by Michael Schubert
What’s in a word? Precious little. We all know that we don’t translate words, or even sentences and paragraphs: We translate content, in all its context. (Worte and not Wörter, for those of you who know German.) And yet, most of us bill our services by the word. Why? And what message does this send?
The why is simple: It’s the easiest way to assess the volume of the task and provide a price in advance. And the message? To our clients, it says we are selling a commodity — the very message that, elsewhere, we keep trying to contradict. To ourselves, the message is that the faster we can translate, the more money we will earn. It incentivizes speed, not quality.
Moving away from word rates toward hourly or project-based fees better reflects how we actually work — and how we want our work to be perceived.
When I entered the profession, I worked mostly for language service providers (LSPs) and charged by the word. As I moved upmarket, this model became unsustainable for me: Since my word rate had risen to become higher than most, LSPs saved the tricky or sensitive jobs for me, leaving me feeling underpaid. Or they peppered me with smaller jobs that, even with a minimum fee, led to death by a thousand cuts. And then came the dreaded conversation about scaled word rates based on TM analyses (more on that below), which is what really drove me away from that model. Word rates also discourage, or make it difficult to bill for, value-added services: documenting errors or ambiguities in the source text, consulting with the client about the objective and target audience of the text, suggesting adaptations (“transcreation”), and so forth.
I began phasing out word prices in favor of hourly and project-based fees in 2010 and have not used word rates at all for many years now. LSPs generally ask for a word rate, since this is the dominant model and allows them to more easily compare translators by price. My response is always that I cannot offer a one-size-fits-all rate for future jobs sight unseen, and this argument resonates with LSPs that truly care about quality and have this same conversation with their end clients. Hourly and project-based pricing changes how clients think about our services, underscores that a 500-word internal company memo is not the same as 500 words of website content, and opens the door to offering and billing for value-added services, which helps us move upmarket.
As we approach and begin working with direct clients, we need to think carefully about how we present ourselves. Are we like the paper clip vendor who deals in unit prices, discounts by volume, and works with some low-level vendor manager? Or are we more like the consultant who provides professional services and interacts with department heads and senior management?
Word pricing mischaracterizes the nature of our work and leaves us talking about pennies. And that defines us as vendors of a commodity with a low unit price.
The businesses I work for don’t think in terms of word count, anyway. My clients never say, “Can you translate 2,000 words by Thursday?” They say, “We have a white paper we’d like you to translate.” And from there, I ask them about target audience and deadline, not budget. Only after I’ve seen the text and talked with them about the project do I offer a price quote. By then, I’ve amply demonstrated that I care about their baby. This is how we change the conversation from unit pricing to value.
I would (and do) argue vehemently that translation environment tools do not, on balance, make us faster — they yield smarter and more sustainable workflows, improve internal consistency, and give us more versatility and efficiency in working with complex file formats. Proficiency with state-of-the-art translation tools should never be a trap door to lower prices. It is, in fact, a rationale for higher prices. (Please reread this paragraph three times. I’ll wait.)
So instead of trying to hide my use of TEnT tools from my clients for fear of opening up the dreaded conversation on scaled word rates, I make sure my clients know that I use state-of-the-art translation technology to organize their bilingual content and harmonize their corporate style over a relationship that will last years, even decades.
We know that translation is not a commodity, and we need to demonstrate that in how we frame the conversation around our services with clients. Word count may be the metric of choice in the language services sector, but we translators are the largest group in this sector and have it in our power to steer the dialog away from individual words and toward content — away from quantity and toward quality.
This article first appeared in Jost Zetzsche’s Tool Box Journal  for people in the world of translation and is reprinted here with permission.
Michael Schubert  is an ATA-certified German-to-English translator based in San Francisco providing premium translation services with a focus on corporate communications, information technology, and finance.