For many, the translation process is a mystery. So is the translation cost. On one hand, the process usually seems like a simple one. But, on the other, translation can seem protracted and expensive. While the latter can quite often be true, the former in most cases is not. It doesn’t matter if it is ‘a simple’ personal letter. A translator can face some elements in the translation process that require attention and effort. Of course, to get a general idea of the content the user can always resort to an available online tool like Google Translate. No real costs there, right?

But, usually, that is not all that needs to be done. What if it is academic papers, annual reports, technical manuals or even a collection of short stories? Then, you often need to engage more than just a qualified translator. There are quite a few instances when subject experts, terminologists and additional researchers need to help. Also, there is rarely a case when a translation can pass without engaging editors, proofreaders. And then there is a series of technical tools translators use to speed up the process. Those incur costs themselves.

So, how can a client be able to really understand whether the translator or an agency has quoted a reasonable translation cost? To get a grasp of the translation process involves, it is good to try and understand what some of the standard charges in the translation trade involve.

Calculating a specific translation cost involves a number of elements, where the key elements are:

  • The size of the document in translation, where the word count is the most common method of calculation
  • The complexity of the document and the language combination between the source and the target language
  • Editing, proofreading and technical elements that need to be involved

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How do translators calculate a translation cost?

These days, as a client that needs a translation it is probably easy to find quite a number of translation cost quotes online. What you would probably encounter is a range of possibilities on how to calculate the possible translation cost. This often makes things more confusing. So, the first two questions that could come up are – how are all these quotes calculated and are they realistic?


To be able to get a more solid grasp in trying to find answers to those two questions, it is good to understand the process by which translators and agencies go through when they determine those prices. To arrive at their calculations, translators use a number of criteria:

  • The size of the document, usually calculated based on the number of source words, lines or pages;
  • The complexity of the source document – translating personal correspondence, poetry or technical manual involves different translation skills and time a translator needs to complete a translation;
  • The combination of languages (pairs) – translating from Spanish, French or German languages that are more common is usually less costly than translating from an Asian or African language;
  • The time translators and agencies require for the delivery of the translation – rush jobs usually incur extra charges;
  • Editing and proofreading – the providers calculate the costs of these two essential elements of preparing an accurate and quality translation separately and these costs usually do not involve the original translator;
  • Technical fees like desktop publishing, use of specialized translation software, website and software localization and possibly Apostille certification (for legal documents, official diplomas and other).

The process of calculating the translation cost – word count as the main criteria

 The first element translators look at is the size of the document they would have to translate. It is their basic element when the calculate a translation cost. Basically, it is the element around which all cost calculations revolve.

The most common way to calculate the cost of a translation job is calculated is on a per-word basis. Basically, the translators first look at the word count in a document. Then, they multiply that figure with the agreed-upon per-word fee. That way, they come up with the total amount that needs to be paid for the translation. In some exceptional cases, the parties agree to use the word count in the target language. But, this form of the count does not come often into use. One simple reason. It does not make it possible for the client to have a precise calculation before the translation is complete.

A count per page is a bit more complicated. There are often different criteria of how many words or lines there are on a page. Another problem could be what is the line spacing, what are the numbers included in the count. This calculation can often depend on the target language.

For example, for some languages, like Japanese or Chinese where there are no spaces between words, the parties tend to use character count. On the other hand, languages like German or Dutch, need to be calculated differently. These languages have quite a number of compound words. Then line-count becomes a preferred method of calculating a translation cost.


Text complexity, language combination, and other elements

The next important element that has a role in calculating translation cost is the complexity of the source text. As many translation agencies note in their offers, “a general business letter (with non-technical terms) will be priced lower than a technical patent, medical text, complex legal contract, pharmaceuticals related document or software manual.”

The language combination is also a factor that has a role in translation costs. The more translators there is that offer translation into a certain language, the lower the price of a translation could be. The accent here is on could, as a translation into some languages is still going to be more costly than into another. Here, the complexity of the text plays a role. Translation into some Slavic languages is usually more costly than other languages that do not have so many grammar rules or diacritics.

Another element that is important for a translation cost is how urgent the translation is. Translators and agencies always add that element to all the others mentioned. Then there are other specific costs that can include desktop publishing fees, website, and software localization price. The latter is particularly important if the translation is for online use.

These days all translation agencies and quite a number of freelancers use specialized translation tools like reference material applications and translation memories. As noted here, “the translation industry uses a pretty standard ruler for translation memory matches: 100% matches and repetitions will cost about 30% of the new word price; fuzzy matches range from 50% to 70% of the new word price.”

Finally, the translation cost in most cases includes the cost of editing and proofreading. This usually involves at least two other persons besides the translator himself. It is possible to calculate and pay these costs separately.

The quality of the translation as the determining factor

For somebody that has to operate on an international scale, getting a quality translation becomes an essential part of their daily work. This is true for companies, organizations, academic institutions, as well as individuals. A client should at least be informed about the basics of how agencies and translators calculate the cost of a particular translation. In that manner, he will have a better grasp of why he needs to pay a certain price for it. This will enable him to determine whether they will get a good value for the money they have to invest in a translation. Whether he will get a quality translation back or not.

So the translators and agencies have to take into consideration a number of elements. Word, count, document complexity and quite a few others.  When you have at least a general idea about the parameters translators and agencies use, it will much easier for a client to determine whether the price of a translation cost is OK. Also, such an understanding would benefit translators and agencies, as the clients would be able to have a greater appreciation for why certain translations cost more than others.

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