Friday, 2 May 2014

Don't Sell a Company by the Stock (Moving Beyond the Word Count and the Minimum Charge)

I'm not a fan of word rates. As much as I'd prefer to remain objective and pragmatic, I probably am biased against them. They introduce a small, cheap unit which makes the billing look petty. They mentally associate our work with word-by-word conversion, which we know is not the case even in literal translation. They produce nonsense high numbers like 45,000 words. And they invite contention: What exactly counts as a word? (There can be a 15% difference between analyses from two different CAT tools.)

Per-word billing surely has its advantages. I discussed them a while ago along with the disadvantages. I actually concluded they possibly outweighed the disadvantages, at least in the context of time-based rates and pure flat rates (i.e. flat rates with no underlying figures provided to the client). Yet, I still find it difficult to like it. Perhaps as a Pole used to per-page billing — which is one heckuva bother to work with, by the way — I might just simply be biased against the smaller unit, but who knows, perhaps there's more to it.

Pages are better, to my mind, because they are not so ridiculously micro-scale. They rely on a character count, though, and that's subjective too, in the why-didn't-you-choose-a-shorter-word-when-one-was-available sense, and obviously characters are smaller than words. And 'standard' pages are hopeless in comparison to real-life pages. Because the A4 pages, not the 'standard' pages, are the real thing, and the clients actually get that right.

Speaking of which, and we're now getting closer to what I really want to talk about, clients are frustrated with translation billing systems. If they had a chance to avoid them, they'd probably jump at it. So why not give it to them, especially if we aren't exactly thrilled with them ourselves to begin with?

Sometimes clients asking for a quotation will describe the text in some detail but not actually offer much more than a ballpark estimate in terms of volume. A hint, yeah, but that's it. To them, the volume is relevant but not all-controlling.

And they got that right too. Their attitude is healthier than our own, even though we are the professionals. Word counts are often useless with short texts. I've done 2500 words in an hour, and I've done 120. And we use different rates for different kids of texts anyway, or surcharges. Mileage may vary, but probably every translator has some experience with this.

You may even have noticed that per-word rates don't rise hand-in-hand with time required to complete the task. Something which takes 80% more time may command a 20% premium (for a 33% effective pay cut), but I wouldn't count on more. On the other hand, simpler jobs capped 20% below your rates may save you 80% work time (for a 300% raise).

One thing that frustrates me is how often translation requires equal or greater knowledge and skill than the writing of the original text did, and yet translation fees may still be so unimpressive compared to whatever the text must have cost. Such as dozens versus hundreds, or hundreds versus thousands. Or so we think. There are many hungry writers, actually, and copywriters aren't necessarily any richer than translators.

On 1 May, I took a look at six-figure copywriter Ed Gandia's pricing guide, which is the equivalent of a menu card and which he shared as training material for other freelancers in line with his passion for teach. The document actually mentions word counts for most of the items, but it first and foremost pairs typical deliverables with their corresponding prices, or even quite vast price ranges such as $1000–$2000, usually including a very short specification of input (hours) or output (words) unless the task is straightforward enough to be self-evident.

So just why can't translators say: e-mail, short: this many bucks; e-mail, long: that many bucks? Website this, article that?

Especially considering that many of those things fall under the flat, all-across-the-board minimum charge many of demand for the shortest jobs?

The per-word pricing of projects which are very demanding but small in size, based on rates appropriate for long blocks of texts, is quite the nuisance and scourge of today's translation 'industry', where people come in with tightly packed copy where every word has been optimised, they unload on you style guides and instructions which are pretty much a campaign brief, and reference materials, all of which takes hundreds of times longer to read than that copy, and and they expect to pay pennies for it because that's how your pricing system works. And obviously that's cheaper than hiring a new advertising agency native to the target language, and there just might be a chance of effectively unloading a copywriter's brief on a translator. Something's gotta change in that system.

With larger orders, on the other hand, apart from the most obvious volume discount, sometimes we notice that clients don't even know how many zeroes to expect, hance they have those ideas of translating entire books for a couple hundred bucks. And that's also something which must change, and again, it doesn't require Swiss precision, just a ballpark range, even $10,000-$20,000.

If every translator's or agency's website said that translating a book cost several dozen thousand, people wouldn't be asking to have it translated for several hundred, and there'd be pressure to meet such a demand. Or a temptation to find a freelance contractor who would.

If you wonder about the hundreds, they are probably what a consumer can intuitively come up with as the value of removing the language barrier from a book the consumer wants to read, effectively unlocking it, in a way, just like he or she completes a micro transaction with an online bookshop on a smart phone with Internet connection.

