Guest post: Counting volumes in translation projects Reply

Nancy Matis is the author of the book How to manage your translation projects, originally published in French and translated afterwards into English.

Nancy has been involved in the translation business for around 20 years, working as a translator, reviser, technical specialist, project manager and teacher, among other roles. She currently manages her own translation company based in Belgium and teaches Translation Project Management at three universities. She also ran seminars at numerous universities across Europe and was involved in some European projects, designing and evaluating training materials for future translators and project managers.

You can find more information on her website.


Nancy is a ProZ.com professional trainer and the author of this guest blog post

I recently added a section on counting volumes to my Translation Project Management courses. During the two-hour session, we review the countable production unit types that can be taken into consideration for linguistic tasks (characters, words, lines, pages) and for technical tasks (pages, illustrations, animations). We also discuss the challenge of estimating hours, especially for some specific production steps. I feel future professionals should master this subject so they can analyse their own projects properly and work on a good basis for budgeting and scheduling. Although counting volumes does not generally pose many issues, in some cases it can turn into a finicky task that needs to be examined carefully.

Highly common projects, such as documentation localisation, sometimes include technical tasks, for instance desktop publishing and illustration localisation. All the unit sub-types should be meticulously counted, since productivity is not usually the same when working with different programs. For example, quantify the number of slides to reformat in Microsoft PowerPoint on the one hand and the number of pages in the Adobe InDesign files on the other. As the production effort will probably vary between these two tasks, unit rates and metrics must be adapted to arrive at a correct budget and schedule. Besides this point, although some discussion might arise on whether to include blank pages in the count, most of the time, counting pages is not a big deal. As far as illustrations are concerned, the first step is to identify those that need to be changed, since some might not require any translation or adaptation. We divide images containing text into those whose text can be extracted or overwritten and non-editable illustrations, which are more time-consuming. Screenshots are counted separately as the task involved is not the same as illustration translation.

Technical tasks that cannot easily be associated with countable source units, like software testing and debugging, multilingual website creation, animation rebuilding, etc., might become problematic as time estimates vary based on many factors (source material, clients’ requirements, guidelines, context, resources involved, etc.). This can sometimes lead to endless discussions with clients or subcontractors as everyone tries to justify the number of hours or the budget arrived at. Unfortunately, no single process can calculate the volume of working hours needed for those specific tasks. While underestimating will result in profitability issues, overestimating might frighten clients away to seek proposals with lower costs and shorter timeframes. Only in-depth analyses, assistance from senior staff and experience can help paint a realistic picture. But it is hard to prevent misestimates on technical tasks. If you have established a trusted relationship with your clients, you can potentially make an approximation, talk openly about it with your requestors and propose to fine-tune the planned working time after performing a certain percentage of the task.

When it comes to text to be translated or revised, however you quote, at some stage, you need to check the volume you have to deal with. You might use this information to prepare your quote, plan the time you’ll need and even assess your profitability. Or you might have to share this data with your clients, employees and sub-contractors. Even though counting characters or words is fairly easy in most cases, in some projects, this task can become quite complex. If you receive the source text on paper or in a scanned format, some pre-processing might be needed to determine the volume. Rough estimates could sometimes be enough, for you or the other stakeholders, but in many cases, an accurate count is preferred. On some occasions, source programs don’t contain any statistical features displaying the number of words or characters to process. Some translation requests might also involve audio or video files, for which the amount of text is not easy to count. Some text files might contain content not to be translated or not directly accessible, like scanned sections or embedded documents. Finally, when using the analysis features in Translation Memory (TM) tools to count words or characters, you might face problems such as document corruptions, lack of support for specific file formats, or even content not well processed or tagged. All this could cause some confusion and make you lose time or money.

