Billing by the word, the hour or the project

This topic started out as a Twitter discussion earlier this week, and I’m hoping that the translators who contributed there will join in here too! At the recent ATA conference, there was a lot of buzz about how translators should charge; not just the actual amounts, but whether it’s better to charge by the word, by the hour or by the project. So here’s a starter post to get the discussion going! It’s also worth noting that a post on the same topic that I wrote way back in 2008 is still one of the most popular posts on this blog, so clearly it’s a timeless topic! Here we go:

  • Charging by the word still seems to be the norm in our industry, at least in the agency market. On the plus side, if you charge by the source word count, everyone knows in advance exactly how much the translation is going to cost (down to the penny) before the project starts. Also, per-word billing favors more experienced and more specialized translators who are thus faster at their work, and encourages translators to incorporate productivity-enhancing technology into their work flow. On the minus side, per-word billing makes translation seem like commoditized piecework: we’re not selling a solution, we’re selling a bucket of words. Clients may argue (down to the penny) about unnecessary words, discounted words, and so on. Per-word billing also discourages translators from doing thorough and time-consuming research, because if we’re not typing, we’re not earning.
  • Charging by the hour seems to be gaining steam in the industry. Translators have historically charged by the hour for tasks like editing and proofreading, but now there’s a lot of talk about charging by the hour for translation too. During her preconference seminar at ATA, respected freelance translator Chris Durban noted that most direct clients are accustomed to paying for professional services (lawyers, accountants, marketing consultants, web designers) by the hour. Billing by the hour favors translators who work slowly because they are very thorough, and allows time for reading background material or doing in-depth research. But billing by the hour has its downsides: for whatever reason, most translation agencies seem to be resistant to paying an outright hourly rate that corresponds to what translators make when they bill by the word. For example, a translator earning 15 cents per word and producing 500 finished words per hour is effectively earning $75 per hour, well beyond the hourly rate that most translators report earning for tasks such as editing or proofreading. Billing by the hour also introduces the question of what is billable…phone time? e-mail time? FedEx time? revisions? And unless you have a very good handle on your translation speed for every document, or your clients will agree to start the project without a binding quote, it can be hard to know exactly how to estimate a given job.
  • Then we’ve got the third way: billing by the project. Billing by the project with no breakdown of words or hours isn’t out of the question (it’s what I do with the majority of my direct clients). This method has the advantage of allowing the translator to tweak the per-word or per-hour rate without a lot of fanfare. It also gives the client one number to focus on: no worry about words, hours, is this translator fast or slow compared to other people, etc. The obvious disadvantage is that the translator is locked in to the fixed bid; there’s no wiggle room if the project takes twice as long as expected.

Now, over to you!

28 Responses to “Billing by the word, the hour or the project”
  1. Emma Goldsmith November 8, 2012
    • Chris Durban November 9, 2012
      • Ana G. November 9, 2012
      • Emma Goldsmith November 9, 2012
  2. Valerij Tomarenko November 8, 2012
  3. patenttranslator November 8, 2012
  4. Marc Rizkallah November 9, 2012
  5. Valerij Tomarenko November 9, 2012
  6. Eugen Klaussner November 9, 2012
  7. Karen Tkaczyk November 9, 2012
  8. Liam Curley November 9, 2012
  9. Tess Whitty (@Tesstranslates) November 10, 2012
  10. Malgorzata Stich-Silva November 12, 2012
  11. Melanie Martin (@Translate_TM) November 14, 2012
  12. Monica Colangelo November 14, 2012
  13. Andrei Shmatkov November 18, 2012
    • Tucker December 6, 2012
  14. EP November 23, 2012
    • Chris Durban November 23, 2012
  15. Michela Finnis November 29, 2012
  16. Anna Zanina December 5, 2012
  17. Veritas December 6, 2012
  18. Peter July 2, 2015
  19. Bruce Rodger March 8, 2016

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