Posted by: patenttranslator | June 17, 2013

What Is The Correct Price for a Translation?

I am trying to imagine a client who is looking for a price for a certain type of translation, for example a new and thus relatively inexperienced legal secretary at a patent law firm. Many work part time in these times of shrinking budgets.

The first thing that she would probably do would be to run a Google search with a few words describing the type of translation that her boss needs. She would then see on page 1 about 10 advertisements of translation agencies, some on top of the page and some on the right, followed by links to Google listings of translation services, including my humble website and this silly blog, depending on the formulation of the query, as well as links to European Patent Office website, or Japanese Patent Office website, etc.

Do potential customers who look for information on translation prices click on advertisements? When I am looking for information about prices of products or services, I sometime do click on advertisements, but I prefer non-advertised sites displayed below advertisements, especially when it comes to services, because I know that about 80% of the content of a typical advertisement is ….. how do I put it delicately …. not really true (or simply a bunch of lies).

So let’s say that this imaginary potential customer is weary of advertisements and clicks on what Google considers relevant listings for translation services. Most of these translation services listed by Google in order of relevance according to the key words in the query will be translation agencies. A few of them will be websites of individual translators specializing in patent translations.

I would imagine that a smart paralegal would try to quickly read the descriptions of services on a few listed websites and then leave a request for a price quote on at least 3 websites. This should be a fairly quick process because every such website has a link to a free quote request. It is likely that the prices quoted from different sources will be somewhat different – for example prices quoted by translation agencies are likely to be at least somewhat higher than prices quoted by individual translators.

So, is this potential client at this point going to simply go for the lowest quote, or will she chose something in the middle, or will she choose a higher price to be on the safe side? I don’t know. But the chances are that most people would probably either select a lower price, or something in the middle.

Well established, experienced translators can usually command higher prices. But the thing is, a client comparing several price quotes from several translation agencies will have no idea how much of the money spent on the translation will go to the agency and how much will go to the actual translator. It is quite possible that a large percentage of a price in the middle or towards the top will reflect mostly the profit of the agency rather than what the translator will be paid. This would then mean that a “cheap” translator would have to be doing the actual work – perhaps a beginner, or perhaps somebody living in a low-cost country, although the cost of the translation could be quite high.

Responding to my last post about the sometime difficult position of translators, one commenter who apparently lives in Paris said the following about the miserable compensation level for preparing English summaries of foreign patents:

WIPO sends these summaries to the translation agency in large batches, hundreds at a time. The batches are divided according to language pair, but not according to subject matter, so the translator receives a batch of, say 30-50 summaries, each one related to a different technical field. Thus, the terminology research restarts anew with each and every paragraph translated. Needless to say, no context — i.e., no specification, claims or drawings — is provided for clarification, so the translator is pretty much flailing around in the dark. The going rate for this misery (at least the last time I was offered one of these jobs to turn down) is TEN DOLLARS per 100-200 word abstract, so the translator can ill afford to do much more than accept the first dictionary entry”.

Another commenter, who apparently lives in Japan, sort of disagreed and said this:

Actually, the process by which WIPO English abstracts are translated depends on the agency. One in Japan pays about 40 dollars per abstract, provides the spec/claims/drawings, and assigns the abstracts according to specific fields which the translator initially selects.”

So, let’s assume that both commenters know what they are talking about and both are right, which I think is likely. It is obviously unfair that one translator should make only ten dollars, and another 40 dollars for the same type of work. But that is not really the issue. Nobody said that this world was supposed to be fair, right?

The issue is, what kind of translator will be willing to do this job for a fraction of what an experienced translator would be willing to accept? Well, most likely somebody who is not very good. And yet, these two translation agencies mentioned by the commenters on my blog might very well be charging the same price, especially if both agencies initially got the job by submitting a tender offer, and the customer would then have no idea – based on the price – that one translator is very cheap, while the other one is not.

The customer would probably eventually catch on, but it might take a while.

Translation prices are sort of like real estate prices. There is no such thing as a correct and fair real estate price. Whatever a buyer is ready and able to spend to purchase a certain house in a given moment and a given location is the correct price.

But at least when you buy a house, you get to see it first, and you can even have it inspected before buying it to see whether the roof is leaking, and then you can look at comparable listings of houses in the neighborhood.

Trying to compare several price quotes for the same translation from several translation services is more difficult than comparing real estate prices.

Or even more difficult than trying to determine the price of a used car. With used cars, one can at least look under the hood, check the mileage and the price online in the famous “Kelly Blue Book of Used Car Prices”.

But as I tried to explain in this post, the “comps” for translation prices can be quite misleading, you can’t really see under the hood of translations, and there is no “Blue Book of Translation Prices” either.


  1. […] I am trying to imagine a client who is looking for a price for a certain type of translation, for example a new and thus relatively inexperienced paralegal at a patent law firm. The first thing tha…  […]


  2. I just remembered a long-forgotten definition of a fair price that I thought was quite apt:

    What a willing but not anxious seller is willing to accept and what a willing but not anxious buyer is prepared to pay.

    Free-lance translator short of work………………………….


  3. Food for thought indeed! I would love to be able to respond in detail but right now we’ve got too much [decently paid :)] work to complete in a hurry that I should be prioritising – and shall now return to, immediately if not sooner. All the best! Michal


  4. The logical conclusion of your premise is that, all other things being equal, for a quality-conscious buyer, it’s riskier to buy from a translation agency than from an individual freelancer. I’d never thought of it quite that way before. Interesting.


  5. “I’d never thought of it quite that way before. Interesting.”

    Well, do you think that a quality-conscious buyer is more likely to get his money’s worth:

    1. By working with an ISO this-or-that-certified translation agency that uses 3 to 5 quality-assurance stages (at least based on what the agency is saying), without knowing how much this agency in fact pays the actual translator, or

    2. By developing a long-term relationship with an experienced translator who is known to the client and who gets to keep all of the money that is paid by the client for the actual translation?


    • You don’t need to convince me – I’m already there. I just hadn’t seen the point argued in this particular way before.


      • Sounds like your job is to keep correcting my French, and my job is to keep expanding your horizons.


  6. I would recommend to the end-customer to call at least 3 suppliers and ask all sorts of questions in order to know a) what he really needs and b) what the market can offer him. Plus he might want to get recommendations. I think LinkedIn was going to start a recommendation system.

    That’s the only way to know what you can get for what price. The person needs to do that research work only once, probably, but it can save him a lot of money (Is the translation for publication or for comprehension only? Does everything have to be translated? Should only the final version of the source text be translated?) and/or disappointment (Should the source text be proofread before sending to translation? Do I already have a vocabulary database or parallel texts on the same subject in the requested languages? Should the translation really be split over several translators or is it not that urgent? Etc.)…


  7. “I would recommend to the end-customer to call at least 3 suppliers and ask all sorts of questions …..”

    The problem is, the hypothetical legal secretary I am imagining in my post has a job to do and probably a very limited amount of time because she has plenty of other work too.

    But if what is needed is a patent translation, as long as she goes with a well established service that specializes in patents, preferably a specialized translator rather than an agency, most of these questions are not really necessary.

    The translator usually just needs to know how the translation will be used (as reference for existing technology or to file a new patent application in English).


  8. […] I am trying to imagine a client who is looking for a price for a certain type of translation, for example a new and thus relatively inexperienced legal secretary at a patent law firm. Many are part…  […]


  9. […] St. Jerome: a good role model for translators? Spotlight on Literary Translator Pat Dubrava What Is The Correct Price for a Translation? Join the Terminology Summer School 2013! I’m SO Glad I’m a Native English Speaker […]


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