Musings on rates: Per word, per line or per hour? Simplicity and up-front agreement on prices vs payment in tune with the actual workload

Greater than 4 minutes, my friend!

We, the language industry, have a funny habit: Despite offering a service, we usually do not charge hourly rates like all other service industries do. Nope. We are charging per word or, in German-speaking countries, per “standard line”.

The finger-on-paper method of counting text

This has, of course, historical reasons. In the ages before everything “went digital”, mighty publishing houses did not want to depend on the fickle writing mood of some inebriated wordsmiths and thus preferred to pay authors by a more stable and measurable unit than by the hour. In most countries, the “per word” scheme became standard.

Of course, this was regarded as silly in Germany and other German-speaking countries, as the German language is notorious for its compound nouns: The illustrious “Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän” (1 word, 30 characters) will be a “Danube steam shipping captain” (4 words, 30 chars) in English or a “Capitaine de la navigation à vapeur sur le Danube” (9 words, 50 chars) in French. And depending on text type, technicality and target audience, even the average word length in German would be between 5 and 7.5 characters per word. A deviation of 2.5 might not look like much, but in truth, it means +/- 50% in average word length and thus in payment. So people in German-speaking countries wanted to base their calculations on each single typed character.

Pretty soon (2 minutes after the idea was voiced), editors told their bosses that it was pretty tedious and time-consuming to count actual characters with their finger on the paper. German-speaking publishers thus looked at the fixed-font mechanical typewriter pages of the time and made up a couple of bulk units: a standard line of 55 characters including spaces and a standard page of 30 lines to go with it. However, since most pages would contain some shorter end-of-paragraph lines, the standard page was then fixed at a nice round 1,500 characters per page instead of the mathematically correct 55×30 = 1,650 characters. Since then, non-Germans don’t understand what’s wrong with something so simple as words and Germans suspiciously regard all per word rates as a very sloppy, imprecise and un-German way to count text.

Enter the Personal Computer and the last three decades of progress: One might expect that with the ease of computerized character counting, the former bulk units –words or standard lines – would have become obsolete and authors and translators could finally invoice based on the exact amount of text they have meticulously typed in. Well, or inserted from a glossary, translation memory or machine translation proposal, or maybe whispered into some text-to-speech software… Which brings me to the original question of this article:

Why don’t we charge based on the real workload?

There are several methods for determining one’s pricing, but economists keep telling us that our work should be “cost-effective”. This means that besides having an eye on what the competition charges or what a client might be able to afford, you should calculate the minimum you need, per year, to pay your bills, make retirement provisions, maybe leave some room for 1-2 vacations and a buffer for unexpected expenses, etc. and divide this by the number of working days per year. You end up with the amount you absolutely must make on each working day if you want this freelance thing to work out fine. Every penny you don’t earn on one day has to be earned on another within the same month, because your bills won’t wait. To calculate your hourly rate, divide the daily rate you just calculated by the number of productive hours per day (usually rather 6 than 8 or 10). In Germany, that will probably give you amounts between € 70/h and € 120/h – in tune with the rates that plumbers or freelance programmers charge because they have made the same calculations. Any less would be a mere side job.

That said, we can determine per word or per line prices by dividing the above hourly rate by the number of text counting units we can achieve per hour – a figure that will be an average of highly variable translation speeds depending on project and text type, language direction, mood of the day and lots of other factors. Meanwhile, we have ventured far into the land of Guesstimatia, all for the sake of being able to tell our customers a fixed project price in advance.

So why don’t we do away with it?

  • Counting words, lines or plain characters is a tedious process even when done by the computer, because no two MS Word versions and surely every CAT tool will count different amounts of text;
  • it still leaves us with “prior experience” guesswork when deciding on a realistic deadline;
  • even worse, it leads to projects where we effectively earn peanuts because the original text proves to be far more challenging and time-consuming than expected or where we are a bit ashamed to charge € 450 for a job that turned out to be completed in 1½ hours;
  • and most clients are not in the least interested in intermediate calculations, only in the total amount they have to shell out and the time the translation will take, “because, y’know, budget is tight and we’re already past the milestone and couldn’t you, dear translator, save our sorry backsides?”

