Paid by the word or paid by the hour?

At last year’s American Translators Association conference in San Francisco, I overheard a few conversations about how the translation industry would be affected if translators started billing by the hour rather than by the word. In some cases and for some jobs, translators do bill by the hour, but the tried-and-true per-word charge is still the norm. Here are a few thoughts on charging by the word versus by the hour.

Pricing translation by the word has some advantages: Especially if you charge by the source word, everyone knows up front how much the translation will cost, down to the cent. No surprise overruns to deal with and no estimating how many hours a project will take. Per-word pricing encourages translators to maintain their skills and technology, since efficient translators effectively earn more per hour. In some sense, per-word pricing may also drive translation technology innovations, since translators may be more likely to purchase a tool that allows them to work faster. Also, skilled and efficient translators can probably earn more by charging by the word than clients would be likely to pay by the hour. Say that you’re translating 600 words an hour at 14 cents a word, not out of the question for many translators, but I’ll venture a guess that those same clients might balk at paying $84 an hour for translation.  Per-word pricing also allows translation buyers to compare apples to apples when it comes to costs, rather than weighing a higher per-hour quote from a translator who claims to work faster versus a lower per-hour quote from someone who works more slowly.

But then again…:Pricing by the word has an obvious disadvantage from the translator’s side, which is that you are agreeing to work for a flat and fixed rate. So, when you get to those three pages of barely legible handwriting, or the document that’s been scanned, faxed and photocopied eight times before arriving in your inbox, you have to decide whether you need to negotiate a higher per-word rate. This can be a particular problem when it comes to editing, which is why I personally decline to be paid by the word for editing.

So then maybe pricing by the hour is better?: Well…yes…no…maybe! The main advantage of pricing by the hour is that there is no risk of loss on the translator’s part; if you charge $50 an hour and you work ten hours, you make $500. If you charge 20 cents a word and think you can translate 600 words an hour but the nature of the document is such that you really translate 250 words an hour, you’ve just taken a big hit. However, my main reasons for continuing to believe in pricing by the word are: a) the client knows up front how much the translation will cost and b) I think that most experienced and efficient translators can earn more by the word than what most clients will pay by the hour. Just don’t forget to agree in advance on whether the billable word count is source or target!

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