During the course on volumes, I also explain to my students that people using different tools or methods, or even working on other computers, can get inconsistent results. To exemplify the problem, I created a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, adding lots of shapes, frames, effects and animations and used various methods to count the source words. I launched an analysis on my own machine with a TM tool and asked some colleagues to do the same, using other TM tools or the same as mine. One of them even used the same version as my own tool. The results were not surprisingly quite varied. The table below shows the figures we obtained, considering only final word counts:
TM tool 1: 537 words
TM tool 2: 473 words
TM tool 3, version 2011: 648 words
TM tool 3, version 2015: 619 words
TM tool 3, version 2014 – on machine 1: 648 words
– on machine 2: 621 words
MS PowerPoint statistics: 553 words
Manual word count: 524 words

Due to the variation in the tools’ word counts, I decided to count the words manually, slide by slide, since, in my opinion, a manual word count could represent reality better. It was rather intriguing to see that one tool, whatever the version, was far above my own word count (from 18.1% to 23.6% more). I also found it interesting that the results of the MS PowerPoint statistical feature were close to the manual figure. In fact, I remember cases in which the TM tool analysis was much higher than the statistics shown in the layout program, which caused some conflicts with clients referring to the MS Word feature.

When I tried to understand the reasons for these differences, I found that (not exhaustive):

  • The Master slide in my .PTT file contained 10 words to be translated which had been extracted 12 times by TM Tool 3.
  • The translatable content of 2 frames had not been extracted by TM tool 2.

We know that tools use different word counting schemes. Nonetheless, when faced with a client asking us to justify why we have quoted 648 words when they counted 553, explaining that this is due to the tools we have chosen to use is tricky. Especially if we previously convinced them that those tools increase productivity and reduce quotes ;-). Obviously, this mainly occurs for files with heavy formatting, but it could still prove annoying.

You could overcome this problem by removing volume details from your quote, quoting per hour or indicating a lump sum. Nevertheless, you should be aware of potential issues that might, at times, create uncomfortable situations or erroneous estimates. Similarly, when using TM tools, making sure that all the translatable content has been properly identified is critical. You can double-check the target file to make sure nothing has been missed, but it is by far preferable to spot this before launching the translation process. Some file preparation might consequently be needed and, in some cases, I even recommend comparing the source text appearing in the TM tool with the content displayed in the source format to make sure everything has been properly extracted. Last tip, if available, cross-check the statistics in the source program against the final word count displayed in the TM tool.

Regardless of our role in a project, counting or checking volumes is essential in our daily management tasks. If you are the only person responsible for this task, being considered reliable is preferable, so you should ensure your counts are fair and the methods used easy to clarify. Being aware of potential issues is equally important. If you receive count data from end clients or translation agencies, be cautious and double-check them all before starting any work. Not everyone is trying to fool you, but they might have left out some important aspects of the project, failed to spot some file corruptions or were simply distracted. Whatever your case, knowing how to estimate volumes for your own work and possible pitfalls should normally help you deliver as promised and, hopefully, remain profitable.


Interested in learning more from Nancy about translation project management? Check out her following upcoming sessions (available in French):

Confessions of a Freelance Translator: An interview with Gary Smith 1

“Welcome to one of the best jobs in the world!” screams the back cover of Gary Smith’s new book: Confessions of a Freelance Translator, Secrets To Success, a book offering practical, easily applicable tips to make a successful living out of freelance translation.

Gary Smith, a ProZ.com member, Certified PRO, trainer, event organizer and conference speaker, is an experienced proofreader and translator from Spanish and Catalan to English. A British native, he has lived in Spain for over two decades, offering webinars and talks internationally and around Spain.

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Gary Smith, author of “Confessions of a Freelance Translator, Secrets To Success”

In today’s post, I had a chance to speak with Gary about Confessions of a Freelance TranslatorSecrets To Success, the motivation behind the book, the process of writing it and the usefulness of the tips and tricks he provides throughout the book to translators starting out or who wish to make the leap to better earnings and work.


The interview

Me: What inspired you to write this book?

Gary: This is the kind of book I wish I’d had many years ago, so I could have avoided mistakes! Back then I would have loved this book with plenty of practical, applicable tips on freelance translation to start out or move up to higher earnings and productivity.

I think today in general there’s a generally positive attitude in the freelance translation community and a good example of that is Erik Hansson’s cathartic Facebook page “Things Translators Never Say” (TTNS) (voted winner of the ProZ.com Community Choice Award for best Facebook Page), which looks at frustrating situations with clients with humor and inspired this book’s title (there is a section in the book with funny situations with clients). It’s far better to laugh about such things with our colleagues around the world than to bang your head against the desk!

