This excellent article was originally written by the much-regretted José Henrique Lamensdorf, a freelance translator colleague who was always an incredibly kind and useful member of our community. He has helped hundreds of translators address difficult challenges in our industry, and his wise advice still perfectly applies today.
Everybody wants to buy everything cheaper, this is natural. Of course anyone has many things they would like to buy, if only they had more money. So translation services are no exception, yet how can you get cheaper translations?
I often get requests from prospects, asking me for my best rates, my best price… as if I had a host of options like a large car rental company. No way! I can’t offer a translation with or without air conditioning, power steering, etc.
Yet there are several opportunities to reduce your entire expenditure in projects involving translation, and not so many translation clients or outsourcers grab them. Here are ten of them, most – if not all – mutually exclusive, so you should use as many as you can.
The basic tenet everywhere is to avoid rework. If any apparent initial economy poses a threat of later requiring rework, it should be stricken out as an option from the start.
1. Translator selection criteria
At the outset, you are constrained by the language pair(s) involved. Usually, you have the original in one language, and need it translated into another language. If the translation market from English into Hindi is generally cheaper than, say, from Japanese into German, there is no use in trying to use one’s figures in the other. It’s the old supply-and-demand rule: you’ll have to pay what it costs to have your specific needs fulfilled.
Some languages pose an additional challenge, variants. If you have marketing reasons to need, say, Canadian French, Brazilian Portuguese, Australian English, it’s not a wise option trying to impose a variant different from their own upon your targeted market. The message conveyed will be somewhat demeaning: you don’t seem to consider them important enough to deserve your material translated into their particular variant.
Some countries have specific laws on translation rates, e.g. for sworn translations in Brazil and apparently some video translations in France. If you find a translator willing to give you a cash rebate (as local law disallows discounts), rest assured that they will be cutting corners somewhere else, which may increase the risk of the translation needing rework later.
2. Specialty areas
Do you really need a specialized translator? If the material you need translated refers to a specific field of human knowledge, for instance, electronics, medicine, law, biology, etc., it’s likely that you’ll need a translator who can understand enough of it to make sense in a different language.
Of course, a specialized translator – by the law of supply and demand – will cost you more. Yet this is not always a must, and it’s not so difficult to determine whether you need it: simply consider the target audience for that specific material.
For instance, if the content you have to translate is generally classified as “medical”, check its intended audience. If it is addressed to physicians, surgeons, or other healthcare professional practitioners, there is no other way out, you’ll need a specialist who commands their terminology in both languages, and clearly understands what’s being said there. However if it is addressed to patients, their family members, or the general public, you won’t necessarily need a specialized medical translator.
The same applies to any other area of specialized knowledge. Of course, a truly specialized translator will render somewhat better work aimed to laypeople in that subject, however there is no need to require it as a must.
The more time you give a translator to do their job, the less disruption you’ll cause to their schedule, so they will be less likely to surcharge you for any hassle.
I see many people wasting several days, sometimes weeks, searching for a cheaper translator, until their deadline is so close that it becomes a rush job.
The Brazilian law on sworn translations, one of the few regulations available anywhere, is quite fair on this matter. It stipulates a relatively low daily production volume for the translator per client, yet the translator not reaching that level, and thus delivering late, may be penalized in 50% of the statutory fee. On the other hand, it stipulates a 50% surcharge for urgency, i.e. demanding more than that minimum production per business day, as well as a 100% surcharge for work required on weekends.
A professional translator will usually have several jobs going, and will juggle them in order to meet all the deadlines. Yet he or she may assign #1 priority to only one of them at a time. If everything is properly scheduled, and you suddenly assign them a maximum urgency job, it’s obvious that this will wreak havoc in that translator’s schedule, not to mention the likely need for them to work longer hours in order to avoid missing both yours as well as other deadlines. So, if you give them more time to do everything orderly, in a planned sequence, you can count on their standard, non-surcharged rates – whatever they are.
I’d like to enrich this example by explaining how books get affordably translated by busy professional translators. I won’t delve into details here, however it should be mentioned that publishing a translated book calls for a huge up-front investment, while the return will only begin to materialize after readers start buying copies from a store.
Regular translation work is done in spurts. From the translator’s standpoint, jobs come, get done, and are delivered. So, between one such job and another there is often a void, which could fall into the “idle” time category. If a translator has the chance to work on a book with an extended deadline, they may turn these idle time slots into something profitable, even if marginally. So they are able to offer considerably lower rates on jobs that can be accomplished using mostly their otherwise unproductive time.
4. Price ranges
Before reading this article, this might have been your only criterion to decide upon choosing one translator over another. Yet it is not a matter of merely comparing figures and selecting the lowest one.
