Translation costs?

Subject: Translation costs?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 02 Jun 2004 08:56:20 -0400

David Tinsley wonders: <<I have been asked by one of our product manager to provide a quote for translating documentation.>>

Translation costs typically run (U.S. dollars) $0.03 to $0.20 per word based on my experience in the Canadian market, depending on how readily available translators are (for obscure or less-common subjects, the cost increases), how much of your work is suitable for machine translation (translation memories make it easier to re-use text and thus decrease costs and work well for computer manuals; they don't work for marketing or poetry), and how much competition there is for business in your area.

Also note: Translation is not localisation. The former merely moves words (sometimes images too) from one language to another; the latter also makes the results culturally appropriate, which is not a trivial issue. If you're moving into a foreign market, it's worthwhile finding a vendor who also does localisation*; this usually means someone with staff who live in that culture, though there are occasional experts who can work well outside their native culture. For details, have a look at the Localization Industry Standards Association site (; they also provide a useful "guide to localisation".

* Not all vendors understand the difference between translation and localisation. For example, I've met Chinese translators who take the approach that "Chinese are used to English style manuals, so you only need to translate the words, not the style of presentation". They may well be right, but if you want to do the job _well_, go beyond simple translation.

Overly simplistic summary: To get a reliable quote, you'll need to provide the following information to a potential vendor:

- The software you're using (operating system, word processor or DTP, and programming environment if they'll be translating the interface too*).

* If so, your programmers need to plan the interface to permit localisation, which is not trivial. "Easy" problems include word-length expansion of 50% or more and comparable word-length reductions. More complex problems include changes in the direction of the text, and the operating system's support for weird and unusual Unicode fonts.

- Whether the product is finished or a "work in progress" that will be continuously updated. Ongoing revision is far more expensive since all the revision overhead (revision, editing) gets added to the job.

- The source and target language _and culture_. For example, there are probably as many dialects of French around the world as there are dialects of English, and each has distinct and not always fully overlapping vocabularies. You need to be very clear about which cultural dialect you're aiming for.

- A firm estimate of the word count (usually in the source language, though there are exceptions), the number and nature of the graphics, and the deadlines. Don't forget to count words in both the documentation and the interface.

- Whether a translation vocabulary (list of already translated terms) exists for your product. They may already have one, but if your product is less familiar (e.g., outside the computer industry), considerable research time may be required to develop a suitable vocabulary. Guess who pays for that research?

- A clear indication of what you expect them to provide. Most good vendors will include editing of the translation by someone expert in the target language and culture or an equivalent review by local experts; if this isn't mentioned, don't assume that it will be included in the price.

<<Anything I should be watching for? Potential pitfall?>>

Translation is only the tip of the iceberg. People who receive translated documents will assume you can provide sales and technical support in that language. (Something I learned in China: repeated denials that I spoke Chinese were unpersuasive given that I could fluently speak about 200 words and phrases in Chinese. One of the first phrases I memorized was "I don't speak Chinese." <g>) Do you have an infrastructure in place to support this? If not, one needs to be established asap.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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Translation costs: From: David Tinsley

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