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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

How much do translations cost?

One of the most common questions I get from prospective clients is “How much do your services cost?” It is a fair question. Everyone has a budget to consider. With a service as complex as translation, however, this is incredibly difficult to answer in the absence of a concrete project request. It is like asking a mechanic, “How much will it cost to fix my car?” before they have even had a chance to see what is wrong with the vehicle.

Adding to the mystique is the historical tendency to price translation services by the word, line, or page. This practice falsely draws attention to the words on the page as if they are a commodity to be produced, rather than focusing on the fact that translation is a customized service being provided by a highly trained professional. Compensation for professional services is typically based on the time required and translation should be no exception. Further complicating the matter in recent years is machine translation, which transforms static and predictable texts into roiling landscapes of hidden mistakes. In essence, pricing depends on how long a translation will take. Read on to learn more about how much time translation consumes and the factors that impact this.

How long does translation take?

Time spent translating is something historic per-word pricing has managed to obscure in the industry — to the detriment of translators and clients alike. It is relatively common for new clients to contact translators with requests to pay something like $200 for a full book translation. Considering that it typically takes a few months of full-time work to translate a book, this offer doesn’t even come within spitting distance of minimum wage. What is a reasonable time frame?

Factors Influencing Translation Speed

Before delving into concrete estimates for how long translation takes, let’s examine four factors that influence translation speed.

1. Vocabulary

A text utilizing simple daily vocabulary will not require terminology research and can be translated very quickly. Complex, specialized terminology will require research and inevitably slow the process down.

2. Simple Sentence Structure

Simple German sentences are structured similarly to simple English sentences. This means less mental effort is required to produce an idiomatic translation in either direction.

3. Complex Sentence Structure

The structure of very complex German sentences is light-years away from the English language. While German authors will at times try to cram as many clauses as possible into a sentence in order to sound intelligent and academic, English speakers are encouraged to limit the clause count of their sentences in order to avoid “run-on” sentences and possible confusion. Reconciling these two mentalities linguistically takes a lot of brainpower and creativity, which in turn eats up time.

4. Idiomatic Differences

Texts that are heavily idiomatic are bound to change dramatically when translated. Finding an alternative in another language with similar meaning, connotation, and nuance takes extensive research and creativity. All of this takes time.

Translation Speed Estimates

Below are some rules of thumb for estimating time based on my experience as a translator. Since every text is different, these should be considered rough estimates.

1. Average reasonable daily volume: 2000 words or 5 pages

2. Average hourly word translation rate: 300-1000 words

3. Average translation rate for conversational texts with simple sentence structure and without specialized vocabulary: 1,000 words per hour

4. Average translation rate for technical texts with specialized vocabulary: 300 words per hour

5. Average translation rate for legal texts, academic texts, and other texts with specialized vocabulary and complex, nested sentence structure: 300 words per hour or less

How long does machine translation post-editing take?

Machine translation post-editing is a field where per-word pricing for services has proven to be a completely outdated way of paying for translation services. When you add a machine into the translation process, you are throwing in another unpredictable variable. Language is a living, breathing thing that is constantly evolving. When that is coupled with a rigid machine that interprets changes in unpredictable ways, the situation is ripe for the creation of a complex and time-consuming project. At the same time, there is also a chance that the machine will create something nearly flawless that requires very little work. There is simply no way of knowing what will happen.

Something that non-linguists have tended to neglect is that evaluating machine translation quality requires in-depth linguistic analysis of both the source and target document together. Modern machine translation technology typically produces texts that look as if they have been written by a human, so it is impossible to simply skim the text for mistakes. It makes no sense to evaluate the quality of the machine-translated text without fixing the mistakes either, because that would basically double the time spent working on it. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the machine will make the same mistakes throughout the entire document. Machines often make surprisingly diverse mistakes throughout. So the quality of the initial sections in a document cannot be used to surmise overall document quality. This makes hourly pricing the only viable option for compensating translators working on machine translation post-editing.

The question remains: “How long is this going to take?” To enable a direct comparison with the speed of traditional translation, I will examine the same factors influencing translation speed. This time, however, machine translation will be added to the mix.

Factors Influencing Editing Speed

1. Vocabulary

It is really hard to say how well the machine will translate vocabulary, since the machine’s grasp of context is tenuous at best. One thing that can be said of machine translation is that machines have a tendency to falsely translate the very same technical word several different ways in a document. This is a big no-no in a good translation and something the translator would have to fix.

2. Simple Sentence Structure

Machine translation appears to work by attempting to find parallels between German and English syntax and converting sentences accordingly. Since simple German and English sentences are very similar in structure, this means machines can often translate simple sentences very well. The writing style will inevitably be clinical and boring, but probably highly accurate.

3. Complex Sentence Structure

Machine translation is virtually useless when translating complex German sentences into English. It is often faster to simply translate from scratch.

4. Idiomatic Phrases

Machines may be able to translate some common idiomatic phrases properly. Machines do not, however, recognize double meanings or connotations. This makes machine translation relatively useless when it comes to idiomatic phrases used in creative texts.

Above, I also estimated average word output per day and hour. The inherent unpredictability of machine translation makes this task virtually impossible with machine translation post-editing, so I will not attempt an estimate here. The best approach is to budget enough for a traditional translation, then enjoy a discount if the machine speeds up the process.

What it all comes down to is that every project is different, so speak with your translator before pulling together your budget!

Need to know how much your German to English translation project will cost? Contact me for a no-obligation quote.

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