The solution, indeed, might be to quote by the hour and get paid for the actual work done, even if this deviated from the estimation on the quote – or to do away with it all and offer fixed project prices, hiding all the pros and cons and ruminations and pseudo-calculated guesswork from the client. A price and a deadline. The beauty of simplicity. Or is it?

I will be glad to read your ideas and arguments on the matter!

TLDR: Translators are charging per arbitrary bulk value (words or standard lines) instead of demanding hourly rates, for historical reasons. It might be time to either adjust to the computer age, charging per character, or to let go of a bad habit and charge per hour to get paid for the actual work done – or confess to ourselves that it’s all guesswork anyway and quote fixed project prices.

Christopher Köbel

About Christopher Köbel

The IT, Automation and Industry 4.0/Smart Industry expert for German, French and English technical and marketing translations and website localization: DeFrEnT …it’s different!

22 thoughts on “Musings on rates: Per word, per line or per hour? Simplicity and up-front agreement on prices vs payment in tune with the actual workload

  1. Hello Christopher and thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂 I agree with you that payment by the hour is the charging method that does more justice to a translator’s work (well, any worker’s, really). But it seems like payment per word is set in stone by now. What do you think it would take for the market to adopt this method extensively? It sure starts with raising awareness, but then what?
    There is also another issue, the one regarding quotes. Would clients and agencies be willing to pay us an unpredictable amount after delivery or would they rather turn to any colleague who will be able to tell them his/her fixed price in advance, with no surprises?

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    1. Thank you for chiming in, Eleonora! It would be a major problem when working with LSPs or customers from the publishing business, who set up these invoicing units in the first place because they work to their advantage. But direct customers – especially from tech industries – are used to pay engineers, programmers and other freelancers by the hour and I was recently asked if I couldn’t switch to hourly payment because it was easier for them to get their head around the more familiar numbers. I think there is a good chance that – if translators proactively asked their clients if they’d prefer hourly rates or per word rates – it would turn out that per bulk text unit is not as set in stone as “the language industry” and our own habits would make us believe.
      In any case, we would still give a time estimate / deadline with hourly rates. And if circumstances change the workload and/or completion time, we would still need to communicate this as early as possible. Only that with hourly rates, there is no question that necessary extra work will be invoiced at the same rate while with per text unit rates, we are in a bad situation where we have to explain both a later time of delivery and higher costs for the extra work – or where we lose money by not re-negociating the project price despite changed circumstances.

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      1. So true.
        “But direct customers – especially from tech industries – are used to pay engineers, programmers and other freelancers by the hour”
        I didn’t know that. Thank you for these interesting insights 😉

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      2. True. This matter discussed for many times and I read a lot of articles argue about it. I am working with per word method. If I use the per hour rate I might not be Able to find a job. Thank you.

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  2. Thank you for your helpful thoughts, Christopher! I’m now building my own website to reach out to more direct clients, and this has got to be something to think about!

  3. Thank you for this explanation. I am a new freelancer and this issue is the biggest question of all time. Where I live, everyone is working with per word method and I am afraid that using the per hour rate might get me no job. Sometimes, I work with different methods of rates according to the client. My main concern, however, is how ethical it is to work with different methods of rates?

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    1. Hello Fadwa, ethics is a difficult matter to tackle, as it is both a cultural phenomenon and a personal decision. However, I would have no problems to agree on different calculation methods or on charging different customers different rates. Sometimes you will be willing to charge less to get a job that seems very interesting to you, sometimes you will quote high to fend off a job you are not particularly interested in (I tend to quote high instead of saying no to jobs that would fall into my planned vacation – I might have to work on holiday if I “lose” this bet, but at least it’s well-payed work then). And different industries have different opinions on what constitutes acceptable pricing. As an example, I’m offering a -15% discount to charitable/non-profit institutions and companies, as I know they often do important work for society but are tight on funds. Even if I don’t do those, I know that financial or legal translations can often be sold at twice the per word price of basic technical documentation. With marketing, there’s a huge price gap between straight translations of short-lived (web) texts and high-profile “transcreation” for billion-dollar marketing campaigns.
      And your prices will evolve over time, too, of course.
      Just experiment with quoting, you might be surprised what people are willing to pay if other factors such as quality, timely delivery, a service mentality and friendly, open communication are distinguishing you from the masses 🙂 And it helps to get in contact with colleagues by joining a professional xl8/1nt association – they don’t only mark you as a pro, but also give you market insights, provide qualified colleagues for shared projects, offer low-cost training and often group tariffs on business insurance or CAT tool group buys.
      Good luck!

