Purchasing Translation Services: Unraveling Some of the Mystery

by Ralph Strozza

It has been a long and arduous process, but U.S. companies have (for the most part) accepted that not everyone in the world speaks English. This is a major breakthrough! A good deal of the credit for this can be taken by the Internet. Having a web presence means that your potential market now is - literally - the world. And whether the role of the website is to actively pursue or passively inform, companies are now doing business internationally (whether they like it or not!).

In order to capitalize on this massive target market, multilingual websites and product offerings have become de rigueur. However, as relatively new and inexperienced consumers of natural language translation services, Americans still tend to view the entire process as somewhat of a mystery. Especially when it comes to the way translation services are bought and sold.

"I never imagined that it would be so expensive!" is probably the most common response, after the prospective client gets up off the floor, having looked at a quotation or estimate for translation services. And receiving quotations from different service providers only mystifies the process even more. As translation becomes more and more of a commodity and a necessary evil to staying competitive in today's cybermarket, the purchasing process will become more standardized and easier to understand. And this simplification will enable buyers to more easily compare what it is they are getting, to evaluate competitive offers, and to make an informed decision concerning who offers the best value for the money.

Until that day comes, it may be useful to explain how most U.S.-based translation service providers charge for their services, and to offer some tips on what to look for.

Word Counts

Most U.S.-based translation services charge their clients on a "per word" basis. The translation provider will count the words in the source file and multiply them by a per word price. The lack of a standardized word count utility accounts for many of the discrepancies in the translation purchasing process. Microsoft Word's utility is probably the closest thing that resembles a standard, and many translation agencies use this as a matter of course. Translation memory tools such as Trados Workbench and TM2 also provide word counts in their analysis utilities, although all report different numbers of words.

Many companies who localize their products on a regular basis will develop localization kits. These kits will specify all of the project parameters, from the scope of the project down to numbers of words, to the tools which must be used, to the delivery schedule and what the deliverables should be.

If you do not produce your own localization kit, it is advisable to enquire as to how the agency arrived at the word count, and even smarter if you can produce your own count for comparison's sake.

Note: Some translation providers charge based on the target word count. This is not recommended, as you really don't know exactly how much you are going to pay until the translation is delivered. Insist upon the source word count as the basis for the quotation.

Translation Memory Tools

The proliferation of translation memory tools has introduced the concept of unique and repetitive (or leveraged) text. Words that repeat in English, theoretically, do not need to be translated multiple times when using these tools, but they do need to be reviewed every time they appear (for contextual accuracy). It makes sense, therefore, for the translation agency to offer a discount on the price of leveraged text, and 30% to 50% discount ranges are the current norm.

When discussing translation projects with potential vendors, be sure to ask whether or not they plan to use a translation memory tool and, if so, which one. Extremely critical is the topic of who ultimately owns the translation memory that will be developed during the translation of your product. It is highly recommended that you select a vendor whose policy is that the memory created is the property of the client. Get this in writing up-front and make sure that the memory is included as a deliverable with each project. This is your translation security blanket: should anything happen with your translation vendor (they become acquired by another company, go out of business, undergo a radical turnover in their staff), you may very well want to change vendors. Being able to supply the new vendor with your translation "family jewels" will go far in assisting the new translation agency to remain consistent with previously-translated terminology and style, in addition to allowing you to continue receiving reduced rates on leveraged text.

And the Price Includes?

  • Make sure that the translation vendor clearly spells out what you are getting for the price of the word. For example:
  • Terminology research and development is sometimes included, but not always. If it is to be added on to the translation price, expect to pay an average of 2 to 3 cents per word in addition to the translation cost.
  • The per/word rate typically includes translation, proofreading, and editing. If you see any additional charges for linguistic quality assurance, be curious and ask what they are for and how exactly they are being charged (i.e hourly, etc.).
  • Many translation tools can handle the various types of coding schemes (HTML, XML, SGML, etc.) prevalent in today's content. This sometimes involves extensive preparation and/or conversion of files so that they can be processed using the translation memory tool. A localization engineer or other technically astute individual (whose rate is usually higher than a translator's) oftentimes executes this work. While some service providers include the cost for this engineering in the per word rate, others may bill it as a separate line item. The latter is preferable and makes it easier to see exactly how much is being charged and for what.
  • Most translation providers, assuming you are dealing with a company as opposed to an individual, will charge a project management fee. This fee is assessed to encompass all of the administrative tasks related to a project (client communications, support to translators, status reports, etc.) and usually amounts to and add-on of 10% to 15% of the project total.

Change Requests

The changing scope of projects in mid-stream makes a Change Request Authorization mechanism imperative to the successful execution of your project. Your translation vendor should spell it out up front and in writing how these changes are going to be handled to allow you to have a clear view of the additional project costs and potential impact to the original delivery schedule. Typically, the translation vendor would submit a Change Request to the client, evaluating the impact of the changes on the price and/or schedules. Only the client should have the authority to approve a Change Request and to update or modify the project work scope, and should authorize the change in writing. The translation vendor then would proceed to execute all authorized changes according to the revisions specified by the client.

Guarantee of Workmanship

Be sure to ask about how corrections are handled. A reputable translation agency will guarantee its work to the extent that any errors or inconsistencies are fixed at no additional charge. Stylistic or preferential modifications will always come up no matter how good the translation may be, and client-service oriented agencies will usually include one set of modifications in the initial translation price. Again, be sure to get this clarified prior to starting the project.

As more U.S. companies see the need to offer multilingual products and services, buying translation services is becoming a more straightforward process. Standards are evolving in the industry which will enable consumers to more easily compare costs and services and arrive at a decision they feel comfortable with. Until this standardization is complete, translation buyers would do well to demand detailed quotations that clearly identify the services offered for the prices proposed. Simplifying the translation purchasing process will make for not only better-informed buyers, but also more frequent purchasers of these kinds of services.

Ralph Strozza is President of Interpro Translation Solutions, Inc. While in graduate school in 1982, he began to work part-time for a company (Worldwide Communications Corporation) that developed computer-assisted translation software and provided translation services. He first worked as a translator, then, after finishing his degree, moved into the product support area, and eventually went into marketing and sales. In 1983, he moved to Europe to assist in setting up WCC's European distribution channels, and returned to Chicago in 1985 as Vice President of Marketing and Sales. In 1988, he went to work for Intergraph Corporation in order to set up and staff their in-house localization team. In 1989, he accepted a position at System Software Associates, where he set up, staffed and ran their in-house as well as external localization teams until 1995. Interpro Translation Solutions opened for business in March of 1995.

He has undergraduate degrees in International Marketing, French, and Spanish from Northern Illinois University, and an M.A. in French and Italian from Northwestern University. He is fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish.

Ralph Strozza


"I absolutely love foreign languages and technology. Being able to leverage that passion in order to assist our clients in being successful is what I most enjoy about coming in to work every day."