Of course you should hire translators at the cheapest level required to reach your objectives, yet you shouldn’t hire them at the cheapest level, period. Check your objectives first, and then – considering all other points here – select the translator who will offer you the best cost/benefit ratio.
Several translation portals on the web may give you a clue on what’s the average market rate for a specific language pair and direction. Yet the actual rates translators adopt may vary sharply, so here are some general guidelines.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s stipulate that the average market price for the translation you need would be 100. No currency mentioned, no specs, just 100. Apply that to your actual figures, to see what you’d get. Variation within each range should reflect each translator’s experience, thus allowing for a maturity curve. Translation quality is not an exact science, so the figures are a general reference (there is no concern on e.g. what happens between 90 and 99); it is a continuum.
- above 120 – This level is intended for specialized, usually technical, translation, as discussed in #2 above. If that’s your case, go for it, don’t bet on the chances that a lower level translator will suddenly stretch their skills out of nothing. On the other hand, don’t abuse it. It would be a waste of money to hire an expert in legal translation to work on your cheap gizmo instructions leaflet.
- between 100 and 120 – This is the standard level for quality translations. As 100 is the average on this scale, it starts at what lower level translators expect to be paid (that’s what they said in surveys), and progresses to the top limit with the translator’s experience. This level of translation provides you with good, accurate translations, that sound and feel as written by and for the members of the population speaking the target language every day: your public or market. They will welcome these translations as visibly written (not translated) having them in mind, and will be thankful for your concern.
- between 70 and 90 – These are the “run of the mill” translations. While you usually won’t find typos nor spelling/grammar errors there, in varying shades they reflect the source language. If the source and target languages have a common root, e.g. both are Latin, Scandinavian, or Slavic, these flaws are often barely noticeable. However if they come from different roots, the translation becomes obvious to both trained and untrained eyes. Bilingual readers involuntarily back-translate everything in their attempt to understand the ideas. Monoglots are often puzzled.
- 50 and under –This is the high-risk area. As it has a price tag attached, it is safe to assume that we are talking about cheap human translation. Nevertheless, its overall quality is comparable to free online machine translation. To make matters worse, machine translation is consistent in its flaws, from beginning to end. These cheap amateurs, on their turn, often learn a lot of new things on the way, and sometimes start doing them right from a certain point onward. Of course, at such low rates they won’t bother to go back and fix whatever they have just learned that they were doing wrong. If the text is long, chances are that they will forget some of these things before it’s over, and revert to their old way. If the end-result is roughly the same, why waste money on someone who will deliver something equivalent to what you can get for free on the web?
- the 60 slot –If you were really paying attention, you’ll have noticed that I skipped the 60. This region is turning into a chasm, whatever you’d name an unpopulated area. Outsourcers and end-clients have been gradually realizing that they can get this same level of service for less (or for free, with automatic translation, as I’ve just explained), so they are moving out of it, downwards. Translators previously operating in this area have been gradually discovering that either they can’t get this much for what they have to offer and lowering their rates, or finding out that their deliverables are worth more, so they are moving upwards.
5. Payment terms
Would you hire a bank to do your translation work? I hope not. Even if they agreed to do your translations, they would be amateurs in this trade, as they specialize in financial services. So what would justify securing loans from translators? They are supposedly amateurs in money lending.
A bank offers good (i.e. low) interest rates on loans because that’s their core business. A translator doing it would be outside their turf, so they should charge bad (i.e. outrageously high) interest rates. Yet several countries have grown a culture of paying translators in 45, 60 or more days after delivery. Why? Because they rely on the translators’ ignorance in finance; after all, they are linguists, men of letters, not numbers.
Do a reality check… verify the rates of a top flight translator specialized in finance, who supposedly understands how mankind deals with money. Are their rates outrageously high? Certainly! And why? Because most of their clients think it’s normal, or usual to pay a translator at least 30 days after delivery of the services. Ask that finance-specialized translator for a discount in exchange for COD payment, and it’s likely that you’ll get it.
On the other hand, merely asking any translator for a discount upon learning their price, without offering any kind of relief or changing your request in any way, may reveal some valuable, factual information. If a translator gives you a discount merely for your asking, according to my personal ethics manual, s/he is dishonest! They were initially trying to rip you off! Now they are disclosing their actual price, because they felt you were smart enough to suspect it was a rip-off, regardless of whether you did it or not.
However it is perfectly normal and honest to negotiate a price reduction upon relieving the translator from parts of the assignment, or giving them more time to finish the job.
6. Freelancer or translation agency?
In most cases, hiring a freelance translator directly should cost you less than doing it through a translation agency. After all, the agency must make a profit and pay taxes, so a longer supply chain should reasonably increase the cost.
