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When is it worth quibbling over word count? December 1, 2008

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Random musings, Translation Sites.

I spent the weekend translating a really big online survey. The client had also translated some responses, so I copied and pasted the responses I translated into Word for an accurate word count. My word count ended up differing from the client’s word count by 226 words, which was an improvement from the 625 word difference the client initially reported (he hadn’t taken a second tab into consideration). Since we were dealing with over 6000 words I decided not to quibble over the 226 words and accepted the lower word count. After all, I’m not perfect and might have made a mistake while copying and pasting responses all weekend (but I doubt it 🙂 ). In the end it was only a $25 difference, so I am not freaking out about it. But I’m curious to hear how you all would have handled this. Would you have let it go and accepted the lower word count since the PM did a word count three times and came up with the same count the last two times?

I hate fighting with clients about prices and nickeling and diming them to death, but sometimes you have to in order to make a profit. I did a job for a client about two months ago. I spent more time dealing with their administrative paperwork than I did on the actual job itself. It was a conference call and I billed for two hours (one hour prep work and one hour on the phone). I had to sign their contract three different times (because for some reason they didn’t want me to fill in the date, which is stupid because my signature is dated 8 days before the date on the top of the contract. whatever) and fax and mail it back to them (in England). I managed to talk them into allowing me to add 5 euros to the bill to cover those costs. I got my phone bill over the weekend. My fax costs alone were $16. Not to mention postage to England ($0.94 a pop). OK, that’s my fault for using AT&T and not some 0150 number or some online fax service, but I will definitely think twice before working with them again. I will also think twice before faxing overseas from my office fax machine. I made a small profit on the job, but it is definitely a lot smaller than it would have been otherwise.


1. Melissa - December 1, 2008

I wouldn’t bother about that small difference either. If you consider that some slight differences will be in your favor, others in the client’s favor… it all comes out in the wash.

Was the translation online? Just curious because you mentioned cutting and pasting into Word for a count.

2. jillsommer - December 1, 2008

Hi Melissa,

Yes, these online surveys are input directly into an interface on the end client’s website. 🙂 Sometimes I export them into Excel, paste them in Word and translate them with Trados, but only when I have worked on the survey before. Thanks for making me feel better about my decision. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.


3. kslossner - December 1, 2008

I used to let this sort of thing go, but lately I am insistent on billing the word counts that I determine. This is because I have noticed consistent counting errors from some PMs which might only be 5 or 10 euros a pop but add up to 100 or more in the course of a month. “Kleinvieh macht ja auch Mist” and paying attention to small details like this, documenting them carefully and communicating them politely is necessary to protect your margins. Many PMs simply do not understand the techniques for counting files with any sort of compositional oddities, and it’s up to us to get the counts right. In cases of very long, complex documents, I’ll convert the whole mess to a PDF and save out the text (if there are no bitmaps – embedded objects are otherwise usually accounted for) just as a second means of checking a count. Or OCR the thing.

4. Susanne Aldridge III - December 1, 2008

I agree with Melissa – I believe it comes out even in the end, law of large numbers. Or compare it to the sandwich landing with the butter-side down – you only remember or notice when it goes bad.
Just don’t let it get to the point where you feel everyone is short changing you 🙂

5. Ryan Ginstrom - December 1, 2008

I would also not quibble, but if the client consistently had lower word counts, I’d either start managing the text myself in my CAT tool, or ask the client to send me the text they actually counted (e.g. as plain text). This could help to show me where the differences lie.

One thing I’ve seen some clients try to do is remove numbers and the like from the word count. I always refuse to accept this, but if the client insisted then maybe I would offer to leave the numbers out of all future translations. 🙂

6. J-chusetts - December 2, 2008

When I am faced with this issue as a management counterpart in this situation, I do check the word counts again to make sure there are not any errors, but one also has to keep in mind that each client counts their words differently, and check their leverage (if any) in different ways to make things more beneficial to themselves including this information in the contract that you sign. However, if your client doesn’t use a TM tool for leverage, you might want to consider, if you do use it yourself, how much money you are getting simply because they don’t leverage and try to save money that way. I recently did a freelance job that was the same thing, translation through a back end. I translated 25k words, but since I didn’t have use a TM I didn’t get the leverage from the ongoing translations that I was doing, I would estimate that about 7K of this was repetition. However, I got paid full price for all of the words. So, I think you might want to take that into account, but also remember that we as freelancers deserve to be paid for the work we put into the projects that we receive, for the translation and the admin time that we put in and for fixing the mistakes the client makes.

7. Corinne McKay - December 2, 2008

In general I agree with the “sometimes in your favor, sometimes in the client’s” idea, and also try to remind myself of all the times I’ve been paid for the full word count on a document that had a lot of repetition or was substantially similar to another document I had translated. The only exception is, as Ryan mentioned, a client who wants to be ‘comped’ things like numbers or text in English that they ask me to retype. I always clarify that “I’m happy to reproduce those items, but at my regular rate.” Great post!

8. IcoText - December 2, 2008

Somewhere I read that someone told his or her client that if the client did not want to include numbers in the word count then they should not mind not having numbers included in the translation – ok, so it’s not a real serious suggestion, but made me want to stick to my principles anyway – good luck!

9. jillsommer - December 2, 2008

Hi folks, Wow, fabulous comments and dialog going on here! There were no numbers in my case – just straight text. I have heard of clients not wanting to pay for numbers. Trados doesn’t count numbers, so that essentially is what happens if you accept the Analysis word count.

I’ve also heard of German clients not wanting to pay for the empty space after a period (Germans charge by the line – character count with spaces divided by 50 or 55). One translator I know actually then delivered his translation without any spaces. The client changed their tune rather quickly…

10. Riccardo - December 2, 2008

For established customers, I only check their word count once in a while “to keep them honest”. If I detect a very small difference (100 words or so), I may let it go, but will warn them of larger differences (in their favor as well as in mine).

11. MT - December 2, 2008

There’s the issue of good will with the client. For the most part, I agree with Melissa, Susanne and Ryan et al. that it all works out fine in the end. I win with some jobs and the client wins with others.

If I consistently have problems with one client’s word counts, which has happened, we work out a solution. Often I charge the troublesome client 1¢/word more to cover my increased cost of doing business with them (time spent counting words, arguing about word counts, words left uncounted, etc.) That worked out great.

Plus I always tell clients, “If I have to type it, you have to pay me my normal rate.” Same is true for numbers and spaces and however many times I have to type [illegible].

My goal is for my net pay at the end of the job (once the phone/fax bill, wire transfer fees, etc. are paid) to equal my desired translation per word rate. If I end up getting a lower than desired rate when all is said and done, I charge that client a higher per word rate on the next job.

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