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  4. Thanks for this post, Christopher!
    I agree that hourly rate sounds fair. But how do you calculate the number of hours spent translating? Do you count breaks? Do you count the times when you accidentally slip to the open Facebook tab? Do you pause the clock every time you go make yourself a cup of coffee? What if you forget to press pause? (I’m sure you don’t forget anything but I totally will.)

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    1. In fact, I have been keeping time with an Android App called “Timesheet” for a while now. Works like a breeze. Before, I simply kept an Excel sheet to measure time spent on projects and at the end of the day, I checked if I forgot to stop time on any break and corrected the entry by the time missed. If it’s precise to 15 minutes, that’s usually precise enough for self-analysis – and for invoicing purposes, one might argue that 1/2 hour intervals will still be “precise enough” (might tie that in with a minimum fee as you’d spend 30min even on micro-jobs if you count in the associated administrative tasks like e-mailing back & forth, project folder creation, etc.). In fact, I seem to recall my lawyer also charges per 30min intervals – and who would argue with them? 😉

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        1. Truth is, I keep forgetting to *make* breaks once I’m working and I hate how they are disrupting the “flow”. But that’s another reason for timekeeping: the app also reminds me to drink, eat, breathe and move my muscles a bit in set intervals. 😉

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    2. Dear Elena, I just wanted to share the tool I used for timing my work. It is link to and it an app as well as a website and I find having an opened tab is really useful to stop me from checking Twitter or others sites. You can name the projects and have weekly or monthly reports. Best of luck

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        1. Totally agree with Fadwa, I’ve been using Toggl for more than a year now and it’s a life-saver for productivity! Plus, if you allow Toggl to send you in-browser notifications, it’ll notice if you go inactive (say, you stop to get up and stretch your legs, go drink something or to the toilet) and as soon as you come back to your computer you’ll get a notification asking you whether you want to maintain (count) the time you’ve been idle for or discard it so that it doesn’t add up to your activity.
          For distraction problems I would also recommend the Chrome extension “Strict workflow”: you can set a fixed time for work, say 50 mins, during which your browser won’t allow you to open social media tabs and any other site you want to temporarily ‘blacklist’. You will set a time duration for breaks too. The timer notifies you when it’s time to take a break and automatically releases the block websites for the break duration.

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          1. I totally get the “I would forget to pause the timer” thing. I tried toggl and the app and web interface are truly helpful,but my human brain is the thing that wasn’t 😉
            I used to have an application called Work Rave that times your work/break for you. You just have to be disciplined to leave the “making coffee” and Facebook for the break times. And I think you can get a report of the work times you had,

            I understand all the history of the per word/line thing. In Brazil it was a type of line count before, or page count based on the number of characters some time ago. I most companies/translators now use word count.

            I think the problem with rates per hour, in this case has to do with TRUST as well. I know we here are all professionals and so on, but some people aren’t. How can I prove to the client that I needed 15 hours to finish the project that I anticipated would take only 10? Some people might just be buying time to make more money… And it’s not like having a plumber or an electrician inside your house, that you see that they needed more material, or that the problem was really much bigger than the surface showed. You can SEE the plumber working, our clients don’t see us going nuts researching terms that might take hours…

            @Christopher, you mentioned about feeling bad for charging €450 for something that took you one hour to do because you charged per line. Honestly, I wouldn’t. Because for you to do it in that one hour, you had all the baggage of your studies and experience, and that costed you time and money, and all of that has to be taken into account when setting your price (either per word or per hour.)

