It’s a jungle out there.

The translation/localization market is huge and getting bigger each year. There’s a lot of money to be made, and that attracts not only professional providers, but also unscrupulous players who are either outright cheating or just economical with the truth. Buyers get quotes ranging from suspiciously rock-bottom to unjustifiably sky-high and don’t know what to think. How can the price for the same task differ so much? Or is someone taking them for a ride?

What is Translation?

Before you understand how much translation costs, you have to ask yourself a more basic question: what is translation? Everybody thinks they know the answer to this one, but think about it for a minute:

  • Is Google Translate’s output really “translation”?
  • If a language student translated something as part of their homework, does it deserve the same name as what professionals do?

For better and for worse, there is no one standard definition and it’s the nature of any creative work that there’ll always be arguments about what’s good enough and what isn’t. The good news is that there are best practices out there, widely followed throughout the industry with the exception of some fly-by-night operators, whom I’ll get to later on.

The standard process goes something like this:

  1. Before translation – collecting files, deciding what needs to be translated and what doesn’t, putting together reference materials like translation memories, termbases, style guides and so on, getting quotes and deciding who will do the work.
  2. Translation – this is where the magic happens. A highly-educated bilingual professional actually enters the words in the new language that reflects the source text in an accurate and maybe even beautiful manner. There are three things that can happen next:
    • The translator says it’s ready and that’s it, also known as “self-check”;
    • it’s sent to a different linguist who checks the work word-by-word comparing to source, also known as “editing”, which adds 33-40% to the price;
    • it’s sent to a different linguist who checks the target-language version only, also known as “proofreading”, which adds 15-20% to the price.

    Finally, in most cases automated QA checks will be done on the content to look for issues that are easy to miss for the human eye, such as double spaces or missing punctuation. These checks can be run by the translator, the editor/proofreader or the agency.

  3. After translation – taking the translation and putting it back into the environment it came from. If it’s a formatted document, such as .docx or .pptx files, you need to replace the original text with the translation and usually make some extra adjustments to layout, line-breaking and fonts to make it all look good. If the text is from software or a website, things get more complicated and quite a bit of work may be needed to integrate it correctly.

If you want something translated, you can do it in a few different ways starting with the simplest (and free!) to the most sophisticated:

  • Translate it yourself, if you happen to speak the language
  • Use Google Translate or another free online machine translation tool
  • Ask an employee or a friend to do it for free or cheap
  • Find a freelance translator
  • Upload your files to an online crowdsourced translation marketplace
  • Work with a different agency (Single Language Vendor – SLV) for each language
  • Work with an Multi-Language Vendor (MLV)
  • Build a full-service translation department in your company

(Andovar fits into the one before last solution, in case you’re wondering.)

How Much Does Translation Really Cost?

It’s a free market, so people can ask for what they please, depending on how they value their work, what their costs of living are, whether they’re just starting and want to get work experience or they are seasoned professionals busy with long-term clients. But there are established averages when it comes to professional translation and one way of finding them is through Proz.com. It is a huge online marketplace where translators advertise their services and buyers post jobs. Based on what rates thousands of translators have entered in their profiles, Proz publishes a table with averages. You can see the most popular languages below and the full and most recent table here.

how-translation-agencies-work-img-1

Remember that these are rates charged by individual translators, and that:

  • Agencies often offer translation + editing or proofreading by another translator, which increases cost.
  • These rates are for what’s called “new words”, while in every project there will also be “repeated words” which many providers offer at a discounted rate thanks to translation memory technology.
  • Agencies may do other work in addition to translation itself, such as: create style guides and termbases, localization engineering, DTP, testing, etc. This is sometimes rolled into the per-word rates, sometimes not.
  • Short, urgent and technical or creative texts usually call for higher rates, while simple, long and not urgent ones are cheaper.
  • Agencies are businesses, so they add a profit margin to the rates they pay to translators.

Keeping in mind the above, the rates charged by individual translators are the foundation on which agencies calculate their pricing to end clients.

Not All Agencies are Alike

Some buyers of translation choose to work with freelancers directly. It’s obviously less expensive, and can be a good idea for simple jobs in one or two languages. When projects get bigger, new languages are added and file formats are not straightforward you may need an agency to help handle all the extra work. Secondly, working with different freelancers and/or online marketplaces all the time means there will be no consistency between projects. Agencies typically maintain reference materials like translation memories, termbases and style guides, which help maintain consistency over time.

To be competitive, agencies look for ways to lower their costs and offer cheaper rates to clients. Some ideas are sound, others unscrupulous or even illegal. Let’s look at a few:

What’s included? While most agencies know that it’s risky to offer translation without any editing, proofreading or quality control, they might still do it in order to make their rates as low as possible. When comparing rates between agencies, make sure to find out what they include in the per-word rate. Is it translation-only? Translation with editing? With proofreading? What QA steps are followed? Do they charge for localization engineering, file handing, termbases, style sheets, etc. separately?

