Calculating Translation Costs: Word Count or Page Count (Character Count)

Learn to understand and reduce translation costs.

Train with numbers as carriages

This article dissects two main approaches to translation pricing. Whereas some translation vendors rely on word count quotes, others offer page-based quotes. I explain why word count is the best option for most translation buyers.

Introduction

In a typical translation scenario, you send a request for quote, or estimate, to vendors. Vendors prepare quotes and send them to the customer. Then, you make up their mind about whether to confirm or reject quotes.

Translation quotes from different vendors vary in many aspects, from format to currency. This article discusses one of such aspects: calculating the scope of work by word or page.

Terminology

Page count is a method of calculating the scope of translation based on the number of “conditional” pages in the original. A conditional page is usually 1,800 characters including spaces or 1,000 characters excluding spaces. “Conditional” means that such page is not equal to an actual page in the original.

A PowerPoint Presentation can have 100 actual pages (slides) with large font size or images, but if it has 18,000 characters including spaces, this is just 10 conditional pages at the rate of 1,800 characters including spaces per page: 18,000 divided by 1,800 equals 10 conditional pages.

A contract you need translated from Russian or other language might have 10 pages of fine print. But it’s likely to amount to 20 or more conditional pages, because small fonts and dense text often result in 36,000+ characters per real page or more.

Although strictly speaking, page count is really character count, a page is a more commonly used denominator, because it is easier to talk pages than characters.

Conditional page ratio is any number of characters including/excluding spaces per page by which you divide the number of characters in the original to find out the number of conditional pages in the document. For example, you have a document with 36,000 characters including spaces, and the conditional page ratio is 1,800 characters including spaces. This means that you calculate the number of conditional pages by dividing 36,000 by 1,800, giving you 20 conditional pages.

Word count is a method of calculating the scope of translation based on the number of words in the source text.

Character is any symbol used in the original text, such as a letter, a number, or a quotation mark.

Original (source) text is a text provided for translation.

Background

Back in the old days, the translation industry relied mainly on page count as the easiest and most intuitive approach to estimating the scope of translation work. To find out page count, you do not have to own or master special software: all you need to do is use the statistics function of the program that you created your original text in. For instance, with Microsoft Word, you open the Review tab and click Word Count. A window opens showing the detailed statistics for characters. You can then divide the number of characters by the conditional page ratio. With this simple method of calculation, you can check quotes received from vendors and estimate the scope of translation work even before sending the source text for a quote.

However, with the advent of CAT (computer-aided translation) tools, the translation industry began to increasingly rely on word count. This was due to the fact that translation memory—the technology that CAT tools rely on—is geared toward words rather than characters. Because translation memory was a major breakthrough, increasing performance, improving translation quality, and lowering translation costs, freelance translators and translation companies adopted it as the calculation method of choice.

Translation memory is the main distinction between the two methods. Word count generally (but not always) means that translation memory is used or can be used, with a positive impact on quality and costs. Page count, however, typically (but again, not always) means no TM will be used. Therefore, because clients are much better off buying translation based on TM, it generally makes sense for them to prefer word count to page count. This is discussed in detail below by comparing the two methods.

Page count

Page count falls into 2 categories: number of characters including and excluding spaces. For instance, a translation buyer can receive two quotes, where one quote counts pages based on 1,800 characters including spaces, while the other one does so based on 1,000 characters excluding spaces.

Including spaces in character count, and hence page count, is a dubious practice, because spaces require little or no work in terms of translation. It is also not uncommon for original texts to include many unnecessary spaces: people who are new to Microsoft Word tend to use spaces for formatting text, such as center/right justification. But does it mean that the second category of page count—the one that excludes spaces—is a fairer approach? It may be or may be not, depending on how many characters constitute one conditional page. In the above example where a page is 1,000 characters excluding spaces, a client would be ripped off compared to a page based on 1,800 characters including spaces, all other things being equal. Here is why: since the difference between the two methods is just spaces, we can subtract 1,000 from 1,800 to find out the number of spaces that we are not paying for with the “1,000 characters, no spaces” approach. We arrive at 800 characters. Sounds too much? As a matter of fact, a page of 1,800 characters includes 200 to 300 spaces, but not 800. Even though the character count goes down deceptively, clients overpay by as much as 50%: one page should be calculated as 1,500 characters, but is calculated as 1,000 characters instead, resulting in many more pages to pay for. In other words, the “XXX characters, no spaces” can be better than “XXX characters, with spaces,” all other things being equal, only as long as the number of characters per page does not decrease unfairly by subtracting spaces . See an example in the section “How to compare translation quotes from vendors using different approaches” below.

In addition to spaces, page count includes many other characters that do not require translation. These are most notably numbers, brackets, periods, various markers. Suppose your original text contains multiple tables with numbers only—you will pay for them just as for any other translatable characters.

