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ClientSide News Magazine pictureLately, it’s no secret that customers are treating translation as a commodity — how many words at what rate? It is not unusual for a potential client to ask about rates before they discuss scope or expectations. While many clients insist that price is only one consideration in the buying decision, it seems to always be the first question.

This commodity-market atmosphere is caused in part by translation memory (TM) and Web-based technologies. These technologies, especially TM, emphasize statistics — words, matches, and percentages. Thus, we’re all talking about numbers and discounts, and the concept of value is getting obscured.

The bottom line is that we all want the best price; everyone feels pressure to reduce translation budgets. It’s a given that quality and service are not inexpensive, yet many clients still want the lowest price per word for translation and the lowest price per page for formatting.

Draw up a spreadsheet, fill in the per-unit amounts, and the lowest price wins — the “Wal-Mart” approach to procurement. Americans are particularly prone to this practice, due in part to a relative lack of exposure to other languages, combined with a free-market business model.

The practice of pricing translation on a per-word basis has been around for years; it probably arose as the main quantifiable item in the translation equation. But rate per word does not tell the whole story. Amidst all the talk about rates and discounts, we should not lose sight of the fact that translation is a creative service, not a commodity. And service — think legal, medical, or consulting — is not priced solely by unit.

If translation were a commodity, it would make sense to make purchase decisions on rate per word — like buying Grade 5 bolts — all items meet a standard specification so the distinction is price. But language is living, symbolic, and ever-changing, subject to the unique interpretive abilities of the human mind. The U.S. government, with all of its resources, has sought a computerized translation system since the 1950s, but still hasn’t been successful. Skill, smarts, and experience are required to do the job right, and those come at a price.

When you go translation shopping, simply comparing prices from different translation suppliers cannot reveal the complete picture. Consider a quote to paint your home. Go with the cheapest, right? But wait! Did it include primer and two coats of paint? And what about paint quality? And will the painter scrape, caulk, and hand-detail the trim? Does the painter have verifiable references? Will the painter stay on the job or breeze by every third day for two months?

Similarly, price is only one consideration in the translation environment. What you should be looking for is the best value — the most bang for your buck. Value-added services set translation suppliers apart. It’s what used to be called “going the extra mile.” And those are the types of services that are part of the price equation when you work with a valued supplier.

Large translation companies with thousands of employees make their profit on volume. They often offer the lowest price, but there is no substitute for being on a first-name basis with your translation agency’s personnel. Relationships build trust, and trust is a huge factor when purchasing a service whose accuracy you cannot personally verify. When you have a solid, personal relationship with your supplier, communication occurs on many levels. Project managers and account executives know the details of your projects, respond to inquiries in a timely manner, and take a proactive approach to assure success. Sales personnel understand budget constraints and release dates, and they can help you map out a plan. You can always get a knowledgeable person on the phone during business hours.

When you insert a vendor relationship in your supply chain, details are carried over from project to project. Thus, you are not forced to start over every time you request a new translation. Your translators have a stake in helping you achieve the most economical use of their services, while meeting the quality standard you have defined. They explain the translation process and explain how, together, you can make projects more successful. Translation service providers are not just out to get in your pockets; they have your best interests at heart.

The cost of translation has decreased substantially with TM, the Internet, and various sophisticated software tools. Utilizing these technologies requires an investment in software and expertise, which your translation supplier should be willing to make, so that you benefit from reduced cost, increased consistency, and a solid foundation for your language program. If you buy by the word, you get words; if you buy by the value, you ensure future ROI.

All translated words are not equal. Superb language and writing skills and subject expertise are what you are purchasing. Understanding and re-communicating both the content and intent of technical documents is a specialized skill, and the number of translators that do it well is limited.

Professional translators continually research their customer’s product or service to refine terminology, dig deep to seek out industry-specific reference material, and continue to grow and develop product knowledge over time. These continuing efforts result in increasingly higher levels of accuracy and efficiency, often enabling cost reductions over time.

Working with a full-service company offers a single source for all languages, plus the assurance of quality translations. You do not have to search out different resources for each language, train each vendor on your unique project specifications, and then coordinate multiple vendors. Instead, your translation supplier coordinates everything, leaving you free to focus on other responsibilities. So, as a client, be sure to consider the value of your time saved.

It is much easier to negotiate favorable pricing or quantity discounts if you have an ongoing partnership with a supplier. When you partner with one or two translation agencies, you realize cost savings through process efficiencies. Once a process has been defined, future projects benefit.

In a value- and partner-based relationship, you can rely on your translation agency to be realistic about delivery dates. They work with you to meet your needs and maintain accuracy. Delivery expectations can be trusted. In contrast, working with a new low-bidder vendor for each project creates delivery anxiety. And if delivery dates aren’t met, the problem cascades throughout the supply chain. At what cost?

Such cost considerations apply to DTP as well. Bargain-basement DTP prices lose their glow when your prepress department spends hours reworking files.

A full-service translation company works with a variety of publishing programs, and provides edited, publication-ready documents to customers’ specifications. High quality layout is an art, especially with foreign languages’ unique character sets, hyphenation rules, and orientation; all DTP service should include linguistic quality checks. No matter the program or platform, your translation supplier should be able to deliver translated materials whose quality rivals the source.

Also consider what happens when you misplace an electronic translation file that costs thousands of dollars? This happens more often than you might imagine, and unless your translator has archived your files, you’re out of luck. A value-added translation company will archive the translated files and perform regular backups so when you discover, a few months later, that your electronic files have disappeared, your vendor can provide them again. The really cheap-per-word vendor you found on the Internet may or may not still be in business.

You work with multiple vendors for diverse services: a printing company, Web service, advertising agency. Your translation company should communicate directly with these vendors to save you the coordination effort and assure that the translation makes the transition to final deliverable smoothly and without corruption. This is one more value to include under the “time saved.”

Long-range support to translation buyers may include managing translation memories, seeking out appropriate technologies for specific projects, and suggesting client-side innovations to reduce costs. These intangibles are impossible to define and quantify in a “per word, per page, per hour” equation, yet there is never a “value-added” category in a typical Request for Quote.

Buyers and suppliers will agree that the items discussed here are only a few of the fundamentals of a successful translation or localization program, yet neither has determined how to specify and price the value-added features inherent in translation services. Do we demand a fixed unit price for software development or legal defense? Is that $.15 per word a smart buy if the translation cannot be repurposed? Is the $5 per page document worth it, if it only works with non-standard Russian fonts? Did your bargain Web page get delayed because the HTML tags were destroyed, and the headers had the wrong encoding?

To paraphrase MasterCard, “Cost of translation, X cents per word. Value added… priceless.”


Cathy Hubbard, General Manager, is one of three owners of SH3, Inc., which is celebrating its 25th year in business. With degrees in English and German, Cathy has experienced the translation business from the ground up, working as a typesetter, project manager, and business manager during her 30 years in the industry.

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