Webinar question: how many words per day?

This is post #4 in my ongoing series of questions from the webinar on “Getting Started as a Freelance Translator” that I presented for the American Translators Association in December.

A participant asks: For a translator who doesn’t use CAT tools, what is the average turnaround/output in words per day?
Short answer: If you want to work for agencies, you probably need to translate 2,000-3,000 words per day in order to meet their deadlines. If you work for direct clients, you can work more at your own pace. I know translators who average anywhere between 200 and 1,000 finished words per hour, so obviously your mileage will vary!

Longer answer: First, I’m not completely convinced that CAT tools save translators a lot of time unless the project is extremely repetitive (i.e. updating a previously translated document). When I use WordFast or OmegaT, I find that my translation speed increases by about 10% because I’m not constantly finding my place in the source document and glancing back and forth between screens, but I also find that my editing time increases because my writing is more “chunked” and does not flow as well. I avoid using CAT tools on anything that is for publication, but that’s another post!

If I had to put a number on it, I would say that the average translator produces between 400 and 600 finished words per hour. However, most people can’t translate for 8 hours without stopping, and most of the time you’ll encounter a section in the document that you have to research or read about, so you’ll slow down. In addition, most translators’ work speed varies enormously depending on the subject matter and format of the document. Years ago I used to translate market research surveys that were so repetitive I could listen to audio books while I worked and still produce about 800 finished words per hour. However, this also meant that the work was not very stimulating/fulfilling/intellectually demanding and therefore not very satisfying. I’ve worked on really complex legal documents that involved multiple cross-references and layers of meaning, and I’ve dipped as low as 250 words per hour.

As I mentioned in the short answer to this question, I think that agencies expect that translators will produce 2,000 to 3,000 finished words per day, and in general you have to be able to translate that fast in order to make a healthy income on agency rates (of course there are exceptions!). I’m not in the “faster is better” camp, but if you want to translate faster, you could:

  • Work on your typing. It sounds simplistic, but a lot of translators could translate faster if they typed faster. Recently, someone doing a research project on translators’ typing speeds asked me to take this typing speed test. I scored 83 words a minute (eternal thanks to my 10th grade keyboarding teacher!); according to the typing website, this means that I save 5.5 hours per 10 hours of typing as compared with “the average typist” who does 36 words per minute. Moral: typing speed matters!
  • Use speech recognition software or hire a transcriptionist. Most speech recognition software and most transcriptionists should be able to handle 80-120 words per minute. If you’re at that 36 word per minute average, this could really increase your productivity. I haven’t tried speech recognition software because I just don’t think that fast! And I don’t mind typing. But most of the ultra-productive translators I know (800-1,000 words per hour) do use speech recognition software.
  • Concentrate on your specializations. I think that the best way to increase your translation speed is to become really knowledgeable about your areas of specialization and stick to them. Once you start to know the terminology, sentence structure, typical phrasing, and even your regular clients’ writing styles, you’ll really speed up.

Any other thoughts on translation speed?

23 Responses to “Webinar question: how many words per day?”
  1. Sara Freitas-Maltaverne January 20, 2011
  2. Judy Jenner January 20, 2011
  3. Kevin Lossner January 20, 2011
  4. Catherine Christaki January 20, 2011
  5. Oliver Lawrence January 20, 2011
  6. David Turnbull January 20, 2011
  7. Adam Fuss January 20, 2011
  8. Sara Freitas-Maltaverne January 20, 2011
  9. Kevin Lossner January 20, 2011
  10. patenttranslator January 20, 2011
  11. John Bunch January 21, 2011
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