How much should you pay for translation? Do the math!

November 10, 2014
Translation reviewed by David Mein – david500500@gmail.com

In Choosing between a freelance translator or a translation agency  I provided a few hints on choosing between a freelancer and a language service company. I explained that anybody “can call himself or herself a translator since the title is not protected.” This situation has a deep impact on the way the translation market works. You will find translation agencies ready to offer you their translation services at a cost of up to 30 to 50% less than well-known language companies in the industry.  

How is this possible?
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Let’s first set the generally accepted data that we will need to calculate the cost of a given translation project:

  • In Canada, a senior professional translator (10 years) will cost on average around $60,000 per year including salary costs, and will translate on average 1,900 words per day.
  • In Canada, a junior translator will cost on average around $35,000 per year including salary costs, and will translate on average 1,300 words per day.
  • As a best practice, regardless of the market it serves, a company that primarily sells services targets a selling price equal to twice its variable costs. The gross margin on such sales covers fixed costs (office space, equipment, software, general administration and, most importantly, project management – although the latter could also be added to the variable costs), leaving the company with a net profit of 5 to 10%.

The data above provides of course a very general perspective of how things work. Senior translators will work faster with simple documents, and more slowly with very complex ones. Some of them will earn much more than $60,000 per year, while few earn less than $50,000. At the same time, smaller language service providers will have a lighter company structure and, as a result, lower fixed costs.

The project

You have a 5,700 word document that needs to be translated. It is of average complexity (a brochure, for example) that targets your customers and prospects or the general public.

Option 1: Translation and revision (editing) by senior professional translators

One professional translator will require approximately 3 days to translate your document. Since this content will have some visibility, you will want the translation reviewed by another professional translator. She/he will then need half a day for the review.

This option will cost the translation company $913 in variable costs only, and will cost you, the customer, anywhere between $1,300 $ and $1,800.

Option 2: Translation by a junior translator, revision by a professional translator

One junior translator will require approximately 4.5 days to translate your document. Because this resource lacks experience, you will absolutely want their translation to be reviewed. One senior translator will then need one full day to review the translation – in other words, revision will take much more time than if the original translation had been done by a senior professional.

This option will cost the translation company $945 dollars in variable costs only, and will cost you, the customer, anywhere between $1,400 $ and $1,900.

So, how can some translation agencies offer their services at rates 30 to 50% cheaper?

There are many ways a translation agency can lower its prices, but there is no magic behind it. Here are a few frequent methods that are used in the lower-end spectrum of the translation market:

  • Some agencies will reduce the time spent working on translation projects simply by eliminating the revision phase.  This method can be acceptable to some extent when a stellar senior translator capable of “self-revision” handles the project. However, if the job is done by a junior translator, regardless of how good he/she is, revision by a separate professional is an absolute must!
  • Some agencies will offer lower salaries or rates to professional translators. While the best translators usually have more work than they can handle, it still happens that they run out of work during a slower period, and some of them will agree to work at lower rates in order to make ends meet at the end of the month.
  • Some agencies will hire non-qualified translators so that they can pay them less. Often, these non-qualified translators are bilingual individuals who entered the translation market without acquiring the numerous skills that professional translators have.  They then have a hard time finding work and will be willing to accept less favourable conditions out of desperation. This situation will lead to much lower quality of the end-result, i.e. the translation you get back.
  • Some agencies will use translators located in other countries, where the cost can be as much as 50 to 80% less, depending on the country. Most of the time, revisers in Canada will go crazy trying to reconstruct the translation in order to make it understandable. As a result, you will get low-quality translations, and the agency will experience a high turnover rate.

In summary, translation is a service that primarily calls upon human resources. You need people to do the work, and each resource is limited in capacity. For this reason, translation price is not as elastic as other products. From one serious language service provider to another, it will vary from 5 to 15%. However, you will find companies ready to offer you rates that are 30 to 50% lower, depending on the way they work. Your choice should then depend on your expectations of quality and, most of all, the risk level that you are ready to support.

Fabien Côté – cote.fabien@trans-it.ca

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