Even so, I felt there was a need for a book with this positive attitude that also gives a great deal of realistic, useful advice for translators about how to improve their situation. The Things Translators Never Say group gave me plenty of examples of typical problems faced by freelance translators, which helped me understand what they need and produce a book for them, all with a dash of of humour. And here it is!

Me:  What was the hardest part of writing this book?

Gary: Strangely, the same kind of things we come across as translators, since translators themselves are writers! In other words: organisation, editing, revising, reviewing, proofreading, layout, design, etc. Then, as our translation clients sometimes do, I’d discover something new or realize I’d forgotten to mention something, so I’d have to add it in a logical, coherent way. Sometimes I thought I’d never finish it!

It’s taken about three years to write and I’ve used material from my own talks as well as studying successful small businesses and listening to advice from my experienced translation colleagues, of course.

Me: How much of the book is realistic? Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own professional life?

Gary: All of it! But the difference with this book is that there are lots of examples we can all relate to from service providers we come across in everyday life, using similar “tricks of the trade” that are in fact relevant to all professions and applying them to translation services to help attract and keep good clients.

There are also many examples from my own experience in the profession and from translators I have known over the years. Too many good translators are let down by a lack of simple, practical business nous that doesn’t seem to get taught enough in formal education. Whether we like it or not, most translators have to be freelancers and therefore entrepreneurs to a certain extent to make a good living.

Me: Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?

Gary: Hmm…I’d say above all the message is that you can definitely make a good living out of translation by being a good professional and that the pros definitely outweigh the cons. It’s a great job if you get it right!

Me: Did you learn anything from writing your book? If so, what was it?

Gary: Well, as I’ve found when preparing my talks for congresses and webinars, when you want to teach something well and clearly you always end up fact-checking and learning something yourself, yes. I learned a lot from small business experts and even about sales psychology. And I also listened to some of my successful translation colleagues, of course! But with this book in particular, I observed service providers of all kinds, learning how they deal with their customers.

Me: Can we take a sneak peek at the book before its release?

29a0fa76-d14e-474b-86f9-6dec6a4fe8deThe book, through Gary: “…First, let’s put ourselves in our potential client’s shoes. The monolingual, monocultural client needs a text translated but knows nothing about translation, how to find a good translator, or how much they may reasonably charge. Their idea of a human translator may be a studious hermit sitting at a desk piled with paper dictionaries, holding a quill poised in the air as they muse over a mixed metaphor. On the other hand, the only translator everybody in the developed world has heard of is Google Translate. Everybody has used the famous word cruncher once in a while to see what their Chinese tattoo actually means or get the gist of a foreign news article or recipe. So our potential client knows of Google Translate at least. They also know it is capable of translating thousands of words per second for free. And then they turn to you and discover that it will take days and cost several hundreds or thousands of euros. Understandably, they may well be taken aback.

To understand their predicament, imagine your car breaks down in a town you don’t know and you have to find a decent mechanic to repair it. At one garage they nonchalantly tell you it’s going to cost € 5‌‌‍0 and take half an hour. At another, they shake their heads sagely and tell you it’ll cost € 1,000 and take a week. Who’s telling the truth? Who knows what they’re doing? Who’s trying to rip you off? In order to gain a potential client’s confidence, there are little strategies that mechanics and other service providers from lawyers to doctors can and do use to allay our fears and convince us to choose their services. We, too, can apply such strategies to gain our clients’ trust. We shall look at them throughout this book.”

Me: When will the book be released and how will readers be able to purchase it?

Gary:  The book will be made available any time now at Lulu.com.

The book

Confessions of a Freelance Translator is divided into easily digestible sections relating to: finding, keeping and dealing with clients, setting fees, visibility, guiding the client through the translation process, freelance organisation in general, specialisation with some useful tips on scientific and technical translation, a general discussion of hot topics (e.g. machine and crowd translation), some tips on small interpreting jobs and of course some hilarious examples of confessions of a freelance translator!


Get this book →