Posted by: patenttranslator | August 21, 2013

Quoting a Translation Price Is a Fine Art

Her name was Kikuchiyo
Telling me to forget everything
Our only night together
She vanished
Leaving only her sweet scent lingering softly
In the fog… in the fog
Her name was Kikuchiyo

The first translation for which I got paid really well was something that I delivered in person as a stack of typewritten pages to a translation agency near the main train station in downtown Tokyo in the spring of 1986. I did not really consider myself a translator back then as I had a full-time job as an in-house gaijin (foreigner), in charge of liaison with foreign companies/occasional translations for an import-export company in Tokyo. But before I found that job, I mailed my résumé to a dozen translation agencies in Tokyo Yellow Pages, and some of them later contacted me with translation offers. This particular translation was from Russian to English, and it was about a gas pipeline project in Siberia.

I was so stupid back then that I did not even ask about the rate. I just told them, yes, I could do it, and I did it in my spare time.

And the agency paid me quite a bit more than I thought my translation would be worth to them, although they could have easily cheated me and I would not even notice. It must have been quite difficult back in mid eighties to find somebody for this particular job in Tokyo when the word Internet did not even exist.

These days, however, more than a quarter century later, I am always asked to quote a rate as well as the final cost before potential clients make one of the following three decisions:

1. Send the translation to me.

2. Send the translation to another outfit.

3. Decide not to have the document translated, usually because their client does not want to pay for it.

I am usually bidding against at least one more party, often more than one, who just like me, were found in a Google search. I don’t know who they are, although I can probably guess how much they will be bidding because I know how much translation agencies who come up in Google search pay their translators since I used to work for them, and I also know what is their typical profit margin.

Sometime I win, sometime I lose, and sometime the budget for the translation is just not there, especially if it is a very long translation.

I generally don’t even bother to respond if the would-be client has a free, throwaway e-mail address, usually Gmail or Yahoo, and I can’t find out who it is. Sometime the query is not from a potential client but from somebody who is just trying to figure out my rates. I can usually tell when this is the case and I ignore these people.

Most potential clients are probably looking for the cheapest rate, but if the price appears too low in comparison to other quotes, this would probably create doubts about the competency of the translator.

So quoting is a fine art these days for me, because a well placed quote can mean good work for me at a good rate for several days, or even several months, as well as a new additional client.

Quoting can be a very complicated process and not too many people may be able to estimate correctly how much the translation of a document in Japanese, German, French or another language to English would cost.

But technology simplified the process so that just about anybody can do it these days. There are just a few rules of thumb that one needs to keep in mind.

For example, if we stay with the languages mentioned above, two Japanese characters equal approximately one English word, one German word equals approximately 1.3 English words (due to numerous compound words in German, such as “Lichteintrittsőffnung”, which is only one word in German that would be translated into English “entry opening for light”, or four words in English). French tends to have more words in the French text than in the English translation for no particular reason, simply because French speakers tend to throw in a few extra words because they like words, etc.

Every language thus has its own rules for conversion of the word count, and even within a particular language combination, the count will depend to a considerable degree on the style. For example in Japanese, a lot depends on whether the writer uses a lot of characters, which were originally Chinese, rather than words written in two Japanese “alphabets” called hiragana and katakana.

A lot of characters means a lot of English words, a lot of “alphabet words” means fewer English words. This means, for example, that Japanese patents about chemistry will have fewer English words than Japanese patents about physics, electronics, or mechanical engineering or medical devices because chemical terms are often transliterated with katakana into Japanese without a lot of characters. For example, Microsoft Word will tell you that there are 5 words in English in the term polyhydroxycarboxylic acid amide salt derivative, while ポリヒドロキシカルボン酸アミド塩誘導体 (porihidorokishikarubon san amido shio yūdōtai), the equivalent word in Japanese, has 14 katakana characters and 5 kanji characters, for a total of 19 characters.

But technology made things easier. Patents can be downloaded from the Japanese Patent Office, European Patent Office or World Intellectual Property Patent Office as a file which can be opened in a word processor and the word processor will then do the counting for you. As long as you know the rules of thumb, which are different for different languages, your estimate should be fairly accurate.

Even if the original document is available only as a PDF file, Adobe offers a subscription to a very good conversion tool for 20 dollars a year, which converts PDF files to MS Word files, although only in some languages.

Of course, some translators and translation agencies base their price quote on the count of lines (in German), or on the count of characters (in Japanese or Chinese) in the original text without a conversion to English word count, which would make my introductory lesson to preparing price quotes for clients …. completely useless.


  1. […] Her name was Kikuchiyo Telling me to forget everything Our only night together She vanished Leaving only her sweet scent lingering softly In the fog… in the fog Her name was Kikuchiyo The first tra…  […]


  2. Steve, Since you spoke about it: what is the typical profit margin of translation agencies who come up in Google search? And other agencies? Is it a percentage of what the translator and revisor cost them (and what is it), or a fixed amount? Thank you very much.


