How are translations priced?

Why do most agencies quote on a project-project basis?

The first thing most clients want to know when they decide they need to have something professionally translated, is what is the cost going to be.

Essentially, the cost can vary a great deal, because there’s so many factors involved.

Simply put, price of translation = cost of translation + cost of admin.

Here are some variables, that shape the cost:

Language pair

Language combinations are priced differently, mainly due to supply and demand, and the cost of living in the linguists’ economic area.

Widely spoken languages are generally cheaper, due to there being more linguists available compared to a minority language. If there aren’t many translators working in that language, they will be able to charge more for their services.

The same goes for unusual language combinations, for example, Korean into Russian. With some language combinations being difficult to find, one option is to translate the source into English, then back into the target. This makes it much easier to find translators, but it will be twice as expensive, as the work will need to be translated twice.

Subject Matter

Some subjects are more expensive to translate than others. Generally speaking, business documents are cheaper to translate. There’s high demand for them, and they’re fairly straightforward to translate for someone working in that specialism.

Other subjects require more in-depth knowledge from the translator, or take more time to complete, which is reflected in the price.

Take for example legal translations. A good legal translator will probably have some form or legal qualification or experience, and can charge a premium for that. Same goes for medical translations. There’s also good reason to pay for this premium service, as these documents need to be 100% accurate.

Marketing and literary translations can cost more, because they can take longer. Translators may have to be more creative with their work, and make decisions to ensure that their work is understood by their audience. Sometimes, things have to be recreated in the target language to be understood. That simple slogan which is only a few words long might make no sense at all, or mean something completely different if it’s translated word-for-word.

Here’s a article on some of the greatest advertising translation fails if you fancy a laugh (I’ve put this in to break this unusually long blog up a bit, but when you come back to it, you’ll see I’m making some valid and helpful points).

The article’s a good way of explaining why you should pay a professional to translate your advertising slogans, and come up with a solution if it doesn’t quite work in their language.


The translation industry calls this a ‘workflow process’, or thereabouts. You need to make a decision whether you need translation only, or translation + editing and/or proofreading, as each step add on extra to the process.

The process you choose depends largely on what you need your translation for. If you just need something to be understood, then you can probably get away with translation only. You might have colleagues that can check through the translations for you (but don’t fall into the trap of ‘I know the language, therefore I can translate it’). If you’re having something published, for reasons discussed above, it’s worth getting it double checked.

Whilst a professional translation will be a good standard, you have used a human for this, therefore you have to account for human error. Apart from making sure that a translation is accurate, editors can also improve on the style, a fresh pair of eyes and all that. A proofreader will just check for typos and spelling/grammatical mistakes, but may not be looking at both the source and target text, and may not speak both languages– it’s not as in depth as editing.


If your text contains a lot of duplicate sentences, you might be able to negotiate a discount for repetition, depending on what your translation service provider is comfortable offering.

The bottom line is that duplications do reduce the amount of words that need to be translated, but they still need to be checked through by someone in the process to make sure that it fits well into the target text, so the percentage discount offered will vary amongst providers.


Almost every document will need some form of formatting, to make sure that the end result looks polished. If a language expands or contracts, then someone needs to adjust the final file to make it fit right.

Handwritten documents can normally be put through OCR software, but this needs to be checked through, as it sometimes produces some clangers. For hard to read documents, transcription may be required (charged at an hourly rate normally).

PDFs are hard for translation tools to process, so it’s always easier if you can get hold of the original, editable file. Indesign or artwork documents will normally be processed by a DTP specialist, to mirror the original formatting of the document, but allow for language expansion/contraction.

Size of the project

It’s quite normal to have to pay a minimal charge (usually an hourly rate) for even the smallest of jobs, due to the admin involved. To save money, you could group together smaller jobs (if they’re the same subject and language combination). If you’re using an agency, bear in mind that small jobs require the same amount of admin on their part as a larger job, so of course there’s a charge for this service. You can might be able negotiate a standard rate with translators for more regular jobs, but that’s really down to them.

Delivery time

These days, with the help of technology, things can be translated pretty quickly, but if you need something in double time then you might be charged more. There’s a few reasons for this. If multiple translators are needed, then there will be more project management involved to make sure that everything is done on time, consistently. To get everything done on time, people may have to work out of hours and over weekends or public holidays to get things finished. Only pay a weekend rate if there’s no choice but to work over the weekend though (i.e. you have given a job on a Friday and want it delivered the next Monday), not because someone has chosen to work then.

File format

The great news is that the majority of file formats are compatible with CAT (Computer-Aided Translation) Tools, which are widely used in the industry, although it’s always a good idea to check this through with your provider first. It might actually be easier for both of you to work with the original file, rather than a conversion.

The two formats which are a bit tricky are handwritten – these will need transcribing before translation, and sometimes handwriting can be tricky to read, and PDF. These formats require work to get them into a readable format, which will normally be added on in addition to the translation cost.

Hopefully this is some way of explaining why you don’t have access to a translation provider’s rates without showing them your document for translation first. As well as needing to see it first to know whether they can translate it, the price you’re given will also take all the many other cost factors into account.

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