Nothing to hide

Nothing to hide

Clients prefer per-word pricing

If, as I’m often told, project, instead of per word, pricing is the holy grail of translators, I’m about as far from finding it as the Monty Python knights from Spamalot. Like most translators I have my per word rates, which are not always the same for every job but which have gradually been rising ever since I started. I know I’m not the cheapest in my combinations and that I’m not the most expensive. But I increasingly read that I’m doing it all wrong and that I should be quoting prices per project and not by the word at all.

I understand the arguments, of course. Translation isn’t a commodity. Texts are different and pricing should reflect this. If you quote a per word price customers find it easier to beat you down. It’s all true. I realise it would probably be better to switch to per project pricing. There’s just one overwhelming problem: customers won’t wear it, or at least mine won’t, however hard I try (and I’ve really tried). Of course, with agencies, the battle’s already more or less lost. They ask you for a per-word rate and want to stick to it. Unlike many, I have no qualms about raising my rates with agencies. I simply tell them that is what I’m going to do and they either come with me or they don’t. If they don’t, I look for new clients. It really is that simple. But breaking away from a per-word rate would be impossible.

In my experience that’s what direct clients want too. I’ll give you a recent example. An important professional association in Catalonia came to me to ask about translating its website. I was delighted. It seemed a good opportunity and it also seemed a good chance to try to quote in this new “per project” way. Of course, I had to have some sort of basis to work on. Because that’s the advantage to us of quoting per word. We know roughly how long a particular job is going to take us from the length of the text to be translated. So, like it or not. our price is going to be related to the number of words. So, I counted the words, decided to work with a slightly higher rate than normal because I thought the potential client could afford it, and then I knocked a little off to make a more or less round figure.


“There’s your price!” I told the customer. “Ah, that means your per-word rate must be X.XX per word” was the client’s immediate response. I’d said nothing at all about a per-word rate, but the customer – not an agency or anyone apparently used to buying translations – immediately boiled down my carefully prepared “per project” quote to that.

It’s not the first time that’s happened to me. Several times I’ve been asked by direct clients when I’ve tried to quote per project “But how did you get that figure?” When you think about it you can hardly blame them, because when we quote per project we’re really doing what I was always told off for doing in maths lessons when I was a teenager: just writing down the answer without showing the working out. And in my experience people much prefer transparency. They want to see your working out. It may, of course, have been the fact that my rate was too high that cost me the job with that association, because I wasn’t chosen to translate the website. But I wouldn’t mind betting that it was the perception that I had something to hide.

There are plenty of colleagues who swear they use per project pricing successfully, at least with some clients. I’ve spoken to some who say it really is the best way. Maybe I’m in the wrong sector of the market or have particularly awkward clients. But I’m afraid I’ve had enough for now. For the foreseeable future, my prospective customers are going to continue to get a straightforward, understandable, per word rate. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.


  1. Hi Simon, sorry to hear you’ve had some bad experiences trying to charge a project price. The direct client’s reaction in this case was probably because he’d been quoted a per-word rate by the other translator(s) they contacted and they probably went with the cheapest rather than thinking you were trying to pull a fast one.
    Perhaps lump sums work best when they are rounded down rather than up. Obviously I don’t charge project prices all the time for the very reasons you mention in your post, but they can be useful in cases where a per-word price is deemed too high, but you don’t want to counter offer a whole cent or half cent (for example) decrease per word. Shaving a bit off in those circumstances can sometimes win you the job.
    I do still believe that the more we collectively try to change perception of our work, the better for all of us it will be in the long term and one day project prices could be the norm. But, at the same time, we need to look after our own individual interests in the interim, so I fully understand your point of view.

  2. Interesting, Simon! I’ve recently tried the project fee approach with great success for a consultancy client, i.e. not quite a direct client, but not a translation agency either. They were obviously used to dealing in project fees and just wanted the bottom line. No quibbles, happy to pay part in advance as it was the first time we’d worked together – I was really very impressed and will definitely consider doing it again. But as you say, I can’t see it working with agencies within the translation profession.

  3. In my experience, clients who ask for per-word prices are those who look for the least expensive service provider, all other considerations apart. Direct clients who I deal with usually prefer unambiguity and transparency (fixed price per project, no hidden surprises along the way) and expect me to do the maths (or simply prefer to know beforehand what the total cost is). I know for a fact that in many cases my fixed price quote was decisive to help land the contract, even if this price was higher than some still-to-be-calculated multiple as quoted by competitors. Unit price is an essential indicator for one’s own calculation, but is not informative (and often not relevant at all) for end clients. Sorry to hear it is not the experience that you made.

  4. I second what Nikki and Valerij have already said. I think this was a client who was shopping around, looking for the cheapest.

    Can I ask if you had a chat with this client on the phone? It’s in those chats you can make it clear what your unique value really is. Terminology, technical implementation, formatting, editing, localisation, writing, design notes, notes for any translators working out of English, preferred style, target audience, objectives, etc… And of course urgency! If such conversations are short, or turned down completely, I don’t waste my time producing a quote. It’s also much easier to say something like, ‘Well yes, I’m not the cheapest…’ etc. on the phone when discussing their priorities.

    I agree that most agencies don’t like per-project pricing, and I don’t blame them for that. They tend to sell their services by the word, too. But I think many direct clients are fine with it, or even prefer it. BUT, of course, they have to be the right sort of direct client, and properly primed with a helpful, informative chat before you submit your quote. IMHO, it’s a mistake to quote for a direct client like you would an agency, and I don’t think it at all helps you get the recognition as a solution provider that you might hope for. Essentially, you just make yourself a ‘seller of words’. That’s my experience, at least.


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