Translation by the minute: The Three T’s

by Translation Guy on February 23, 2010

They have great margaritas at the Bit and Spur, right outside of Zion Canyon. I was drinking there once with the most successful writer I’ve ever palled around with, Mori Yoko, the noted Japanese romance novelist.  As we sat together there on the patio, she looked at me over the salty rim of her glass and said, “Ken, it’s not enough to write well. You must write fast too.” It was an important lesson ― one that I’ve managed to ignore pretty successfully for the last 20 years.

And this also goes for translation too. You’ve got to do it right, but you’ve got to do it fast too. How fast? It all depends.

Most translators in most languages can do somewhere between 2500 and 3000 words per day. That works out to about 300 words per hour. That’s unique words, now, so if the materials to be translated have a lot of repetition (say 50%), then the translator is effectively translating 5000 words instead of 2500.

And that’s just the tip of the translation automation iceberg. Terminology management, machine pre-translation, and lots of other stuff can push those numbers much higher. There’s been much talk in the industry about a report on a prodigious amount of translation done by a former president of the American Translators Association, but I’ve got brain freeze and Vince, my social media guy, is sending me friendly notes to remind me I’m past deadline. Besides, this post is about writing fast, so more on that later…

Luckily, we have all these combined technologies to speed the translator’s plow, but then comes QA. Edit and proof take more time, say around 1000 words per hour, each, depending on the quality of the original and the talents and diligence of the editors. Traffic becomes a concern, too, in that the document has to be scheduled and assigned to the appropriate linguist by the appropriate project manager or language manager. So all the expectations we have for words per hour get tossed out the window if the one-and-only language manager is backed up or simply having a bad day.

I’ve heard that some language service providers ask for two weeks from the get-go just for the convenience of managing their workflow. We’ve never had that luxury, since you clients mostly want your translation ASAP.  I suppose this is partly due to our brand; it’s  probably safe to assume that any company with “1-800” in front of its brand is serious about being lickity split. Plus, expectations about “time to market” are not going to get longer in this day and age. The time required for human translation is shockingly long to many people purchasing for the first time, and a tremendous headache to the regulars, for whom translation is often at the end of a long production that has already slipped and slid across one timeline or another.

So to keep translation on track, language service providers have only one ‘T’ left up their sleeves (note: first T is for technology, second T is for traffic management, and finally there’s T for “throw more translators at it”) ― a blessing for those sainted with tight deadlines, but a curse for managers trying to manage a consistence process. We can give the translators the shared memories, and force the same terminology, but translators are like cats, or cat skinners (just an expression), in that there is more than one way to do it. Of course, it can be devilishly hard to control for that because we all have our own styles, and getting the work of multiple translators onto a single page is a very hard process to manage.

And speaking of cats, we’ve just scratched the surface here, but I’m on deadline. Translation speed becomes ever more critical for on-demand, interpretation and other real-time scenarios, which we will explore in future posts.


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  2. Ralphy Baby says:

    Oh how the Zion Canyon takes me back! So stunning and def an interesting contrast to its more famous and more distant cousin, the Grand Canyon :-) thanks for bringing back the memory!

  3. Pamela says:

    Woah, between 2500 and 3000 words per day is pretty impressive for a translator. It would take me days to translate a paragraph from my native language to Spanish (I’m fairly fluent)…obviously I’m not as fluent as I thought I was…

    • Ken says:

      When paid by the word, translators find all sorts of creative ways to get their words per day count up.

  4. Sal F. says:

    Rule-based MT is useful but one downfall is that while commercial packages are available for dozens of language combinations, many languages are still not covered…tough to implement this into a methodology without higher coverage of languages.

  5. Very insightful Ken. A quick addition to your post: a representative case study, recently conducted at Symantec indicates that the productivity of human translators can double when unknown sentences are pre-translated in a machine translation system

  6. I would think that at a maximium, key terms will be translated correctly and consistently?

    • Ken says:

      Machine translation error is nothing if not consistent. But key terms? Depends what’s key… Correct terminology and frequently used sentences can also be incorporated into the language memory, but if you can’t control the input, you can’t control the output.

  7. Molly says:

    I’ve heard that while most translations will require some editing and many even rewriting, it is fair to expect that a considerable percentage of machine-generated translations turn out to be near perfect?

    • Ken says:

      I think most sentences are basically fine in machine translation, but I’d think twice before I relied on Google to make patient care decisions.

  8. Poppy says:

    Do you mean “Yoko Mori”?

    • Ken says:

      I knew her in Japanese. so we called her Mori Yoko, last name first, but one and the same…

  9. QatarUnited says:

    What is terminology management?

  10. 4+3 says:

    I think terminology management is essentially a combination of human and machine translation, but someone could probably elaborate a little more clearly on this for you, sorry.

  11. Andrei says:

    Thank you for the post, though it is pretty hard to find a balance between speed and quality in translations…

  12. Beth says:

    Interesting article, Ken, and I’m going to suggest one FREE technology that you and your translator friends should try: Across Personal Edition. (Ok, so it’s free to freelancers but if you want a server version for your agency, you’ll have to pay for it. But I digress…) My point is that it’s easy-to-use, productivity-enhancing, translation management software. So, not only does it give you a centralized repository of all linguistsic assets and terminology, it also provides a really transparent process to the project manager. Check it out at
    Plus, Across is a tech provider exclusively – they don’t compete with you for translation service business like SDL or LionBridge does. Just fyi.

  13. The idea itself makes a lot of sense to me, although two weeks might be indeed too much with some jobs. We also normally add a certain percentage of time to each quote to account for potential delay risks and leverage additional management flexibility. Our maximum is normally 2,000 words per business day—this is what it takes to arrange source file optimization, TEP, and desktop publishing without sacrificing quality.

    • Ken says:

      Roman takes into account admin and post production in his productivity estimate of 2000 words per day, which makes perfect sense. However, I try to delink word count with client expectations so that every one is clear on all the steps required to produce great work. More than one way to skin a cat, I guess.

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