In that light, a price in the hundreds is a generous offer since the book probably costs in the dozens! The consumer thinks about his or her own costs or value, not about production costs, economy of scale and so on. After tall, it is several times what the book costs, so doesn't it contain a healthy premium for meeting a custom demand? — Even though it grotesquely fails to reflect production costs (which are almost all labour), of which the consumer is unaware.

A debuting author may also lack a better idea. And the 'industry' has this unhealthy drive to please and to enable, which probably makes such transactions happen at least from time to time. You'd think about 'enabling' intercultural bridges and dialogues and even sales, sure, but they'd also think about enabling translation of however much text the client needs translated for however little money the client has to pay. Because that's enabling to business types, who are not quite our agents and don't work for our benefit.

Clearer now? I hope so.

Per-project approach is not a nonexistent concept in translation. You may already have used it, except not for pricing but in your CV or portfolio or some form of experience profile. Whatever you may want to say about 'online marketplaces','s user profiles have a project tab where the volume in words or pages (or a couple of other units) is just one of the many variables you can enter and by far not the most important one. Last time I checked, volume was close to the bottom and rate wasn't even there — pun intended.

Got it?

Project. Project role. Project description. Language. Field. Finally volume. Per day if you feel like it that way.

You've probably been asked a couple of times by a client or agency to provide or at least approve and agree to freeze a certain specific lump sum of money to be your set-in-stone fee for the project. That's a per-project fee.

You can't make as much money selling words as you probably could make selling projects. Words are meaningless, projects are defined and have meaning.

Besides, they all tell you that you need to be unique, or brand yourself so, if you want to succeed as a freelance translator (or any sort of freelance professional), or just plain sell so you can make an income. But it really is about the client — which is why business websites talk about 'you' so much, for example — so why don't we make the client feel unique? Projects are unique, words are not.

Let's do some stock trading.

As a translator perhaps sometimes you fancy yourself a mediator between cultures (or markets — look at what Marta does) or facilitator or even enabler of opportunities (again, look at how Marta does it). Effectively, if your client is a business client, you're selling that client business. For example if your client is a realtor, you sell him a chance to sell homes to more people, and if your client is a cat lady with a knack for breeding the furballs for sale, then you're selling her the opportunity to exchange purrs and meows for dollars, euros etc. with people who don't speak her language.

So imagine you're a professional business salesperson now. Meaning you sell companies for a living (something which Marta would be terrific at). How do you do it?

Are you selling and pricing them by the stock? Puh-lease!

And words are just like stocks. There can be common stocks, preference shocks, voting stocks, non-voting stocks, treasury stocks. They can be restricted, or there can be a rights issue or not. There are typically thousands of them (possibly millions), and they typically have par value, basically face value, which typically means zilch because it's only vaguely connected with anything in real life where it originally came from, nobody remembers when. Sound familiar?

There's more to a company than the sum total of its stocks.

You'll try to see if the name sells, if there's a brand value to cash in on. You'll see and talk about what the company does or can do — or it won't be of any value to a lazy investor if its a niche thing nobody in the general market has heard about, or perhaps a crafty investor will pretend he doesn't see the value and look what profit he makes after getting it cheap off you. You may try and leverage some sort of a legendary founder or manager's personally, which basically means selling a personal story. Or you could lay the claim that its people are the company's most important asset and focus on the immaterial value created by the team and its synergies and everything the workers do together. You could also emphasise any synergies with whatever the buyer's business might be doing or the company's potential for reselling, preferably with a premium after restructuring the thing, paying off the creditors and breathing in some fresh air. Anything but the 48,531 common stocks and 20,387 preference stocks at the going stock-market price.

(Village stocks at Chapeltown, England. Photo: Austen Redman, Wiki Commons.)

Alternatively, perhaps think about your classmate who is now a realtor or works for one, or has in the past, or just knows one. Ask how the realtor feels about selling properties and buildings and apartments by the square metre or square yard. What about the square foot? Or how about square inch for that matter? (There going to be thousands of such inches even in a small apartment, check in Google.)

Even where it's same old flat for one working class family as for thousands of others (which can make it easier to miss that it's supposed to become someone's home and possibly a life-time investment), the realtor would probably still rather be talking about the nice architecture of the building (better still if the architect actually had an identifiable name) and the snazzy modern or quaint old finish of its exterior, the warm and inviting or cool and intriguing colours, the river front and the park, and the underground station nearby or at least the bus, and preferably health care at hand and supermarket nearby, you get the point. Might even want to talk to you about how cosy the house or apartment feels inside. Better still, how cosy you can make it feel and experience it, and so on. Something along these lines. Anything but casual vending by the metre — the square metre still being the omnipresent and never fully escapable parametr in their industry anyway, just like the word or page is in our own.

