Price Quotes and How to Make Them Comparable

In the translation business different types of pricing have appeared among translators and across regions and countries. Why, I have no idea, to be honest. In other service professions, the hour is a common benchmark by which the services of different providers can be compared. In other, more tangible services, say a foot massage or a training course of some kind, the service itself is a unit with a certain price.

So far, so good. But what do we have in translation? There are prices per word, per line, per page, per character, percentages of known and unknown text sections, and some colleagues only give lump sum estimates for the texts they work with.

I think it’s not wise to keep the client in the dark about pricing. It leaves behind a feeling of uncertainty in the client, which in the end bounces back to the provider as a “no, sorry, we will accept the quote that gives us a clear idea about what we will have to pay in the end.”

The Problem – Different Units of Measurement

The Price Per Word: Believe it or not, words have different average lengths in different languages. In English, the average length of a word is 5.1 characters. German words are 6.26 chars on average, French as spoken in France is at 5.13 characters, some French Creole variants have generally shorter words, Russian words have 6.36 chars, and so on.*

A very nasty variant of per-word pricing is the “price per target word”. It means that the price is known only after the translation. This is a kind of surprise pricing, because the client can never estimate it or make corresponding budget plans. It depends largely on how the translator formulates the translation. I generally advise against this type of pricing.

So, the word is a quite variable unit for making estimates.

The Price Per Page: Pages are even less reliable than words when it comes to drawing up quotes. How big is your page? What are the margins in the layout? Which font type and size do you use? What is the line spacing? Are there graphics on many pages or are they completely filled with text. Are you printing on letter format paper, on the ISO standard A or B series formats?**

Questions with many different possible answers.

The Price Per Line: Same problem as with the page: How long is a line?***

The Price Per Character: Actually, although this is the most precise and almost universal unit of measurement for texts, it is very rarely used to quote prices.

The Price Per Translation Unit****: A very weird form of pricing, because most clients may never before have heard of a translation unit. Besides, the length of those can vary a lot.

The Solution – A Simple Conversion Formula

I have created a simple conversion formula to compare quotations. It helps convert the most common pricing units into standard lines of 55 characters.
Depending on the information available, the result is always the number of lines contained in the text to be translated:

Hint for clients: Ask all providers to give a certain type of price (e.g. per line, per hour) and at least an estimate of the total amount to be expected. This makes comparison easier for you right from the start.

Hint for language service providers: Make pricing as transparent as possible for your client.

c ya

Note: The suggested formula works for languages using character-based writing systems. Different reference units should be used for calculating quotations concerning translations of languages using logographic writing systems or syllabaries.

*Patrick Hall has compiled a really extensive list of average word lengths in different languages based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately the link of this resource has been taken offline in the meantime.

**Markus Kuhn publishes a really thorough description of generally accepted and internationally used paper formats at

***A widely accepted standard is a line length of 55 characters. That does not mean that all lines in the document must be 55 characters long. But it is a useful base value to calculate the real number of lines.

****A translation unit is a segment of a text processed one at a time by a translation memory (see What is a Translation Memory and How Does it Work?)


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