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What is a "word"?

What is a Over the past couple of months, we have been pursuing an opportunity to provide clinical trial support for a top-10 pharmaceutical company. The process has been dragging on, in part, because of the client's difficulty in comparing prices from the different suppliers they're talking to. Some of the translation companies are quoting per word, others per page. Frustrated by several rounds of quoting, the client finally sent a number of sample files to the suppliers and asked all of them for the proposal amount to complete this work.

That got me thinking: It really is difficult to collect translation pricing from multiple vendors. Even something as simple as a "word" isn't that simple when you take into account

  • net words vs. gross words
  • source words vs. target words
  • words requiring translation vs. those that don't (e.g., large tables of numbers that won't change)
  • the impact that existing or yet-to-be-developed translation memories will have
And the same is true when expressing prices per page or per line or per hour or per anything else.

We all know that the tool that was used to count the words can have a huge impact on the results. We have lost some bids because our word counts were 40% higher than those from our competitors. We all looked at the same files, so how could our word counts have been so much higher?

And it's easy to say "price isn't everything - you need to take quality into account". Yes, of course, but because quality is even less easily defined and compared, it does usually come down to price. Plus, companies that buy large amounts of anything need to understand the pricing methodology that underlies the quotes that they're receiving. Worse than paying too much is being surprised by ever-changing prices.

In the absence of a standardized approach for pricing translations, it seems that the current situation kind of works. Well, it doesn't work for clients but it does work for efficient, innovative, streamlined translation suppliers who can figure out how to reduce the number of words being quoted.

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  1. DawnM said...
    Yes, the "proof is in the pudding" and the end client has probably taken the most reasonable course of action. As a freelancer, my question, of course, is where does this leave the translator. The companies that figure out how to reduce their word counts also have to reduce those same word counts when paying their vendors. I sometimes get offers from other companies in which their "official" word count for the file is actually far below what it really is once I have to work on it, which is frustrating and eats into my earnings - after all, I need to make a certain minimum per hour for a full day's work in order to pay my bills. Another problem I have run into is no payment at all for repetitions or 100% matches, which often need checking and still take time, even if a very small amount of time. It would be nice if we had an industry standard, but this is unlikely. The end client most likely has no idea what's going on in this regard. The only way the individual translator can compensate is to "live and learn" - and then charge the word skimping companies a higher rate....
    Paulina said...
    How very true! I always get a bit confused when it comes to rates per page, word and hour. I usually charge per page, but it doesn't work with CATs. I don't see any problem with doing 100% matches for free, though - clients usually don't want them altered so I use the option "translate to fuzzy".
    VolkmarH said...
    There is the common idea that numbers don't need translating. While it is true that they normally don't, they may need editing. Example: The English number 5,678.90 would be either 5.678,90 or 5 678,90 in German, depending on the client's preferences.

    Whilst CAT tools may have a number matching function and do the conversion automatically, this function cannot always be relied upon. Thus, a translator may end up converting decimal points and commas in a large table of numbers - a nuisance task, really - while the client may wonder why the translator is charging him for "translating" numbers.

    This applies even more so for the "translation" of dates; e.g. 1/22/2009 in American English would be 22.01.2009 or even 2009.01.22 in German (and a few other languages).

    I'm not sure clients are always aware of this fact. They may even suspect that the translator is trying to rip them off. Agencies should point this out to their clients.
    Anonymous said...
    Just when I thought this was a philosophical discussion I find it just about pennypinching.
    It appears companies are more interested in a cheap job than a quality one and that agencies are looking for ways to increase their percentage. I translate many original medical scientific articles for publication and charge per source word (I am not a machine so I cannot say how many target words there will be). Usually I give an estimate of the cost and the delivery date which is duly accepted. My clients know that this is an estimate and will have a margin of error.
    My CAT tools are mine (I paid for them) and the memory generated is mine too. It appears, also, that, although CAT tools are sold to translators as a great way to make working easier and faster, the benefits are taken away by the agencies and companies who not only want discounts but also want the translation memory, FREE.
    What is a word? It's a few cents give or take a penny.
    Alessandra said...
    I fully agree with Dawn and VolkmarH. It's true that most agencies don't pay for reps & 100%s, but the truth is most of the time (and especially in medical texts) you simply cannot avoid re-reading/checking them. a) you never know, and b) for Italy too numbers need localization. Agencies may know it, but end clients don't and even if you can explain it to them, some of the time they end up anyway just choosing a translator "that's not so picky about numbers" as I've been told once :-/ without realizing that they're talking about the correctness and readability of their own texts...

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