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 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):

Guest post: Teaching translation project management 2


Nancy’s e-book won this year’s award for best translation-related book.

As promised, I’m happy to present the first installment of our guest blog post series featuring recipients of this year’s community choice awards. First up is Nancy Matis, who won the award for best translation-related book for her e-book entitled How to manage your Translation Projects. The print version, available in French, can be purchased here.

Nancy has been involved in the translation industry for about 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 four universities. She has conducted seminars at numerous universities on this subject across Europe, and has also been involved in designing and evaluating training materials for future translators and project managers.

In this guest post, Nancy discusses some techniques she uses in teaching translation project management to her students, and explains why this is a useful skill for project managers and translators alike.

TPM_checklistTeaching Translation Project Management (TPM) is really thrilling. One of the aspects I most enjoy is that the majority of my students are highly interested in this topic. The challenge lies in the breadth of the subject and the wide variety of translation requests it encompasses. Every project is different, every company (whether an end client or a translation agency) has its own management methods, and every project participant has their own concerns depending on the role they play.

The way I approach TPM with MA students is to describe the theoretical life cycle of a translation project, and in-between, to add as many counter examples as I can. The goal is not to teach them just one way of managing their projects, but to open their minds to this vast area while pushing them to know how to adapt to any situation, as project managers or translators, and as employees or freelancers.

TPM is not only useful for future project managers. All participants in a translation project have to manage their own tasks. That’s why it’s essential to include concepts that apply to all of them and to target explanations at specific job profiles.

For instance, the subject that students find the most appealing in the main is pricing. I usually start by showing them several examples of price grids and explaining that, as project managers working in translation agencies, they will probably have to refer to grids to prepare new quotations. This gives me an opportunity to illustrate any rate variations based on source and target languages as well as the project domain (legal, medical, economics, etc.), style (technical, marketing, etc.) and category (documentation, software, multimedia, etc.), and the tasks involved (not only translation and revision, but also desktop publishing, illustration mock-up, testing, etc.) according to their level of
complexity. From there, we explore how translation companies establish their rates and how these future professionals can define their own and present them in a customised price grid. We talk about prices based on estimated costs and briefly introduce the notion of gross margin. Afterwards, we check in detail how to set up rates based on expected productivity. At this stage, we discuss profitability, which gives us the chance to think about what is and is not acceptable. Depending on how much time I have with the class, we can then go as far as drawing up tables with multiple productivity metrics, several expected hourly (or daily) fees and the resulting word rates. We can do this for translation alone, deciding whether to integrate the use of CAT tools (or even machine translation) or not, or we can include other linguistic steps in the calculation, such as revision and LQA (linguistic quality assurance). Sometimes, we repeat the process for some technical tasks, for example DTP (desktop publishing), focusing on rates for units such as pages and illustrations. We can also end the topic by discussing when we should apply extra charges and increase unit rates, or even debating whether the price reductions some clients require are legitimate.

The goals of this approach are multiple:

  • Make the students understand how rates are set up in translation companies.
  • Prepare them to fix rates as freelancers (even when subcontracting to others).
  • Enable them to decide if they can accept the rates imposed by some clients or translation agencies.

During the course, I teach most of the other TPM topics (project analysis, quotation, scheduling, launching, monitoring, closing, etc.) in the same way, i.e. from various perspectives to ensure I cover as many roles in as many project types as possible. I don’t generally limit myself to successful cases since, whenever possible, I share my experience of some project failures too so we can analyse how these situations could have been avoided. This helps students become aware of the importance of risk management. Examining a range of cases is certainly the most enriching side of teaching project management. As I work in parallel on new projects in my other day job, I can constantly update the examples and exercises I give my students. That’s why the Translation Project Management programme is constantly evolving.


Nancy Matis, author of this guest post

Thanks for sharing this post with us, Nancy!

For those interested in learning more about this topic, be sure to check out Nancy’s website, which is dedicated to the subject of translation project management, at:

The How to manage your Translation Projects e-book is also available for purchase in the books section:

Stay tuned for upcoming guest blog posts featuring winners of the 2015 community choice awards. Feedback on this blog post and suggestions for future posts can be made below or tweeted to @ProZcom