Why is the Translation So Expensive? Understanding and Reducing Cost

Free online translation services like Google Translate or Bing have opened eyes to the value and importance of translation. They also make it difficult for consumers to understand the costs associated with professional translation.  Simply put, “Why should I pay for something that I can get for free?”

Here’s the thing, when it comes to communicating with your customers, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

We’ve all seen examples of regrettable translations – many from low cost products produced in other countries or as tourists (see engrish.com for a good laugh). Good laughs aside, what does it say about how the company values their customers when they communicate with them so poorly? More importantly, there are business risks with unclear translation of manuals or instructions. That’s where professional translators come in – despite advances in technology they remain the essential ingredient to successful communication in other languages.

Translation is a profession, one that requires more than simply being bilingual.  Professional translators are highly educated and trained. They are also subject-matter specialists. They have an advanced understanding of both the language and the subject. In the same way that you could not easily explain an article about something you did not have any experience with, a translator can only translate a topic fluidly when they deeply understand the terminology and how it is used in their language.

Why is it expensive? Professional translators translate about 2,500 words per day — about 10 pages at 250 words per page. Once you consider a fair skilled wage (which varies by where the translator lives and by their expertise), cost for the editor, cost for project management, markup by the translation company for the technology/infrastructure, absorbing capacity variation, currency fluctuations and international payments, and a modest operating income, prices of $0.15 – 0.25 per word reasonably adds up. With this in mind, it is clear why one should be wary of a rate that seems too good to be true.  With professional translation, there is a reasonable correlation to “you get what you pay for.” Maybe those translators live in a low-cost part of the world, but it’s more likely they aren’t native speakers or perhaps are fixing up machine translation without telling you.

Although there may be some room to negotiate cent-per-word rates, there are better ways to manage translation costs. Here are some ways to make professional translation more budget-friendly:

  • Remove unnecessary steps.  Cutting and pasting website content from a spreadsheet or into a graphic file takes valuable time and allows for errors.
  • Translate less content.  Utilize industry standard tools like translation memory, which reuses previously translated materials providing time and cost savings while maintaining consistent quality. This also means that for subsequent versions of the same content, don’t edit/change it unnecessarily.
  • Use subject-matter expert translators and editors. Although they cost more than part-time generalist translators, they will save you money in the long run. Correcting and reworking a bad translation costs both time and money – and potentially ruins your customer’s first experience with your product.
  • Use technology wisely.  Free online automatic translation may seem like a good idea, but as outlined above, shouldn’t be trusted where your brand touches your customers. There are other more effective approaches such as post-edited machine translation (PEMT).  For example, our platform combines state-of-the-art machine translation with human editors to provide fast and accurate translations at a lower cost.

In the end, the benefits of a good translation far outweigh the perceived cost savings of a poor one. Translation is a profession, not unlike attorneys or accountants. Accurately conveying the source text into the target text takes skill and time. When you are looking to save money, there are good places to look for savings and it is not always simply collecting bids for a cheaper word rate.

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