If you’ve ever purchased translation services from a translation agency or a freelancer, the chances are you were charged by the word.  There are other charging models out there – hourly, by the page, by the hour – but word rates are by far the most common. It’s easy to see why – words are easily countable, so both purchaser and supplier can be certain what the cost of a project will be with no nasty surprises.

However, the word rate method of charging often leads to complaint on the supplier side of the “commodification” of the translation services industry, turning a highly-skilled profession which adds significant value into McJob where price is the only consideration. That might be slightly overstating the case but it’s certainly very easy for a purchaser to ask for a penny or a cent off a word price, and in a very competitive market, it’s often difficult for the translation supplier to refuse. Hey, what’s a penny? And if you’ve come down from 12p per word to 11p, surely there’s not much more pain in going down to 10p…

But let’s consider what you are buying for that 12p. Is it really just a word in a foreign language?

NB In all these, we’ll assume you’ve purchased from either a reputable translation agency or qualified freelance translator.

Highly qualified professionals

Most professional translators will have a post-graduate qualification in translation and possibly experience in working in their chosen industry sector – legal, medical, engineering etc. A good translation is not necessarily something that can be achieved by someone who “speaks a bit of French” or even someone who is genuinely bilingual. Translation is a skill that needs to be learned and practised.

Your word price may also include proofreading by a second professional translator – so that’s two highly-trained language experts working on your document.

Local market expertise

Ideally the translator will be a native speaker of the language they translate into and working in the relevant country. They’ll have a good understanding of their industry sector as it operates in their country and will adapt their translation accordingly. Wording that works well in the UK, the US or Europe may be completely inappropriate for the Middle East or Asia. Think of the value this adds to your content, and the trouble it could save you – you’ve not only gone to the trouble of communicating in your customer’s language but you’ve gone the extra mile to ensure you’ve done it as well as possible.

Project management

It’s easy to imagine a project manager at a translation agency is simply there to send and receive emails, answer a few phone calls. The reality, of course, is very different. A good project manager adds considerable value to every project they work on – preparing source files so they’re in the best condition for translation, working with multiple file types, sourcing the best translator for the job (or translators on a multilingual job), answering queries from both translator and client, ensuring delivery is timely and fault-free. The list could be endless but perhaps the most value is added through the relationship a project manager builds with a client. Over a period of time, she will suggest improvements to your processes that will help you get the most out of your translated content, saving you time and money, bringing expertise to your business that you’re unlikely to have.

And all for the price of a word!