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.