  3. As far as I can tell, 40 to 60%, which is to say that the agency typically charges the customer double of what it pays to the translator. Sometime it is more, but should it be often significantly less than 50%, a typical agency would probably not survive, unless it has an agreement with one or a few customers supplying it most of the time with lots and lots of work.

    I know a guy who is a specialized agency. He is incredibly busy most of the time and he tells me that his margin is lower than the typical margin.There are operations like that too. He still must be making a ton of money despite his relatively low margin.

    These are just my assumption based on my observations in my translation field, and things could be different in other fields.


    • Thank you, Steve. Instinctively, I would have added the cost of the translator + the revisor, then doubled the amount for the final customer. But that’s not how it works, apparently…


    • Sorry, that’s what you meant: charge double of what is paid to the translator (+ to the revisor, if needed).


    • Steve, you wrote: “unless it has an agreement with one or a few customers supplying it most of the time with lots and lots of work”.

      I guess either you trust that the customer will keep on giving you a lot of work and you give him a rebate on each order, or you reimburse the customer at the end of the year, based on the number of words you have invoiced him during the past year?

      In the first case, you take a big risk.

      In the second case, it means reimbursing money – if you can… Or giving a huge rebate on the first order(s) of the following year…

      Do you know how these sorts of agreements work in general ?

      Thank you very much.


  4. The reviser is often the project manager or the owner of the agency in the case of a small outfit.

    If you work with a good translator, sending the the translation to an external proofreader is often asking for trouble.

    But of course, many agencies feel that they need to do that because they have no other way to ascertain the quality of the translation.


    • Yep!… Great piece of advice. Thank you, Steve!


  5. If only there were seminars on this kind of thing at the annual ATA conference, I might consider attending. 😉


  6. “Do you know how these sorts of agreements work in general ?”

    There are clients who need translations all the time and they can often get a discount from translation suppliers.

    1. For instance the government.

    In my field (patent translation), the Department of Justice commissions a great number of patents for translation every year. They have a bidding process, and a few agencies seem to win the bid every year based on the lowest rate. These agencies are also looking constantly for translators willing to work for the equivalent of about a half of the rate that most other agencies would pay.

    I used to work for 2 of these agencies 25 years ago when I had absolutely no experience – this is how I got my first experience in the field of translation of patents, back then only Japanese patents. But I worked for them only for a few months because as soon as I became more experienced, I was able to get work from agencies who paid more quite easily.

    2. Some patent law firms also have an enormous amount of work as they have turned themselves into a big patent litigation machine that consumes a lot of translations of patents every month.

    I still work for one agency (one guy) who specializes in this work, but only occasionally at this point. His (or the law firm’s that he is working for) deadlines are extremely brutal, you often need to be able to translate 4 thousand words a day because the great patent litigation machine can be insanely voracious, but he pays on delivery. You bill him 4 thousand dollars on Sunday night, on Wednesday you have his check. This guy told me that his profit margin is less than the typical margin of about 50%, but he has so much work that he still must be making a lot of money.

    He used to pay slightly better than average rates for many years, but now he seems to be paying slightly less than average rates, which is why I have not worked for him in months. That’s fine with me because I have more than enough of work from other sources (most of the time), and I am getting too old for such a high stress level with just about every job he has.

    3. The new Eldorado is third world countries, especially India.

    There must be many agencies in India who are able to charge much less than agencies in US or Europe because they pay much less translators who work for them. I assume that the quality of translations from this source must be pretty bad, although probably better than MT output. I don’t understand why translators who live in countries with a high cost of living would want to work for these outfits.

    I keep receiving resumes of translators who have Indian names and who want to translate for me Japanese and German patents to English, but I would not touch them with a 10 foot pole, especially since I can do most of the translations in this language combination myself.


  7. […] Quoting a Translation Price is a Fine Art ( […]


  8. Nice music with Pink Maritni, Steve. Thanks!

    But isn’t the name 菊千代 a bit post-modern? Many ancient noble families have their boys named first 菊千代 and change their names from this female name of Kikuchiyo to much more masculine names. Post-modern, because we don’t actually know if it is meant a female or a male in the song. 😮

    Ah, right, there was a 菊千代 in Kurosawa’s 七人の侍 (Seven Samurai), too. That funny Kikuchiyo was a farmers’ son faking a son of a noble family.


  9. @Wenjer

    Well, I like the song and the fact that a bunch of gaijins can appreciate Japanese music to the point that they can actually sing and play it very well. And Pink Martini can also do the same thing in French and Spanish and other languages. I really admire them.

    The only song that they did in a foreign language and that I don’t like was something in Russian. I forgot what it was but it has a woman’s name in the title.

    I thought that particular song was kind of dumb.

    I saw a number of interesting comments in Japanese under this video on Youtube. Several Japanese people said that it is so nice to see foreigners sing in Japanese so well, but another guy said something like “Is it just me or does anybody else also have the feeling that monsters are singing when foreigners sing “aaah”?



  10. […] Students Language Mindset List for the Class of 2017 How do I get started as a literary translator? Quoting a Translation Price Is a Fine Art A day in the life of a TermCoord trainee Zen and the Art of Review Comments Emma Donoghue and her […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: