Should We Charge for Translation Services by the Hour?

For this month’s column, I want to touch on something that I’ve been thinking about a lot: the way we charge for our services.

Traditionally, translation services in the U.S. have been billed by the source word, so the translator will know exactly how much she or he will charge the client before the process starts. Following this practice also provides the client with an exact figure, which is helpful. In other markets, billing by the source line is common.

Changing existing pricing structures can be difficult. Most translation agencies have established processes based on per-word rates, so I speculate that there won’t be too much change in this area in the short term. That’s why I’ll focus on direct clients here.

Not surprisingly, many clients have no idea how many words are on the documents/websites they need to have translated. That’s because, unlike translators, they’ve probably never thought about their documents on a per-word basis.

On many documents, it’s easy to count the words, but things get trickier with PDFs and web-based content. For the past few years, I’ve started quoting many projects by the hour because I feel that an hourly rate is something most clients understand quite well, as they are used to paying that way for other professional service providers, such as lawyers and accountants. Many of my clients have actually requested quotes on a per-hour basis.

In addition, I also like this approach because it elevates our profession in a way that puts it more on par with other professional services and moves away from the “piecemeal” approach that sometimes comes with per-word pricing. Ultimately, it’s all about making clients happy, and in my (not necessarily representative) experience, I have the impression that clients have been pleased with the hourly approach.

Finally, I like per-hour pricing because it gives the client a clear understanding of some of the surcharges I usually add on manually as percentages. For instance, a scanned image of a document converted into a PDF will take infinitely longer to translate than a Word document with no tables. (Well, maybe not infinitely, but it feels like it!) I’ve always had a surcharge for PDF processing (which sometimes results in the client locating the Word document), and I think it’s a very straightforward explanation that a PDF takes more time to process and is thus more expensive. Ultimately, it all comes down to an hourly charge being something that’s transparent and easy to calculate and understand. Of course, your clients must trust you not to overcharge them.

Now, what are the potential downsides to this pricing approach? The main one is that the translator has to do an excellent job at estimating how long the translation will take before the project starts. This is relatively easy to do if you have many years of experience, but it’s hard in the beginning. That’s why I would recommend that you estimate on the high end to give yourself some wiggle room. You’ll also have a pleasantly surprised customer if you invoice them for less. On the other hand, I don’t invoice more than what I estimated, since this is unfair to the client. You may choose to do this differently, but on the few occasions that I’ve been way off on our estimates I had to absorb the difference, but there are always other ways to handle this.

Another downside is that some clients might potentially perceive your rate, regardless of what it is, as high. Then you can either explain to them that translation is a professional service, or you can simply thank them for their interest. Unfortunately, a change in pricing structure doesn’t mean that there won’t be some clients who will think your work is too expensive regardless of how you charge for it.

While I think charging by the word is a solid pricing structure, I’m beginning to like some of these per-hour advantages and plan to continue using both strategies. Perhaps it will catch on, and I’ve already heard from many colleagues who have switched to per-hour pricing and are happy with the results.


Judy Jenner is a court-certified Spanish interpreter and a Spanish and German translator based in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she runs Twin Translations with her twin sister. She is a past president of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. She hosts the translation blog, Translation Times (www.translationtimes.blogspot.com). You can also find her at www.entrepreneuriallinguist.com. Contact: judy.jenner@twintranslations.com or judy.jenner@entrepreneuriallinguist.com.

1 Responses to "Should We Charge for Translation Services by the Hour?"

  1. Chris Marquardt says:

    Interesting idea. I have moved away from providing per-word quotes to clients. Instead I just quote a price for the service. It works out well for both parties; I get a reasonable price, and they get exactly the service they require.

    No confusion and no nit-picking about how many “words” are in the document, nor about how many “hours” the project should reasonably have taken.

    As long as clients are convinced that you will offer them exactly the service they require, they will not want to look elsewhere and they will be glad to pay you a reasonable price. A great book on this subject is The Negotiating Paradox, by Bernard Hale Zick, http://www.amazon.com/Negotiating-Paradox-How-More-Giving/dp/1881554007/

    (“You can have everything in life you want, if you’ll just help enough other people get what they want.” – Zig Ziglar)

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