Thoughts on word counts

Here’s a nuts and bolts post about a nuts and bolts topic: how to count words. Billing by the word isn’t always the best way to go, but let’s say you’re quoting on a project for which you will definitely bill by the word. What are some factors you need to consider?

  • First, the all-important source versus target word count. If you do one thing related to word count, make sure that you establish in advance whether you’re billing based on the source or the target word count. Why? Because those word counts can differ radically: Romance languages use approximately 30% more words than English to express the same idea. Character-based languages might use one character to express an entire thought. So, agree on which word count will be the billable word count.
  • Billing based on the source word count is appealing–if the source document is countable (i.e. MS Word file), you can tell the client exactly how much the translation will cost before you start working. However, some source documents (i.e. locked PDFs) doggedly resist being counted, in which case you must either bill on the (unknown) target word count or bill based on some other factor such as number of pages or estimated number of hours.
  • Let’s say that the source document is countable. You’ll need to decide how to count it. Again–stop me if this is starting to sound familiar–the word count will vary depending on the counting tool you use. You can use MS Word, either by choosing File>Properties>Statistics, or Tools>Word Count. But, as described in this amusing post on Language Log, some text elements such as footnotes and endnotes are omitted by default from the MS Word count. You can use the word count generated by your TM tool if you use one, with the caveat that every tool’s count will be different.
  • You can use a dedicated word counting tool such as PractiCount, AnyCount, Count Anything or Complete Word Count. If you are billing by the line, as is common in Germany and Switzerland, you normally take the document’s character count and divide by 55. Note that although MS Word has a line count statistic, it wildly different from the number you’ll get using the characters/55 method.
  • Clients, especially if they are not experienced translation buyers, may ask all sorts of word count-related questions. A few that I’ve fielded: When translating from a PDF, do you charge to retype English text that is already in the source document? (Yes; or the client can have one of their administrative staff retype it). Do you charge for proper names, numbers, etc? (Yes; the entire word count of the document is billable). And possibly my favorite: Do you charge for the little words? (Only if you want them translated).

Moral of the story: translators have all kinds of crazy word count stories. Clients who want a discount of $1.19 because of an explanatory note that the translator inserted; clients who want the translator to manually count the words in a PDF (12,432…12,433), and on and on. Clients who quibble over these types of issues are not the kinds of clients you want to work with. It’s fine to settle on the source or the target word count and on a reasonable method of counting the words–for example the MS Word count or the TM tool count. But beyond that, you start to feel that the client would rather lose you as an intellectual service provider than pay the $1.19…and then it’s time to start marketing for better clients!

39 Responses to “Thoughts on word counts”
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