Sunday, August 30, 2020

In praise of project-based pricing in translation


[Fiddler on the roof*]

Tradition is the last justification for continuing long-established business practices long after they are no longer relevant. As an example, translation prices are generally quoted in price per word, just as Dickens and Melville were paid for publishing chapters of their books in newspapers two centuries ago. Yet, although writing by pen and typewriters have essentially become curiosities, every request for translator still involves those classic words: “What is your rate per word” as if this measure is still relevant and fair.

To be clear, uniform unit measures can be relevant if all goods are equal and randomly variable. For examples, today in most industrialized countries at least, all supermarket potatoes of the same kind are more or less equally tasteless. The difference between them is natural and unpredictable. It is impossible to make any connection between the farm and potato. Thus, comparing the cost of a pound or kilo of potatoes is legitimate and reflects the sole actual value difference, cost.

By contrast, the per-word price comparison in translation is illogical, as Spock would say. Even if the field of the translation is identical, e.g., medical or legal, all words, or texts to be more precise, are not created equal. Aside from the quantity of words, format potentially adds hours to a project. If the document is in PDF, it requires preparation before it is useful for CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools, which almost all translators use. Charts and special formatting add time after translation as they often only can be arranged after translation especially if one language is significantly wordier than another. In additional documents, more technical document require research as a professional translator must be 100% sure that the term is correct, a time-consuming process even for those who are expert at searches. For larger projects, QA can take no less time than the translation as it is impossible to properly reread 10,000 words without frequent breaks. Finally, every translation, including the most technical ones, reflects the language and expertise of the translator, i.e., no translations are identical. As such, a higher price may result in greater value if the result is more effective. So, unlike potatoes, the price comparison by itself is meaningless.

Project-based bids are fundamentally good for translators. Obviously, the quoted price better reflects the total effort of the translators as it includes all the factors specific to that project. The psychological effect of translators setting rates according to their reality is greater productivity as they “own” the project. Furthermore, overall quotes allow for invisible and seamless rate increases over the years, solving the issue of how to raise rates with long-term customers that act as if inflation does not exist. An additional benefit is the ability to create win-win situations for unpleasant work. All freelancers have certain type of works that they find very tedious and/or unpleasant. By factoring this element into the price, as plumbers do with sewer work, the service provider either avoids the project or is highly paid, both positive outcomes. Finally, it is not necessary to explain source-word and target word to customers, saving countless emails and avoiding unpleasant misunderstandings. Thus, translators gain in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, flexibility and clarity.

LSPs (Language Service Providers) all benefit in terms of price clarity and reliability.  In per-word cost quotes, it is necessary to assess the word count to calculate the price for the end customer. In relations with the translator, the parties must factor in repetition rates, the percentage of the full rate paid for partial or total repetitions of the same sentence. By contrast, in a project-based quote, after review of the document, the translator provides a single quote, which provide a basis for the agency quote, a much simpler process. Furthermore, translators meet deadline more often as they have carefully reviewed the document in order to prepare the quote. While it may delay the LSP quoting process, that period of time is minimal. LSPs also gain from this pricing method.

In all cases, the end customer finds project-based quotes much simpler. Most end-customers do not understand industry jargin. They do not know that a page is 250 words, not all the words on a A4 piece of paper nor can they grasp why there may be a difference, sometimes up to 50%, between the number of words in the source and target. They simply want to know how much the job will cost. One sentence with a cost and deadline answers their main question in short work. That is the art of keeping it simple.

There are at least two ways to calculate the total amount of a translation project. It is possible to multiply the total number of words by the base rate and then add or subtract elements that affect the total time. For example, on a project of 1000 words at rate of .10 USD per word, the base rate is 100 USD but the quote will be higher if the document is in PDF form and requires another hour of work. Another method, especially relevant for a multitask project, is estimating the total time for each section or task, totalling the amount,  multiplying it by the hourly rate and adding a “fudge” factor to reflect unpleasant surprises. Of course, the amounts are adjusted for local factors, i.e., how much the paying party is willing and able to pay and to what degree the project is desirable. In either case, the final offer should reflect the total time that will be invested and cost of living of the translator.

I have been using project-based pricing for four years now with both end-customers and translations agencies. The former finds it much simpler while the latter accepted it rather quickly. I am never automatically out of the consideration for a project due to my price since they first need to query me nor do I turn myself into a “potato”. I admit to have miscalculated a few quotes but the overquotes have easily compensated for the underquotes. Using project-based quotes, I “own” my prices while simplifying life for others. Tradition makes for a good song but poor business practice.

*Picture captions allow the blind to enjoy your posts. 

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