However at least two aspects – when they are present – may render the translation agency approach actually cheaper than hiring a freelance translator. Most of the savings pivot on the cost of your own time.
If you have an unusually big translation job, while its deadline would be normal for a mid-sized one, hiring one freelancer will inevitably cause them schedule disruption and/or overtime, so it is likely that they will surcharge you for that. A translation agency is geared to set up a whole team of translators, so each one will work in their normal routine, at their normal rates. The agency will also arrange for text standardization and reviewing, as needed.
If you decided to set up that translators team yourself, imagine how much of your time it would take to recruit, select, provide directions, follow up, manage their bills and payments, and still assemble all the pieces you’ll get into something uniform. A translation agency may do that much more efficiently, hence more economically.
Similar situations arise when you have to translate one original into several different languages, or when additional work is involved, like DTP/formatting, audio recording, video subtitling, DVD authoring, etc. First, you’d have to recruit, select, negotiate, and manage a host of mutually independent vendors. Just imagine getting a pile of invoices, one from each of them, and you’ll promptly hand that job over to an agency. Furthermore, there is always a risk of one vendor having quality issues with the previous one’s delivery, starting a loop until all these are fixed.
Of course, some translators offer services beyond translation, however these are rare. The agency cost reduction won’t show on the job bottom line, but on yours instead: you’ll have more time to do anything else instead of masterminding alone a translation-and-whatever, possibly complex project.
Some tips comparing when it’s better to hire a freelance translator or a translation agency may be found online. There are also some other tips on selecting either one of them.
7. Material provided
The material you give the translator to work on might make quite a difference. For instance, you may have it in hard copy, so you simply copy & snail-mail, fax, or scan into a PDF file and e-mail it to your translator. This was the customary original for translation in ancient, pre-computer days.
Presently translators have a host of tools to translate much faster from computer files into computer files. The industry standard is Microsoft Word’s DOC file. If that original was generated somewhere in your firm using MS Word, it would be worthwhile to seek that file. Many translators surcharge work done from hard copy or PDF (Adobe Acrobat) files.
Talking about PDFs, there are two kinds of them: scanned (aka “”dead”) and generated (aka”live”, “editable”, or “distilled”, as Adobe calls them). Scanned PDFs are just as good as hard copy: a letter “O” there is a circle, its text is not editable. OCR (optical character recognition) software may extract text, its quality depending on various factors, including the scanning resolution (at least 200 dpi, to be of any use). Generated PDFs are editable, and there are several methods of working with them, though not so many translators do it.
Though working from a PDF will inevitably cause an additional cost, if properly done, it will eliminate the need for much more expensive DTP (desktop publishing) work afterwards, to get some ‘artsy’ publication properly laid out after translation.
However the publication you have to translate may have been created with other software, most likely of the professional-level DTP packages, such as InDesign, QuarkXpress, Frame Maker, or PageMaker. Occasionally it will have been created with the low-level DTP apps, such as Microsoft Publisher, Serif PagePlus, or the freeware Scribus. Each of these programs uses its own proprietary files, and the few existing converters between some of them don’t work well. So there are four basic options.
If you do have that specific software as a standard in your business unit, you’ll need a translator who has – and knows how to use – translation software that will go into those files and translate the text inside them. Your specialized staff for using that DTP package will have to go into those files to check and adjust layout issues created by text reflow. This option may be more economical on the long run only, if you ever need to update or otherwise edit those files in-house.
You may have to seek a translator who actually works with that specific DTP software, so they may translate in it and fix the layout issues. This may be hard to find, and probably more expensive. Check your reasons for keeping this translated file compatible with that software in particular.
If you can’t find a translator who works with that DTP software, you’ll need a DTP operator who can extract the text from that publication, and a translator to do the job. Then you’ll have the DTP operator implement the translation onto the DTP file, and ask the translator to check how it came out, possibly on a PDF file. This is one of the most expensive and time-consuming options, which should be avoided as much as possible.
If you can find a translator who works directly on PDF files, though fixing layout issues on the PDF will cost something additional to the translation itself, when this entire project is outsourced, the total expense will be much lower by recycling most – if not all – of the artistic layout work.
Video translation is another case where some care may reduce costs significantly. Most video translators adopt sometimes substantially lower rates when a script is provided. If a script is not available, written material or even related content links on the web might help to some extent.
An important point to stress here is that video dubbing or subtitling is a linear process. If anything is not adequate in any step of the way, and poor quality is detected later, this will require the entire process to go back to the flawed step, and redone from there on.
The bottom line is that since translation is the very first step, saving on rates here is not a sensible option. The translation itself may be cheaper, however the entire process may come out quite costly.