Another common practice associated with page count is rounding the number of characters to a half-page or even an entire page. Since one page is quite expensive, such rounding can inflate the bill unfairly. Imagine a document with 3 full pages and another page with just 200 characters. If your vendor rounds this number and charges you for 4 pages, you end up overpaying by almost 20%! It should be noted, though, that some vendors give very accurate page count down to 0.1. In the above example, they would quote 3.1 pages.

Word count

Word count is an opposite of page count and is free from its drawbacks:

  • Clients do not pay for spaces.
  • Clients do not pay for other non-translatable units, such as numbers, brackets, periods, etc.
  • Clients do not overpay due to rounding, since rates are usually set per word.

Word count is also often based on translation memory, resulting in many additional advantages:

  • Discounts due to repetitions and matches
  • Higher translation consistency from project to project
  • Higher quality thanks to retrieving previous translations faster
  • Reduced turnaround time
  • Ability to replace vendors more easily (because a new vendor can easily access and stem from previous translations)

Therefore, by choosing word count over page count, translation buyers avoid all the disadvantages of page count as well as benefit from TM in many ways.

Why do translation vendors still offer page count?

Given the advantages of word count, this is a valid question. One could think of the following reasons:

  • People cling to old ways of calculating the scope of translation work. Many people have not adopted CAT (computer-aided translation) tools yet, which makes it impossible for them to provide clients with most cost-effective estimates.
  • Counting characters and converting them into pages is much easier. There is no need to buy, and train employees to use, expensive software. There are no costs to maintain clients’ translation memories. Page count is also more transparent, because clients can check it themselves.
  • Page count is more lucrative for translation vendors. They can charge you more and avoid the discounts for repetitions and matches that CAT tools show in word counts.

How to compare translation quotes from vendors using different approaches

Often, translation buyers request translation quotes without providing the source text.

For example, suppose you need to translate a text into Russian. When you receive quotes for Russian translation services based on different calculation methods, say $70 per page of 1,800 characters including spaces and $0.20 per word for Russian , they may have a hard time making sense of the quotes.

Firstly, unless your text is confidential, make sure to provide it when you request quotes. Translation costs can vary significantly due to a variety of factors, such as deadline and subject area. Without seeing the original, vendors can be too optimistic about their quotes, and you will be disappointed later on when they tell you that the price will be higher than initially quoted.

Secondly, check whether the vendors used a CAT tool to calculate the scope of work. In such case, the quotes should include at least some repetitions, and, if you provided your TM, even matches with the TM. You should give preference to vendors that use TM routinely.

Thirdly, you can convert per-page rate into per-word rate:

  • One page of 1,800 characters including spaces is roughly 250 words. By dividing the per-page rate by 250, you arrive at the approximate per-word rate. If one page is $70, you would divide $70 by 250, resulting in the per-word rate of $0.28.
  • One page of 1,000 characters including spaces is roughly 170 words. If one page is $70, you would divide $70 by 170, resulting in the per-word rate of $0.41.

Non-editable source text

The number of words in the source text is not always easy to count. This is especially true with uneditable text (text you cannot copy and paste into another application), such as images or scanned documents. This makes both creating a quote and translation itself more difficult. The best approach is to have your vendor re-create the original text first in editable format, time permitting. Although you will have to pay for this additional work, you will also be able to receive an estimate of translation work based on objective numbers rather than guesses. Further reading: “What Is Re-Creation of Formatting and Why You May Need It with Your Translation.”

Word count without translation memory

Some vendors may provide word count quotes, but without using CAT tools. This approach is an intermediate solution between the two opposite approaches discussed in this article. It is free from most of the page count disadvantages and is therefore more “customer-friendly.” On the other hand, it does not reap the benefits of translation memory, such as discounts.

Summary

As a translation buyer, you are generally better off paying by word count, not page count, because you only pay for what really requires translation. Word count also means your vendor will likely use translation memory, with a positive impact on quality, turnaround time, and costs. In fact, if they do not, you should insist on using translation memory both for calculating costs and translation itself.

Note, though, that calculation methods should not be the only consideration when you choose a vendor. For instance, if someone recommends you an excellent translator who uses a calculation method unfavorable for you, say, 1,000 characters excluding spaces per page, you should not dismiss this translator exclusively on the basis of this perceived drawback. In fact, the quality of translation he will provide may be well worth paying the unfavorable rate. In this case, neither rate not the calculation method itself is the main reason for the high price; it is the quality.

Requesting quotes from Velior

Velior takes pride in providing estimates based on word count from a CAT tool, making it possible for our clients not to pay for non-translatable characters, as well as benefit from discounts for internal repetitions and matches with translation memory. Not only does translation memory reduce translation costs, but it also helps our clients enjoy better translations and faster turnaround time.

Contact us to receive a free quote for your Russian translation today

Do it now