Best Practices

The Translation Buyer's Dilemma

You are a translation buyer with a task: pick out the best vendor for your company. Sounds simple. Compare costs, turnaround times, and quality, and you will clearly understand who will work best for your organization’s needs. Not so fast…
Gabriel Fairman
2 min

You are a translation buyer with a task: pick out the best vendor for your company. Sounds simple. Compare costs, turnaround times, and quality, and you will clearly understand who will work best for your organization’s needs. Not so fast…

A deeper dig into this matter will show it’s a whole can of worms. But fear not, we will show you how to steer things in the right direction.

The Cost Comparison Fallacy

Most translation services charge different rates per word according to their language pair. They may charge for instance $0.24 into Japanese and $.20 into French just as an example. But agencies don’t necessarily count words the same. While some may charge the same amount for every word in a document, others charge proportionately less for words that are leveraged as repetitions or as translation memory matches.Consider this:

  • Compay A charges $0.24 per word into Greek and
  • Company B charges $0.17 per word.

Go with company B right? Try again. Company A does not charge for perfect translation memory matches, charges only 10% for repetitions.Now consider that your file has 10,000 words with 3000 perfect translation memory matches and 1000 words as repetitions. Company B will charge you $1700. Company A will charge you $1464 (6000*.24+3000*0+1000*0.024).

In this scenario Company A is more expensive per word than Company B but still comes out in the end as the least expensive option.But there is more.Different Companies charge for more or fewer items when they quote.Some companies for instance may charge separately for:

  • Project management,
  • Terminology management,
  • Translation memory clean-up,
  • QA,
  • Engineering,
  • and other components.

While others may bundle many of these items on the per-word cost. So per-word is not really per-word. If you want to have a clearer idea of pricing you are better off comparing actual quotes.Solved right? No. Some agencies have the practice of having “light” quotes at the onset of a relationship and then loading them up with line items as the relationship evolves.

They are tuned into the idea that it’s key to charm at the beginning as it’s the most critical juncture of any business services partnership. The easiest way to mitigate this is by not only approving a quote but ensuring that the SOW has carefully laid out what items will be included in your quotes.While that helps, it doesn’t fully address the cost issue as companies charge different hourly rates and have potentially very different productivity standards.Consider again that:

  • Company A charges QA at $90 per hour,
  • Company B charges QA at $50 per hour.

Seems like Company B is the most cost-effective.But Company A outputs twice as many pages per hour (30 vs. 15 to be precise). In the end, Company A seems more expensive but turns out to be less expensive and gets you back your deliverables sooner because of their greater productivity.So you need to also establish productivity parameters across the board in order to ensure you are comparing apples to apples.

Translation cost seems simple enough to compare but when you start to examine closely quoting methodology it’s easy to see that it’s not that easy to compare costs at a line item level without understanding the mechanics of the cost composition and the overall quoting process.That’s also when it’s a huge advantage to work with companies that offer a software-based approach to quoting.

This ensures that you have perfect predictability rather than humans making decisions that can often be unstandardized when it comes to quoting. If you need to fix something, you can ensure you are working at the root level.

The Turnaround Fallacy

How many words can your company ensure per day? Company A says 2000, Company B says 3000. Again, simple - Company B is a better choice as they output 50% more words per day. Right? Try again.

Company A for instance starts counting those words from the minute you give them their go-ahead while Company B has 1 buffer day to place the job with their translators and 1 buffer day to prepare assets for delivery. In this scenario Company, A will deliver a file with 4000 words in two business days whereas the “faster” Company B will take 3.5 Business days.

With bigger assignments Company B becomes more and more competitive while less competitive with shorter ones.So it’s not just about promised turnaround times, it’s about how fast your company can deliver once you have an ongoing relationship and how your requests match up with their ability to measure and deliver on turnaround times.

This is where again it’s super helpful to work with software that calculates turnaround times algorithmically rather than by linear calculation as you can rest assured that every translation job is completed in its fastest possible form without compromising quality.

This diminishes back and forth between client and project manager and builds trust as issues can be ironed out at their root level instead of just addressed symptomatically.

The Quality Fallacy

If you thought that comparing cost and turnaround times was hard, wait till you examine quality. People have a hard time agreeing on what translation quality means, let alone managing it effectively for your organization. Some people believe that a high-quality translation means the absence of errors. Others believe that a high-quality translation is one that pleases your internal marketing people in a given country and others place the burden on how it resonates with their consumers. So the first question is who gets to determine good or bad?The second question is how do you continuously measure and improve the quality of your translations. At the onset of your engagement, your new agency will likely ensure that their best translators are the ones who are taking your translation jobs. As the engagement progresses though, it becomes harder and harder to sustain that practice and as more translators take your assignments quality is no longer the same.That’s why it's more important in my opinion to evaluate how well your supplier can manage quality over time rather than just deliver “quality” at the onset. Do they have a TQMS (Translation Quality Management System) in place, a framework that allows them to provide you with clear reporting on how languages compare against each other, the kinds of mistakes that are being made, and how to ensure that month after month things are flowing on a positive direction? That is far more significant than how well the initial translations resound with your team. While that can be indicative of translation quality over time it is more likely just indicative of how successful that Company was in their initial attempt. It does not mean that they will get better over time, nor that they will be able to turn around gnarly quality challenges that will inevitably pop up.

The Intangible Factors

How fast does your agency get back to you? Do they operate only during local business hours or are they 24/7? Are they 24/7 on paper or can they really provide you with tip-top account contextualized responses at any time of the day?

Are the responses fast, clear, and solve the issue or are they fast but just defer the solution to another team member? Even if you have an SLA in place it’s not enough to look at the response time frame. It’s necessary to look at the final issue resolution time frame for a better understanding of the health of the engagement.

Does your agency behave like a true business partner with long-term thinking or are they operating transactionally?

Is their approach focused on building out real solutions or just taking business for as long as they can?What kinds of tools does your agency have? What kinds of tools do they make available for your company to manage their business?

Do their tools make people’s lives easier or are they just one more useless login remember?These are all questions that are not easily answered but they are perhaps the ones that most drive customer satisfaction up or down.


Buyers tend to try to commoditize services in an attempt to easily compare suppliers. But it turns out that the more you commoditize, the more likely you are to overlook the key decision-making framework to select a good supplier for your organization: are they really the best fit for my needs over time or do they just check the boxes?

It’s hard to answer this without really testing these different services over a certain period of time. Even though that can be initially costly and burdens your overhead, it increases of selecting a vendor that truly is the best fit for you.

Buyers also tend to consider company size, the number of employees, and revenue as determining factors for quality of service and while this may be true in some cases, it’s far from a science. Many service companies across the board struggle immensely with QoS as they scale.As with any decision. The more granular you get, the harder it becomes to discern between different options.

But the more you are able to compare your options in practice rather than theory, the more likely you are to pick the best potential fit for your organization.

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