For instance, if the translation for dubbing is inadequate in terms of metrics, I’ve seen it happen: dubbers may take much, much longer to “make it fit”, several times more time, indeed. At the end of the day dubbers, technicians, dubbing director, and the studio time – all hired by the hour – may cost several times more than the savings in hiring a cheaper, possibly less competent translator. Likewise, if the translation for subtitles is not adequate for subtitling, it will often require extensive adaptation, or even redoing.
So in video work, the later in the process you think about cutting costs, more chances you stand in actually doing it. For instance (though I don’t recommend doing it), if you cut costs on the last step, say, DVD duplication, it may work. If you resort to cheap copying on cheap media from a pristine master, the worst that may happen is to get many non-playing copies, which your vendor will have to replace at their own expense, if so agreed. Though it’s not a sensible option, this should give you the general picture.
8. Delivery level
Check your actual needs in terms of delivery, and don’t ask for more than you really need. Avoid paying a translator to do something that will be redone anyway.
For instance, take the case of hiring someone to translate a PowerPoint presentation. Translators usually charge extra (often as much as 20-30%) to fix all layout issues resulting from text reflow or adjusting alignment after translation. If you have any PowerPoint wizard in your company, or if anyone will go anyway through the entire presentation to make further changes, possibly to adapt to some other material, tell the translator to stop at proofreading, and leave the layout/formatting as it comes out.
Otherwise, if you are having the entire translation revised by target-language-local staff for marketing or technical changes, maybe you can save some costs by asking the translator not to go beyond spellchecking.
9. CAT tools
Maybe you are familiar with them, maybe not. CAT is an acronym that stands for Computer Aided Translation tools. What they do is to build a database of pretranslated phrases, called Translation Memory, maybe in that specific job, maybe in that subject, or even over a translator’s lifetime. The intent is to spare the translator from remembering all the identical or very similar phrases s/he has translated already.
If your company publishes a lot of similar material, for instance, a computer printer manufacturer who publishes new, yet basically the same, user manuals all the time, it’s worth the time and effort to implement such an automated system, and demand work to be done within it always.
On the other hand, you may have read somewhere that all professional translators use a certain CAT tool… and no other! This is that tool developer’s marketing strategy: they persistently struggle to drive home the idea that no competent professional translator can be rated as such unless they own and use their product. They hammer it so often, and so insistently, that any open-minded individual might believe it.
Have you ever heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out”? For your information, there are many brands of CAT tools, and the one I am referring to is only the most expensive. Furthermore, a CAT tool doesn’t translate on its own; all it does is to remind the translator how s/he translated any recurring word, expression or phrase, and spare them from retyping it. If that translator translates badly, the best CAT tool won’t help improving their output.
So, before you bluntly reject each and every translator who doesn’t use any particular CAT tool, do a reality check: does it matter at all for you?
A really competent translator would deliver the same translation quality using pencil and paper. Maybe it would take them much longer to research, translate, spellcheck, verify consistency and grammar, but the quality should be the same. On the other hand, a fledgling translator most likely would deliver amateur work, even having the most expensive software available.
If what you need is the translation alone, you shouldn’t bother about the tool the translator uses, as long as no trace of its use is left on the material you get. On the other hand, if you demand expensive tools, take into account that the translator will be seeking return on their investment on them, therefore being more expensive.
10. Solid information and instructions
One foolproof way to waste money in any kind of project is spending it on rework, thwarting any attempt of making it right the first time. If anything is changed after a job has begun, chances are that some work will have to be discarded, fixed, altered, or redone. Translation is no exception.
So get your act together before you order a translation. If you assign a project, and later decide that some parts should be deleted, others must be added, and something has to be done differently, get ready to watch a variable amount of your money going down the drain.
If you are unsure, and feel that you are dealing with an honest, reliable translator, ask for their advice. Remember they do it for a living, so chances are they have seen or been through similar situations before. Tap on their experience.
The worst case scenario is when the result is better than what you expected, so it took a completed job for you to discover that something could be done much better than what you asked for. Then you decide to go for higher stakes and, quite often, this will require starting over from square one: this first attempt will have been mostly a waste of time and other resources.
So here’s the deal: Envision the whole picture!
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can save money by merely comparing $/word translator rates and hiring the lowest number. Check your final objective, and look for value-adding investments all the way. Think in terms of cost/benefit. Sometimes a minor extra cost may leverage the benefits so many times that you would never consider saving those pennies in translation, had you thought about it.
Yet I’ll end with a caveat: there are indeed cases where the cheapest is the best. The example below shows the instructions provided with a 99¢ retail priced vegetable peeler. If whatever you need your translation for is not worth more than that, forget all this, and go straight for the cheapest translation you can get. Have fun!