The Difficult Art of Budgeting for Translation

October 3, 2009

Successful Product Manager's Handbook

What you need to know in order to budget right and for less money

For a majority of companies, being able to estimate the cost of translation remains an impenetrable mystery. But staying in the dark can end up being surprisingly expensive

What the hell is this? And why does it cost so damn much?" Such exclamations can be heard with increasing frequency from upper management when first seeing the translation costs topping their budget.

The question that inevitably follows is: "What can we do to cut these costs?"

This article hopes to tell you just that. But first, let's deal with the issue—why does pharma translating cost so much?

Many factors

In the past five years, language requirements have multiplied. Companies routinely translate into up to 20 languages just to enter markets and stay competitive. Pricing varies as well, depending on function and format. For instance:

Languages The most obvious variable is language itself. Costs depend on number of available linguists working in a given language, the difficulty of translating and/or formatting a language, and the demand for a language.

Western European languages tend to be the most commonly translated. French, Italian, German and Spanish ("FIGS"), Portuguese, Swedish and Dutch, for example, all have a fairly wide range of linguistic pricing. The Scandinavian languages can be twice as costly as, say Spanish or French. These more expensive languages tend to be more specialized and have fewer native-speaking professional translators doing the work. Eastern European languages such as Slovak, Polish, and Croatian often are lumped and are by and large, cheaper than their Western counterparts.

Similarly, there is a high variance in costs for Asian languages. Japanese and Korean are typically quite a bit more expensive than Chinese, for instance.

Then there are languages like Arabic, Hebrew, or some of the Indian dialects that have different character sets, desktop publishing rules and software, and relatively few professional linguists. These are typically very expensive.

And even within a language there are variances. Spanish for the United States or Central America can have different costs than Spanish for Europe.

And whether you are translating into or from English affects the cost as well.

Document format. The most common types are traditional publications like instructions for use (IFUs), labels, manuals, and marketing brochures. New media documents refer to computer-based training modules or videos, which are often delivered via the Web or through learning management systems. Software occupies a category all its own. And then there is a catch-all category of projects like scanned documents, PDF files, and handwritten faxes.

Most translation agencies base their processes on traditional documents, which are executed in common softwares like Microsoft Word, Framemaker, or InDesign. Text is easy to extract and work with.

New media is an ever-evolving field, and projects are not easily quoted or estimated since the engineering time can vary wildly from one project to another.

Software strings have their own quirks and nuances, such as character limitations and regression testing, that need to figure into a project.


The nature of the content also influences costs. Technical content is the most common and the easiest to quote. Marketing content can be more expensive, since it often amounts to copy editing or rewriting in another language, more than translating. This is because culture and context, as well as the importance of nuance and accuracy of tone, figures into the translation. Training content can be similar to marketing. On the other hand, software translation is an art in and of itself. Software translators often translate single phrases, out of context, and are constrained by the number of letters they can use to fit a given space.


Faced with different variances, your best bet when budgeting for translation jobs is to budget them separately rather than lumping them all together.

Crunching numbers

After languages, format and content type are determined, the real nuts and bolts of translation cost are determined by these variables:

  • Word count (this is typically the source word count)

  • Page count

  • The amount of text in graphics that needs to be extracted, translated, and then rebuilt in the target language

  • Project management time—some projects are more product manager-intensive than others

  • Engineering time—also known as desktop publishing or formatting time

  • Reviews—who does final language reviews—you, or the translation agency?

Translation memory

If you've had any discussions with a translation agency, chances are you've heard the term "translation memory" or "TM."

A TM is essentially a database that stores translated phrases from past projects for use in subsequent projects.

Translation memory has many obvious advantages—consistency and turnaround time being two. But the most obvious and important advantage is cost savings.

Translation agencies won't charge you for text that has already been translated and will give discounts on a sliding scale for different levels of what are called fuzzy matches—phrases that have 75 percent or more of their words already translated.

So, say you have a document containing 30,000 words—a 100-page manual or clinical report if you assume 300 words per page. Let's assume the agency will charge 25 cents per word for all linguistic work in a given language, including translation, editing, and proofreading. You could expect to pay a little over $7,525 for this work, plus the additional fees for project management and engineering time.

Now, let's imagine a previous iteration of the same document had been translated six months earlier. Maybe half of the text was updated to reflect some product changes or new trial features. When the document is run against the TM, here are the results.

Creating a Translation Budget

The net words now requiring translation have significantly reduced what will be your final cost.


Estimated on an hourly basis, the work-time rates are based on analysis of past projects, both for your company and also for other clients with similar work. These metrics should be updated and checked periodically to stay current. Work-times are usually calculated based on page counts, word count, type of document, or format and process required. Some languages can influence these costs as well, such as Arabic, in which text flows in the opposite direction on a page and has special considerations.

Once you know how an agency prices translation work, ask to see the pricing broken down in a quote, by language and by category (linguistic, engineering, PM).

Jason Heaton is a marketing manager at ForeignExchange Translations. He can be reached at

Related Content: