3 Reasons Why Good Translation Is Expensive and It’s Totally Worth It

My localization service is often five times more expensive than the lowest bidders on translation projects on freelancer.com. Despite that, I’m continuously chosen for many projects. 59 out of 60 of my past clients have given me a perfect five-star rating in terms of quality of work, communication, expertise, and would hire me again. The 60th client (also one of my first) gave me four stars. My rate is between 0.08 and 0.15 USD per word of English to Japanese translation, depending on the complexity of the medium, topic, and the format of the original document(s). According to Proz, the market price of translation from English to Japanese is 0.09 to 0.13 USD per English word. Even if I offered only a basic translation, my price is still very competitive.

On the other hand, there are translators for Japan who charge less than 0.05 USD per word, and they get jobs and positive feedback on freelancer.com. How is that possible? How can the price of this service be so different? Unfortunately, many translators out there use machine translation or are non-native Japanese speakers who don’t care about the quality of their work or the success of your business. Employers may either not know how to read Japanese, or they blindly trust that an accurate translation has been delivered. I once was presented with a “Japanese” website for proofreading. It was actually in Chinese; the employer had apparently paid for machine translation, and they hadn’t even gotten the target language right. To make matters worse, the machine translator had been given a five-star review by the employer!

You may ask yourself, “Do I really need to hire a localization expert?” “Is there really such a big difference between localization and translation?” The answer to both of these questions is yes, you should hire a localization expert if you want a high-quality translation. In the long run, you will actually save money by not needing to hire a second (or third, or fourth…) translator to fix the low-cost translation. There are many benefits of focusing on localization and not simply translation.

Localization experts are creative and goal-oriented

Are you afraid that someday, robots will replace you at your job? I am not afraid that localization experts will be replaced by machines. Some aspects of translation, such as financial records, can be replaced by machine translation. They are very logical and the vocabulary used is very limited. Many translation projects require creativity and expertise in various fields.

Do you want to simply translate, or do you want to use translation to achieve something bigger? There are several types of documents where linguistic integrity must be protected. When you create a website, draft a contract, or write software in your native language, you have a specific goal in mind, such as:

  • selling your product or service by creating a kickass website with cool sales copies
  • formulating legally binding agreements such as contracts, terms and conditions, or privacy policies
  • making a user-friendly, intuitive user interface with short but clear instructions and consistent keywords

Companies hire copywriters, lawyers and UX experts with typography knowledge. But when those same companies want to translate, they hire an ordinary native speaker with no background in any of the aforementioned fields. Why? Translating text by machine or cheap translators will not further your company’s message because it has not been tailored to the country of the target language.

Localization is translating a company’s message in a source language to a target language and optimizing the message to a business goal such as communicating customers into buying your service. Localization takes into account the legal, linguistic, cultural, and aesthetic aspects of the target language. Web content translation has five often overlooked elements to make localization contribute to your business goals. Unfortunately, there are many translators who do not care about these elements because of two reasons:

They can’t be bothered to create a beautiful copy by being creative because they get paid for the number of words they translate

Translators don’t need to take responsibility for the content of the words, just the words themselves, making it “safer” to follow the content of the original text. This kind of thinking can lead to issues of the company’s original message being “lost in translation”, like Nike’s Fa-fu blunder

  • The website that they translated helped sell their client’s product or service well
  • The contract they translated saves troubles
  • The software user interface they translated is easy to use

Good translators are honest with themselves and with you, and they will tell you what they cannot do

Haruki Murakami is one of the best modern Japanese novelists, but I am sure he is not one of the best female teen fashion magazine writers. Translators are like writers, there are things they can translate well and things they cannot translate well.

However, not many translators tell you they can’t translate your document because that means they cannot secure the offered job and get paid. They know and I know that not many clients actually proofread or claim the quality of translation is poor. I have seen many poor translations and proofread many poor translations after my clients already paid the translators and gave them five stars on freelancer.com.

You get what you pay for. Eventually, you will find out the translation is low in quality because your websites don’t perform well or when customers point out that text is difficult to understand. You will need to hire different translators, have them proofread your website, and hire them at a rate three to five times higher than the first translator. I know this because some of my translation projects have been like this.

Good translators are honest. They will tell you that they don’t send price proposals to projects that are out of the realm of their expertise. They honestly tell you that they need more time when they are busy instead of delivering a lousy translation. Hiring good translators will save you time and money in the long run…and save you from bad publicity.

Good translators are also good consultants

People think customers have power and control over your business. In the translation business, that’s not always the case. Customers tend to know little about translation. Many of them think that translation is a simple task that can be done by almost any native speaker who understands the source language, and there are no quality assurance processes in place as in manufacturing.

However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Good translation utilizes several quality assurance processes, including making glossaries (a keyword list to ensure consistent translation) and tracking issues. Localization is even more complicated because it involves marketing, legal, design and technical processes depending on the topic and medium. These were covered in an earlier article, “5 overlooked elements of Web Content Translation that makes successful localization”.

Even the most basic translation service requires at least a glossary. Localization requires localized sales copy, design, and content. Both of them require good communication between translators and customers. However, not many translators or even translation agencies give you this advice, because the time they spend on correspondence are often non-billable.

Skilled, creative and goal-oriented localization experts are more expensive because they provide more complicated and creative services that require more time and attention. They also add more value to your message on the global market. Even though they may be up to five times more expensive than non-creative translation, and even though machine translation costs only the time it takes to plug text into a translation program, good translation that actually serves your company’s purpose is a shrewd investment.

32 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why Good Translation Is Expensive and It’s Totally Worth It”

  • Dear Masaharu,

    I would like to thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    It is indeed very difficult to be a translator/interpreter on a continuously growing market that is filled with “i’vespentcoupleofmonthsinNAMEACOUNTRY”-translators, as we, as professional translators, are not trusted anymore due to “high” rates.

  • So true. Thank you very much. Your article will hopefully help educate the public that translation is not an easy task and thus not cheap. Because very often cheap is also shoddy.

  • Thanks for the great article. It’s good to keep all this in mind when we try to “educate” our clients.
    (Just on a side note, you might want to delete the extra “be” in the sentence “They can’t be bothered to be create beautiful copy by being creative because they get paid for number of words they translate” – otherwise your article is flawless.)

  • Completely agree with Msaharu !!! There are many issues in the translation world today, one of the thorniest — in my opinion — being the indiscriminate use of CAT Tools !! Yes, because many amateurs or even non-translators think they are able to “do” translations merely because they have acquired a CAT software !! How wrong !! Translation is an intellectual undertaking, and it requires — in addition to perfect knowledge of both languages — a broad cultural base, good schooling, experience…..and TALENT !! Greetings to all from Brazil !!

  • Hello from South Korea 🙂 Cannot agree more to your article. It is quite difficult to differentiate “good” translators and those who are not — whether the reason be clients not ‘educated’ enough or translators not promoting themselves enough. I just have one question: how’s Japan in recognizing a professional translator? Here in Korea earning MA in interpreting&translation is the first step to become one. Love to hear from you.

  • To our fortune, article like yours leave an open window to clients who just don’t understand what’s behind the scenes when a project is given to a professional translator. Translating, is a skill that is polished every single day; therefore, our role is always changing. Translators we have studied and prepared ourselves to offer an excellent service, don’t dim your light due to “other” kinds of translators or machine translators.

  • When I decided to evolve from part-time to full-time translation one of the first places I signed up to was freelancer.com. After some months there, I had to leave, because it was impossible to find any work with the rock-bottom fees some offered. Have things changed or is it your language pair?
    I’d also like to mention that, although the term “Localisation” was born regarding software development and its translation, the meaning of the term “adapting to the local”, makes it equally valid when refering to many other types of translation, i.e. advertising, marketing, newsletters, internal company messages and others targeted to specific countries or regions, so separating localisation from translation (neutral, non-localised), in my opinion is no longer reasonable without adding the surname: localised translation, neutral translation, non-localised translation or whatever.

  • Hello!
    Your article definitely has the point. I’m currently working as a translator and I often feel like the effort I put into my work is underestimated. It’s nice to see that there still are people not taking translators for granted.
    By the way, I don’t like the scheme Freelancer.com uses. In my opinion, it’s far better to pay a small entry payment on an online marketplace, not a commission. For example, I mostly find projects on this freelance board: XPlace – it has a lot of interesting opportunities, higher rates than the majority of other websites for freelancers, and no commission fee.

  • Translation is not only a language skill but also a mixture of our rational and our emotional side, and that is not easy to get. That’s why good translation is expensive.

  • Excellent article and very true! We are professionals, we have studied translation, we had analysed the subject, the tone, everything needed to be taken into account.
    I’ve just finished a “proofread” job…with bits not translated at all, others were in Italian (I translate from Eng-Spa). So I contacted them to say I won’t do it unless you pay me the translation rate as this is what you need. They realised and they agreed.

  • You’re absolutely right, Masaharu san! Machine translation is clearly overrated just because it’s cheaper and -sadly enough- the end client often does not even know how the translation process went by.
    ありがとうございます!

  • Masaharu – chan ( I’ll explain myself later why ” -chan” and not “-san” or “-sama”),your ” Chinese Tattoo – Noodle Soup” metaphor is so… fresh, so descriptive and juicy that it really did the trick: it called for a good deal of focusing from all your readers from second 2. This brings me to # 1: You deliver concentrate lessons on this issue of ours – COMMUNICATION SERVICES.. Cheap or expensive – swift and inspired – or sweating blood and gritting teeth, translations (the real stuff – not machine-fuck!), are nothing but perennial acts of courage of Men defying God – after He has mercifully thrown us all into this Babel Tower! Merciful – because what are we, translators, without a Babel Tower ? Nothing; or – maybe – just politicians ! And I must admit that your Japanese clients should feel lucky to have you. Of course, it would be more convincing for me to read one of your belletristic translations from Japanese into English… I wrote ” chan” instead of “san” mainly for two reasons: 1) I was already an “apprentice translator/ interpreter” facing the same challenges you have pinned – down here – about the time you were born and 2) Because of the way you dressed in that funny, self – ironic T – shirt with the photographic camera printed on it, saying: “look, I am just another typical Japanese tourist, clicking my way through your civilization” Piece of cake !! : Jokes notwithstanding, I think we should organize some webinars – with you at the desk – about translations – as a bread provider. I am a communication freak myself – a Romanian, born and schooled in Sankt Petersburg, a dropout of the International School for diplomatic off-springs. I first spoke German with my granny ( just to annoy my Russian Kindergarten pals), than my native Romanian , my “environmental’ Russian and, last but not least, I learned English : the language where I truly found myself. Despite of the massive import of English words into Russian, I still think one of the most difficult belletristic translations would be from Russian into American English. Could anyone tell me why ?

