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Buying Translation Services: How to Always Stay Within Budget

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ClientSide News Magazine pictureSome meetings with your manager should happen only in nightmares: red-faced and heart pounding, you shuffle pages of spreadsheets that stick to your sweaty palms. “Sorry... it’s going to be a little more expensive than I thought...”

You fall pathetically short of explaining why you need another $25K to finish the localization project. Your “evil vendor” story isn’t sounding very convincing.

Unfortunately, quite a few localization project managers suffer through such unpleasant meetings for real. Some people subscribe to such meetings quarterly, never learning from their mistakes.

Running over budget is one of the capital sins of localization management. It’s high up there with “late delivery” and “bad quality.” There are probably countless excuses for it, but what you really want is to avoid needing one.

Budgeted, quoted, or invoiced

To explore how best to avoid a budget crisis, let’s consider a single localization project and the following definitions:

  • budget – the maximum amount of money you anticipate spending (and boldly communicated to the rest of the company).
  • quote – the amount of money your vendor proposes to charge for the work.
  • invoice – the amount of money you end up paying the vendor.

If you were the perfect localization manager, your Tshirt would likely read: “Budgeted = Quoted = Invoiced.”

Very doubtful this double equation ever materializes in the real world. Nonetheless, it represents the two basic challenges project managers face:

  • the challenge of committing how much it will cost (budget) before your vendor gets all the materials they need to precisely estimate the cost (quote)
  • the challenge of trusting your vendor’s estimate (quote) before you begin the project and commit to paying the bill (invoice)

How big is it?

The cost of localization is directly related to the nature and size of the content to be localized. The more precisely you can identify the project scope, the more accurate your budget will be.

In a perfect world, before you utter the slightest opinion about a budget, the complete and final localizable content would be delivered to you on a silver platter. Under these circumstances, the first equation is easy to fulfill: since the work can be precisely estimated, the quoted amount becomes your budget.

In reality, you rarely have access to all the data you need when you provide a budget. The content is probably still under development—if development has even started. The product engineer, content author, or product manager, your information sources, might offer no more than a wild guess when you pressure them for a number.

To find some solid ground in this sea of uncertainties, you’ll be much better off querying for a range rather than a number. When people lack the knowledge to respond directly, they are much more confident setting the boundary between what they know and don’t know.

Thus, unless you like to gamble, don’t even think about formulating a budget if you can’t answer the following:

  • What are the different types of localizable content? For example, a graphic, an HTML file, a database dump, or an application-specific document.
  • For each type of content, what are the expected • minimum and maximum volumes? For example, 150 to 200 .doc files, 3,500 to 4,000 pages, or 60,000 to 80,000 words?

Share the responsibility

Let’s not forget that your objective is to avoid that nasty meeting with your manager.

So far, you’ve obtained as much information as possible about the scope of the project, you’ve taken care to express volumes as ranges rather than numbers, and you’re pretty confident that the minimum and maximum boundaries are realistic.

As you were gathering the information from your colleagues in various departments, perhaps it struck you: while responsibility for the localization budget weighs on your shoulders, its fate rests totally in your colleagues’ hands. Knowing from experience where localization resides on their priority lists, you should be a little nervous.

Why not share some of that responsibility with your co-workers? In a short e-mail, explain how their work impacts localization and its budget, summarize the information they have provided, and formally ask them to confirm these assumptions. Copy your manager and theirs. Your work will get more attention, you will gain some peace of mind, and the accuracy of your data is likely to get a boost.

With the project scope now formally summarized, you are ready to contact vendors and get an idea of the corresponding cost range. Before you do so, however, remember to formally ask your manager to confirm that the project scope is as good as it can get. There’s no reason your manager shouldn’t get a bit of the responsibility, too!

Talk to the vendors

Even if you’ve been managing localization for the past 10 years, you should always talk to the vendors before finalizing a budget. After all, if they are going to do the work, they might as well stick their necks out like everybody else.

Since the final project materials are unavailable, we are not talking about a quote at this stage. We want a cost range corresponding to our scope range. If formalized, our request would be a Request for Information, not a Request for Estimate (or Quote or Proposal).

Ideally, samples of the different types of localizable content should be provided. These materials don’t have to be part of the actual project, as long as they are representative of the file structures and formats.

For larger budgets, soliciting the input of multiple vendors will definitely help improve the precision. However, you should take care to state clearly the intent of the request: “I want your advice to establish my budget.” This is not the moment to get everybody excited by lowering estimates to look good.

With the feedback from the vendors, we can now finalize the budget. It should correspond to the maximum side of the estimated cost range, plus whatever security margin you think necessary and justifiable.

Making equation a reality

If your colleagues haven’t blown their volume estimates, there is no reason at this point why the “budgeted = quoted” equation won’t hold. In fact, because of the competitive pressure you will exert during the quoting process, you are more likely to end up slightly under budget and be a hero (unless you commit one of the other capital sins: late delivery or bad quality).

If your colleagues have blown their volume estimates, the fact that you formalized the scoping process will temper any impulse to shoot the messenger.

Whether or not you uphold the second equation, “quoted = invoiced,” is determined entirely during quoting. The fundamental principals for achieving this are very simple:

  • make sure the quote covers all the required work and deliverables.
  • what is quoted is what you pay

Read the quotes

It is always a good idea to read a quote attentively. You’d be surprised how often the numbers don’t even add up. If you initiated a vendor selection process, and you are getting multiple quotes, reading them is vital. No two vendor quotes look the same; comparing apples to apples is very difficult, unless you take the time to analyze the information.

To determine whether you are getting comparable levels of service, try to match the line items between quotes. If you can’t find a match, call the vendor and find out why. For example, if one quote lists “translation” and “editing” as separate line items while another lists just “translation,” does this mean that the first vendor has all translations reviewed by an independent editor, while the second vendor doesn’t? Perhaps it simply means that one vendor likes to be explicit while the other one considers editing standard practice.

Another approach is to list and compare all the deliverables. Will you receive every type of content in the expected format? Will you receive the glossaries and translation memories? Will you receive tested files? How many rounds of error corrections are included? Is there a warranty period?

To avoid any misunderstandings and unforeseen invoices, no quote should be accepted unless it explicitly describes every service and deliverable.

No open ends

Assuming you deliver final source content and make no changes to it, there is no reason to have any variable or conditional component in a quote. Every line item has a fixed price. If a service is charged by the hour, the total number of hours should be explicitly stated and frozen. What is quoted is what you pay.

If you need to start a project for scheduling reasons, but you don’t have all the content, split the project into subprojects, and have each part quoted when the corresponding content is available.

Don’t update versions in the middle of a localization project. If you have no choice, negotiate the amounts due for the work already performed, close out the active project, and then start a new project based on a fresh quote.


The localization budget may be under your responsibility, but you don’t really control it. Your role is to minimize the risks. Internally, you do so by communicating and sharing the responsibility. Externally, you do so by engaging only in welldefined, fixed-price projects. Keep this up, and you can forget about embarrassing meetings. Leave those to your manager and your manager’s manager.

Published - January 2009

ClientSide News Magazine -

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