Geo-leveraging It’s not a secret that costs of living and running a business are lower in some countries. The world has been becoming flat for quite some time and outsourcing or moving offices to less expensive regions doesn’t create as much controversy as it did in the past. Translation companies do that too. While translators themselves usually live and work in their native countries (see next point), agencies offer localization engineering, desktop publishing, audio recording and project management which can be done cheaper elsewhere. This is one of the reasons Andovar has offices in Thailand, India and Colombia. If you want to know where your work will actually be done, ask your vendor.

Native speakers Native speakers of – let’s say – Norwegian usually live in Norway where costs of living are high. This makes it one of the more expensive languages to translate (as you can see in the table higher up). But what if we look for speakers of Norwegian in another country? Maybe one with low costs of living, like India or Russia? Bingo – they will definitely agree to charge lower rates than their friends in snowy Norway! But is Norwegian their mother tongue? And if they are native speakers who happen to live abroad, is their knowledge of the language on par with their compatriots in Norway? It can be, if they made an effort to stay in touch with their native cultures and how the language is used.

(Un)qualified translators In addition to being a native speaker, what makes someone qualified to translate? There is actually no easy answer to this and while some countries have official certification, translator associations and exams, others don’t and there is no established international standard. What it means is that an agency can call whomever they want a “qualified translator”, including people who are students, inexperienced and not native speakers. While the results may be acceptable for simple content, there should be transparency about who will do the work.

Outsourcing Many of the world’s biggest MLVs don’t actually work as simple agents between clients and translators, but add more layers of outsourcing. When the language pair or subject matter is not their forte, they hire smaller vendors to do the work. However, with every additional level the risk of miscommunication, delay and end price all increase.

Reputation What to do if an agency insists they only use native-speaking and highly-qualified professionals, but you still have doubts? Proz, the website mentioned earlier, also maintains a database of translation providers along with scores translators give them. It’s worth looking up the company you’re talking to and see how they fare. If they are not on the list or have almost no scores – they likely don’t work with professional translators or have only recently opened. If the scores are low, it means they don’t treat their translators well. Another website worth checking is GlassDoor, which stores comments from company employees and ex-employees.

What’s a PM Fee? Most agencies will charge something called the Project Management or PM Fee. It typically ranges from 1 to 10% of the total and covers the work of the project manager handling your work. Taking the PM Fee out of the per-word rate will make it go down, but PM Fee will still be added later on. Some agencies will also have Set-up, Kick-off and other types of fees. When comparing quotes from agencies, make sure to check how many percent they charge and include that in your comparison.

Audio quality Many agencies, and Andovar is one of them, also offer audio services in different languages. Some have their own recording studios built to industry standard and produce broadcast quality audio, while others ask speakers of the language to record the scripts at home using their own computers or even mobile phones. Want to guess which one costs more? And which one is of higher quality?

Bait and switch Some agencies present great-looking CVs of translators they work with and offer their work at rock-bottom rates. How is that possible? It’s not the same people doing the work! The CVs may be real, but the translation is done by their less-qualified colleagues. The extreme version of this is the following:

Do you know what the latest translation agency scam is? It goes like this:

  1. Advertise to get the best resumes from linguists.
  2. Advertise to get the lowest cost amateur translators at 2 or 3 cents.
  3. Swap the contact details on the linguists’ CVs with newly created Hotmail or Yahoo addresses that go to the scammers.
  4. Advertise unbeatable rates of 6-7 cents and show prospective clients the amazing CVs of the good linguists.
  5. Get the translation done by the cheap amateur translators.
  6. If possible, get advance payment or at least 50% using PayPal.
  7. If client complains about quality, use that fact to refuse to pay the amateur translators.
  8. Sometimes the scammers even leave the names of the borrowed linguists unchanged.
  9. Laugh all the way to the bank.

Focusing on what doesn’t matter Some providers will go at great lengths to make a good impression:

  • They’ll say they work with thousands of translators to make themselves look like big companies (but they are actually freelancers and not full-time employees);
  • Try to impress with ISO or other certification (but it’s applied to something as meaningless as “recruitment process” and not have anything to do with translation quality);
  • Show off their worldwide locations (but they are only virtual offices with no employees on-site);
  • Talk about flawless quality and thousands of satisfied customers (but provide no real testimonials with names and contact details).

Business is Business?

I hope this article explained some of the tactics translation agencies employ. Business is business and as long as it’s not illegal, a company can do whatever it wants. However, as a buyer of translation you should know who you’re dealing with before hiring an agency to work for you.