  • I translate into English.I like to remain in contact with the author to seek to maintain the author’s “voice”. I am sometimes frustrated when working with an author who speaks English very well. The author suggests synonyms for the terminology I have chosen. I may dislike the “synonym” and feel using it detracts from the register of the tale. If, after I explain why I prefer my word over the one he selected, he perseveres I concede. Then I wish my name would not be included as the translator.

    • Hi, yes, that is an all-too-common problem. I tell clients at the beginning that all comments and suggestions are to be in the source language, and include an explanation of why the change is suggested. And I take your “Then I wish my name would not be included …” a critical step further. I say, “Okay, I will do as you request but then you must promise me that my name will never ever be used in connection with this text.” More often than not this makes them think twice. Usually, they stop making ANY suggestions, and suddenly all comments are couched in polite language.

  • Thank you for the great article, Masaharu! However, I am sure robots will replace translators one day. Though, literary and creative translation tasks will be quite a challenge for them.

  • Masaharu,

    Excellent post. Companies hiring permanent employees to do translation or localisation can interview and test candidates, check references, etc. But how does someone hiring a freelancer know who is really good? The only “references” are inaccurate star ratings and comments from people who don’t know the languages. In that situation it’s quite reasonable to hire the translator with a 4.9 rating charging $0.07/word rather than the translator with a 4.9 rating charging $0.14/word, don’t you think?

    An interesting follow-on post might be, “If I needed top-tier translation, here’s how I would choose a freelance translator for a language that no one in my company speaks.”

    Someone hiring should, 1) understand that better translations are worth the extra cost, and 2) know how they can be confident they are getting a better translator for the additional cost, without a huge vetting effort that is out of proportion for a small or medium job. Your informative post, above, helps greatly with the first. The second still stumps many who want to do the right thing, but don’t know how.

  • I recently did a project involving a significant amount of translation for the website, social media and also marketing oriented mails. At the end, I couldn’t help feeling very undervalued and misunderstood by my organisation for whom the most important was the time taken to complete a translation! I was at a complete loss to explain that the choice of a single word can sometimes involve so much research. It made me realise that clients just cannot understand what a good translation takes and so I really enjoyed reading your very well written article. Happy to have people to share this with!

  • Masaharu: Thanks for the article — probably the best I have read on localization. I believe that efforts such as yours will go a long way towards “elevating” the “translator rates” discussion (and hopefully the fees). There are many different aspects to the “low rates” issue, and you have touched on the most important ones. One of the “overall” issues — at least in the US — is the devaluation of writing per se (independent of translating). This “devaluation” has resulted in extremely low rates for the written word. At one time, $1 a word was considered a “fair” price for what freelance writers should be charging. Believe it or not, this was in the 1970s (or perhaps even earlier). It is depressing to even mention how far below this rate freelance writers (in the US) are paid. Often, writers even work for free as they are promised “exposure.”

  • I think it depends on the language pair you translate. As you said, you translate into Japanese, and not too many people can do it.

  • Domo Arigato, Masaharu-San _/\_
    I have been a specialized translator for almost 30 years now, in a very common language pair (Sp-En/ En-Sp) and I totally agree with your post. Many times I have been that translator hired to “fix” a poor CAT translation provided by translators-wannabe. It is disheartening to see how little the customers really appreciate good localization and communication work. I am close to walk away from an 8-year contract with a government agency specifically because someone has pitched them they can translate 5,000 words in 1 second and they are now questioning my work and squeezing me as much as they can in the last month that I have left of my contract that I don’t intend to renew. (The only “translator” I know capable of doing 5,000 words in a second, with absolutely no effort other than copy/paste is “John/Jane GoogleTranslate”.) I am fine and I can walk away with my chin up because I did my job, I followed my ethics and I gave my best. I would love to be that fly on the wall though to see their results with this “magician”, especially considering that the source texts that the customer provided 90% of the time, other than being very complex, were truly poorly written, with no punctuation whatsoever (without exaggeration, sentences can be 10-lines long!)… good luck with that Mr/Ms John/Jane GoogleTranslate! Good luck with the overwork and the underpay.
    *Rant over, Sorry!* Wishing my serious colleagues in the world, all my best … Vini, Vidi, Vici… Arrivederci with love

  • Dear Masaharu,
    Thank you very much for your post. I completely agree with you, I’ve got just the same thoughts!
    Best regards

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