achieve all three, you will fail. You must pick two.

The diagram showing three circles with words "fast", "good" and "cheap. In the field where "fast" and "good" meet, it says "pricey". For "good" and "cheap" it says "too late", and for "fast" and "cheap" – ugly. Where all three circles meet, it says "lol"

🤔 Do you have a small budget but need the translation done quickly? You need to accept that the quality will suffer. Either experienced translators won’t take the job for the proposed fee, or they won’t be able to spend much time on it.

🤔 Do you have a small budget but are not in a hurry? You may be able to find someone who will accept your rate but as part of the negotiation process will ask for a long deadline.

🤔 Do you need a perfect translation but are short on time? Be prepared to pay the price for it. Some translators charge extra for rushed jobs and working during evenings and weekends.

If you need any more information on the process of buying translation, have a look at the ITI guide. It's available in many languages, including Polish, which was translated by me and edited by Jadwiga Ruchlewska.


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