Knowing Your Units: Translations by the Pound?

The Curse of the Unit of Measure

Have you ever attended a local farmer’s market? If you are like me, you probably were mesmerized by the diverse produce and lively activity. I always notice the excitement and joy on people’s faces as they buzz between different farm stands like a bee.

Shopping at the farmer’s market is fun. You might get a bunch of carrots, a pint of berries, a pound of beans, and a bushel of apples to make your favorite applesauce. And you’d better know your units of measure if you want to speak the farmer’s lingo. You could ask for 40 green beans, but you would likely get a confused look in return.

So, why do we measure quantity in so many ways?

Well, practicality is one reason. Counting beans would be tedious and take a long time. Weighing them is so much easier and faster. Some units of measure have historic roots. “Bushel” is an unusual unit of measure for most non-farmers. Interestingly, in the US a bushel is only used to measure dry quantities. In the UK, it can be applied to both liquid and dry quantities. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term bushel was derived from the French word boissel, which comes from the old French term boisse (a measure of grain).

Buying Translations by the Pound

Although the localization industry bears very little resemblance to a farmer’s market, it too uses units of measure to quantify items. For example, the industry often uses word counts for estimating translation effort. And it has been a viable unit of measure for a long time. This is especially true for repetitive, technical content with significant reuse potential and translation memory (TM) leveraging.

Proponents might argue that translation effort is proportionate to the volume of written content. In contrast, opponents might counter that translation by the word is not appropriate for all written content and translation tasks. Because the required work can differ regardless of word count, the concepts of effort and value can get lost.

The preference for a specific unit of measure is often a matter of who is buying and who is selling. A translator wants fair compensation for the required effort to produce the expected translation quality. A translation buyer, on the other hand, looks for the best value for the paid price.

These two viewpoints can oppose each other and leave a lot of room for ambiguity. From the buyer’s perspective, quoting hourly translations can feel arbitrary and be perceived as a bottomless pit. For the seller, per-word pricing can promote a transactional, volume-by-the-pound service mindset. And this can diminish the creativity and contributions of human translators.

Finding a Middle Ground

In general, assessing translation effort is at the discretion of the seller, using experience and knowledge. And this can also lead to different interpretations of the same scope of work. Translation projects often have the characteristics of building a prototype—no two projects are exactly the same. Therefore, procuring translation services is more complex than buying off-the-shelf products. Off-the-shelf products are very tangible to a buyer because you can assess the finished product before making your purchasing decision.

In contrast, quantifying translation effort sometimes feels obscure to a buyer. Actively invested buyers tend to be more knowledgeable and understand the intricacies of translation services. However, if the seller-buyer relationship is lacking trust and confidence, the discussion often loses sight of needs and expectations. Typically, price becomes the focus in these situations.

From the perspective of a seller, an hourly rate provides the flexibility to balance effort and quality. In addition, it better accommodates diverse project scopes and unique requirements. Using word counts could misrepresent the actual effort for some work and result in frustration for both parties.

Also, buyers could perceive hourly translation services as more costly compared to the same work quoted on a per-word basis. This perception can be rooted in past (bad) experiences or a lack of understanding of the involved translation services. A per-word rate sometimes dilutes the skill of a translator because word counts do not reflect efficiency.

The Pros and Cons

Ideally, translation services should make use of the units of measure that best capture the required effort to produce the desired deliverable. Of course, this also implies that buyers and sellers consider project constraints such as cost and time.

Most translation projects do not allow the time for the perfect deliverable. As a result, translations are a compromise of opposing forces. The key is to balance them and find the best outcome. Following is a brief look at the pros and cons of different units of measure for quantifying translation services.

Per-Word Pricing


  • Easy to understand
  • Suitable for repetitive, technical content
  • Preferred for projects that use TMs/CAT tools


  • One-size-fits-all (may not accurately capture effort)
  • Can be more expensive compared to hourly translations
  • Not suitable for all translation tasks and languages

Hourly Pricing


  • Suitable for all translation tasks and languages
  • Can be cheaper than per-word translations
  • Able to adjust hours based on effort


  • Requires experience to accurately quantify effort
  • Can be perceived as arbitrary
  • Can result in more complex quotes

Flat-Rate Pricing


  • Easy to understand
  • Easy to measure
  • Predictable costs


  • Limited to specific deliverables/documents
  • Requires consistent project scopes/sizes
  • Can misrepresent actual effort for varying project scopes


Quantifying translation services is essential to delivering predictable services. Generally, buyers appreciate transparency and want to understand how price and value relate. At the same time, sellers want fair compensation for the deliverable they produce.

Overall, translation services must accommodate diverse project scopes and produce a wide range of deliverables. Therefore, applying the right unit of measure to quantify effort and costs is integral to effective translation services.

In response, the localization industry introduced different pricing models. Three common approaches include per-word pricing, hourly pricing, and flat-rate pricing. Each type offers advantages and disadvantages based on the needed services and required deliverables.

Although per-word pricing is the most common approach, hourly services offer the greatest flexibility for buyers and sellers. Still, many buyers favor per-word translation because of its transparency and predictability. Moreover, there is a general misconception that hourly translations are more expensive.

However, smart buyers recognize that procuring translation services is never a one-sided engagement. Thus, understanding available pricing options for a given need and project scope can help reduce cost and improve quality at the same time.

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