As a translator you almost certainly know that words are just a billing unit, a convention, a pars pro toto, something which simply makes it easier to calculate the price of a project. There are normally different prices for the same units depending on different circumstances, except that nowadays translation agencies have forced on us one flat rate for everything — claiming that they need this or they won't know how much to budget — no matter what sorts of different rates and surcharges they may be getting from the client on account of various variables describing the text or the job.

So don't allow the word to become the main thing — or rather try to dislodge it from its current role as the main thing — and see that there is value in completeness, in wholeness.

A complete thing is worth more than the sum total of its isolated constituent parts. Which is, among other things, why building your computer was something the computer shop charged you for, or advertised it as a freebie (markup being distributed among the parts' prices), or you had to do it yourself. Same with words. And sentences. And pages.

Back to minimum fees now. Let's think pragmatically. If you have a minimum charge which is the same as the price of, say, a thousand (1000) words, that's already longer than many a type of document or text will be.

What could prevent you from just simply listing those types of documents on a page, from top to bottom, with the same price repeated all over?

(And the typical number of words in brackets, because that's where I'm driving at.)

Projects sell. Words don't.

Then you could go up from there. Double the word count and see what fits in it. There's quite a lot of stuff in the 1500-2000 range. And that's a size you can easily grasp in your imagination! No complex thought devices like when you try to imagine 60,000 words, which is just a book of about 200 pages, but did you even know before I told you? (And I barely avoided needing to use a calculator for this figure just because I took easy numbers.) You can probably just see or feel, in your mind, the five or six pages that is, depending on how many and how large pictures. So you can basically stay on top of the size, mentally, and do some other operations like imagining how the complexity of the text or the need for research affects your workload and time investment and any monetary investment. Or the value your client receives.

(And how about entertaining the idea that a short description under a concept picture, which together takes a whole page, might perhaps be worth as much as a page-long block of text? I'm not saying it is, but it just might. And it might because there's a whole formula for that, which everybody uses for everything, and which was created by the David Ogilvy, the Father of Advertising. Yes, websites look like that too, millions of them (and websites are currently taking after printed media because modern Internet bandwidth can afford full-screen or half-screen JPG and PNG file sizes). And it's not like you don't have to look at the picture when you translate, or like those witty things take you only as little time as a paragraph of normal text in some sales report or balance sheet.)

Notably, if you're a legal translator — contracts typically stay under 2500-3500 words, and 10,000 is a separate genre. Website copy for a lawyer, or his client-getting letter, almost invariably takes between 5.5 and 6.5 standard pages (10,000–12,000 characters or ~1400-1600 words), and lawyers aren't even unique in this regard. Correspondence often has standard lengths, largely related to physical page count. Forms are by definition standardised, and the space in the blanks isn't unlimited. Nor is the court's patience, so some courts have a rule in place like no more than 50 pages with a specific font size, line space and margin size.

Pragmatic hint: Talk to colleagues, exchange experience, put together a list.

So create a list, a table with ballpark figures. Add descriptions. You can even put in a disclaimer about non-standard lengths, so you won't have to translate a 5000-word brochure for $200. For added value, you will impress your clients with your knowledge and organisation, something freelancers don't always have a good reputation for. And if you have a PDF sheet or online price list, a figure listed in there will sound more credible than anything you've only just come up with. And it will make life easier for your clients. And easier for you.

You also have a chance to let clients know how much work those documents tend to take. You can't blame your clients for not knowing if nobody has told them, or corrected them when they guessed wrong. If the 1000 words take 1-2 hours of research, say that. If applying a 50-page style guide to a 2-page translation takes 5 hours, again, say that. You can mention editing and proofing separately. Just state the workload if you have the nagging feeling that clients have no faint idea. Give them a chance.

And give yourself a chance to do work you'd enjoy if it weren't for its dollar-to-hour ratio.


  1. Another fee list, from the National Union of Journalists (UK):

    Got the link from: (some interesting discussion)

  2. And more reading (re: why per-word bad in copywriting):

  3. Very informative post!! Never thought about these factors but really I liked your tips. Thanks a lot for this wonderful and enlightening sharing.
    Posted by: Caitlyn | How to Sell Your Business


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