Approaches used in determining payment for translation projects

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The manner in which translation work is priced varies, with certain methods being common in certain languages or situations, and other approaches predominating elsewhere. It is worthwhile for both buyers and providers of translation services to familiarize themselves with the various pricing structures that exist, along with the issues to be considered with each approach, and the potential benefits and drawbacks of each.

Pricing methods used

Per word

The most common way that payment for a translation job is calculated is on a per-word basis. Basically, the words in a document to be translated are counted, and that figure is multiplied by the agreed-upon per-word fee to come up with the total amount that will be payable for the translation.

Note the following points, which can make the per-word approach slightly more sophisticated:

  • Various tools are used to perform word counts, and counts can differ depending on the tool, and on whether numbers, etc., are counted.
  • In some cases, the number of words in the translated document (rather than the source document) is used. This is in particular the case - for reasons of word length (or rather, word compound length) - where German is the source language and it has been agreed to take word count, rather than line count, as a basis. However, target word count is not popular, since it does have the distinct disadvantage for the client of not being able to ascertain the total price in advance.
  • Adjustments are common when "translation memories" are used. It is common for different per-word rates to be specified for sentences that match previously translated segments to varying degrees. (Translation memory tool vendor TRADOS once put forward a "30/60/100 rule" for TM discounting, whereby words in fully matched sentences would command 30% of the normal rate, words in sentences with matches that are close to full (85% - 99%) would get 60% of the normal rate, and words in sentences with less than 85% fuzzy matches would be paid at 100% of the per-word rate.)

Among the potential benefits of the per-source-word approach are the fact that costs / payment are known in advance. (In essence, per-source-word pricing is a form of fixed-rate pricing.) The biggest potential drawback is that if material is more challenging to translate than was at first assumed, the project may require more time than was anticipated (in which case the translator will earn less per hour and might not be able to meet the deadline.) For this reason, many translators qualify their rates and/or quotes, making them subject to adjustment based upon review of the text(s) to be translated in a given project.

Per character

In some languages, it is more convenient to count characters than words. One example of such a language is Japanese, which has no spaces between words. For such languages, it is common to price based on character counts rather than word counts.

The per-character approach is similar to the per-word approach in that in essence it establishes a fixed rate tied to volume. The benefits and drawbacks of this approach are similar to that of the per-word approach.

Per page

Another approach is to set a given rate per page to be translated, where a "page" is normally further defined as a certain number of words, lines or characters. It may seem strange to use the concept of "pages" if the "page" count is being translated into words, lines or characters anyway, but the approach is nevertheless common in some spheres, perhaps for historical reasons. Also, there are some situations in which page size is defined rigidly (legal agreements printed in a standardized way, for example), and clients may be more familiar with the page counts of their documents than with word counts or other counts.

Per line

In the case of German being the source language, it is usual to negotiate a line rate for the translation. This is due to the nature of the German language, which habitually contains many word compounds, rather than words. These can be very long, and, if "words", i.e. units of groups of letters, are counted, an artificially low word count will be produced, due to these prevalent word compounds.

In order to determine the line count, a fixed number of characters per line is charged, which includes spaces as characters. The most common number of "characters with spaces" taken to be in a chargeable line is 55, and this is almost exclusively the figure used in Germany. However, lines consisting of 50, 52 or 60 characters with spaces are also sometimes specified. Such variations would appear to be more common in Austria and Switzerland, although 55 may also be taken as the figure in these countries.

As with words, it is possible to discuss whether to use source or target line count. However, the source line count has two advantages for German to English translators: (1) the German text is marginally longer (though there is usually not a lot of difference); and (2) the price can be determined in advance, just as with source words.

Target line count is sometimes favoured by English to German translators, and particularly in the legal field, where some EN-DE legal translators manage to produce considerable text expansion, which then results in a noticeably higher profit if target line count has been agreed.

In order to obtain the line count in Studio, add together the total number of characters and the total number of words (which represents the number of spaces) and then divide by 55 (or whatever other figure is being used).

Per hour

Although it is much less common, in some situations, translators are paid by the hour. Examples of this approach can be seen among in-house translators, or freelance translators who are sometimes on call (standing by ready to translate press releases, for example.)

Note that although it is relatively uncommon for clients and translators to use an hourly method to determine payments, it is not uncommon at all for translators to work out their personal per-hour income for their own information. So a translator who has agreed to a certain rate per word may keep track of how many words she is translating per hour, multiplying that to know what she is earning per hour on the project.

Many translators know what they tend to earn per hour, and many will set per-word rates that differ depending on client or type of work in order to achieve a more consistent per-hour income.

An hourly rate is, however, very often agreed when it comes to proofreading jobs.

All-inclusive project fee

As occurs in other industries, fees are sometimes agreed upon for an entire project. A project fee may in particular be negotiated for a very large project. Calculations based on words, lines or estimated total number of hours required may be taken into consideration when negotiating the price, however a round figure is eventually agreed upon. This occurs more frequently when negotiating with direct clients.


In literary translation especially, payment is sometimes tied in whole or part to volume of sales.

Discussion related to this article

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Approaches used in determining payment for translation projects

Josephine Cassar Identity Verified
Local time: 05:14
Member (2012)
Italian to English
+ ...
Rate quoteNov 28, 2012

Would like to know if a rate of $0.02 is, as I think, low; it is an ongoing project, so maybe since it is large- to start with 100K(whatever that means) and project will probably for 2 years.


Teresa Borges
Local time: 04:14
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
I would never acceptNov 28, 2012

such a rate, whatever the size of the file, either on an on-going or an one-off basis!

[Edited at 2012-11-28 18:52 GMT]


Katalin Horv├íth McClure Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:14
Member (2002)
English to Hungarian
+ ...
Very low rateNov 28, 2012

100K means 100,000 words.
With an average of 2500 words per day, it would take 40 full days of work.
40 business days is 8 weeks, in other words, 2 months.
$0.02 per word would bring us to $2000.
What do you think of getting $2000 as a payment for 2 month of full-time work? (With no benefits, no insurance, and remember, it is gross payment, you have to pay taxes on it.)



Sergei Tumanov Identity Verified
Local time: 06:14
English to Russian
+ ...
Let's imagineNov 28, 2012

that current monthly salary of a teacher is something like 2000 currency units.
Let's imagine that you are a teacher.

Would you accept the offer to work in some school for 500 currency units monthly based on the promise that you will be employed for 30 years?


Clara Chassany Identity Verified
Local time: 06:14
Member (2012)
Finnish to French
+ ...
Way too low rateNov 28, 2012

I think this is really too low, even for a very easy source text!

In my opinion, the problem is that it is a huge project, so basically you won't be available for weeks because of this underpaid project, and if an other agency/customer contacts you, you would lose a good offer (or at least a better offer than this one) and therefore lose a lot of money in the end.


Sarah McDowell Identity Verified
Member (2012)
Russian to English
+ ...
extremely low rateNov 29, 2012

Is this a translation project? IF so the rate is VERY low. I would not even think about accepting it.

If it is for proofreading then yes, I have heard that it is a common rate for simple proofreading projects.


Benno Groeneveld Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:14
English to Dutch
+ ...
some people thinkNov 29, 2012

that translations get cheaper by the kilo.

[Edited at 2012-11-29 00:40 GMT]


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