          2. Thank your for confirming that Germany, Austria and Switzerland are – or were – not the only countries using lines/pages as a calculation basis instead of words. Truth is: We are slowly beginning to see word rates over here, too. Words are the known unit for international buyers, so globalisation is on the advance against tradition, it seems. But if the tradition is under attack already, why not use the opportunity? At least that’s what I am currently trying out. As I said above, it works better with direct clients not used to the language industry’s line/word counts.

            But you were also bringing up the matter of *trust*. This could indeed be a major factor, as most other professions (especially technical ones such as programmers or engineers) are more *regulated* than the translation market. At least in Germany and I think most – if not all – EU countries, everyone can call themselves a translator, without any kind of degree or certificate. So translators and interpreters might be regarded as inherently less “pro” than other freelancers. Also, there is the old adage “traduttore – traditore” and we still have to completely shake off a millenium’s worth of that “traitor” image, personally and as a profession. But I don’t follow you in thinking this has anything to do with being on-site, as many of the “trusted” technical freelancers – such as designers, engineers or programmers – are not working on the client’s premises. I think it rather has something to do with the fact that customers will easily see a lack of functionality or how an error pops up in their software. They, as leypersons, can still get a more or less accurate impression of what is missing or faulty with most non-language deliverables. However, without knowing the foreign language well, they cannot properly assess the quality of a translation or interpretation themselves. This is what “traduttore – traditore” boils down to: The customer is generally in no position to tell what problems a text has or poses and has to blindly trust the language mediator, which creates *uncertainty*, which in turn leads to distrust. In my opinion, it is thus our job to explain early on what problems we see and what options there are to cope with them. This creates trust, because our clients will at least see that we are apparently knowing what we are doing and that we care enough about the client, his project and his goals to discuss solutions (I’m especially thinking of marketing collateral here, where the nuances of slightly different wording options will really make a difference, and the customer must be included in the decision-making because he knows best what he *intends* to communicate and how).

            Kind regards Christopher

            P.S.: In truth, I have so far never been in a situation where I would have taken an unreasonable amount for my work. 🙂 I just thought that it would be important to mention that the cost pendulum will swing in both directions when working with semi-arbitrary pricing units and that it can work in our favour as well as in the clients’. It remains a question of *fairness*, though: Is it OK to renegociate the price if a project turns out to be far more complex than estimated? If so, wouldn’t it be right to also renegociate the price if it turns out that it was far less work than anticipated (and I am not talking “negligible deviation” here)? A more extreme example of the “less work needed than thought” might be: If I notice that a particular text has already been wholly or for the most part translated, do I keep silent about it, translate it again and sell it? Or do I communicate openly that this job might not be necessary if the customer does not expressly wish for a re-translation? Been there, and lost some money because I decided I’d rather be honest. But this is, again, a question of ethics and perhaps a very individual decision that will always be made on a per-case basis.

          3. Thank you so much for this smart tool (I mean Strict workflow). I really find it difficult to stop checking my Twitter and I think this is the right tool. Thanks again

  5. Hello Eleonora,
    the bit about hourly/daily rates for freelancers other than “language mediators” is at least true for Germany, where I reside. However, I really don’t expect that to differ much in other Western countries, or across industries:
    Lawyers will never invoice the page count of an agreement they have drawn up, designers will never offer a “by centimeter drawn” tariff and technicians or craftsmen will never charge their own work by the number of screws screwed or by meters of piping connected, even if they invoice material costs that way.
    And why would they? They all provide “the time of an expert to solve a particular problem”, and time is what they’re paid for. Except experts in solving intercultural communication problems, apparently. Odd, isn’t it? 😉

    Anyway, thanks for your additional info on Toggl further down!

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  6. Thank you for the interesting post, Christopher! In Russia, translation agencies tend to pay per page (1,800 words), only some of them – per word, none of what I heard – per line. As for direct clients, they might prefer to know a lump sum, without going into details (words, lines, hours, pages). An experienced translator is able to estimate how much time is required to complete a job. Based on the estimation, the lump sum can be calculated and quoted. Everybody’s happy.

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    1. Thank you for expanding the perspective on customary “product” units, Oleg! Does Russian also form long compound words? Also: I agree, lump sums are a superb way of dealing with clients, especially consumers are more interested in the total amount incl. VAT instead of obscure intermediary calculations.

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