Translations on the Fly


How long does it take to complete a (good) translation? 

I could translate 2,000 words in less than 30 minutes”, a potential client said to me, declining my offer to deliver the job within close of business on the same day. “Wow, how quick you can type!”, I thought*.

Translators may be superheroes with resources beyond imagination, though there are objective or reasonable limits to be considered. In general terms, a professional specialised translator can translate around 2,500-3,000 words per day, but there is a but.


How long does it take to complete a professional translation?

Variables are numerous. Delivery time varies with the language, length and difficulty of the text. Needless to say, specialisation and availability of the translator are also to be taken into account.

  1. Language. It depends on the translator’s expertise. Moreover, rare language combinations may require more time. Personally, I am much quicker when I translate from English into Italian than from German.
  2.  Length. Word count is crucial. Microsoft Word pages cannot be considered a standard. A Word page may be long or short, written in big or small characters, with or without charts and images. That’s why we need another standard, such as the number of words or characters. To complicate calculations, word processors do not always use the same method. For example, PowerPoint uses a calculation method different from Microsoft Word. Then, there are tables, text boxes, uneditable images, and there may be reference material or numerous repetitions, which could speed up or slow down the translation process.
    Last Thursday, a project manager at a big translation company emailed me: “Are you available for a legal translation project from English into Italian of 12,000 words due tomorrow 2 p.m. How many words could you translate?” Considering the amount of words, she was going to ask five or six translators to work on the same file to meet the deadline. Translation companies often split long urgent documents among various translators. However, for quality reasons, they should review the text, prepare a glossary, and check consistency. That also requires time and money, and results are not always good.
  3. Specialisation. Very technical documents are usually more difficult than general topics. A newspaper article about spending habits in Italy is probably easier than an expert’s paper on shale gas and fracking techniques. However, specialisation matters. Translating financial documents every day, I am probably more at ease with market outlook commentaries. A drig rill manual is much more difficult for me, since it is not my specialisation. Meanwhile, translating a marketing persuasive document may be trickier than translating a letter confirming an appointment for tomorrow.
    Time varies from project to project. There is no precise rule.

    Professional translators must examine the documents to be translated and have as much information as possible to produce an accurate estimate.

  4. Last but not least… Availability and human limits. Translation is only one single element of the process that starts from the client’s quotation request and ends after delivery with the client’s feedback.

burn-out brainTime management should take into account all these tasks, quotation, glossary, proofreading. Most professional translators are freelancers wearing many hats, as project manager, accountant, marketer, and they may have several clients asking for urgent translations at the same time. (See my presentation: What’s in the Translation Price?)

Time dedicated to translation in itself may not be longer than 6/7 hours a day, since it requires great concentration, or your brain starts smoking!

What do you think? As a client, what do you expect from translators? As a translator, can you estimate your average daily output?

*This post is 599 words long by the way.

14 pensieri su “Translations on the Fly

  1. I have found also that the language expertise of the original text document has a great deal to do with how easy it is to translate. I have translated some academic papers for foreign students into English and their use of the original source language was horrific, which made the translation all the more difficult and time-consuming.

    1. Yes, Stanley. That is another reason to examine the text deeply before giving an estimate of time and cost. Thank you for your comment.

  2. The process of translation depends on many factors, some of them were mentioned above: translator’s availability, language needed for translation or the type of document required for such work. I found some useful ideas and posts on your blog, thank you! I thought that it might be also useful to suggest a source of news and articles about translation and localization, maybe it can help.

  3. Thanks for this post! È vero, 2,500 words is what I usually reply when asked about my productivity as a translator. However, I do include my own buts—it all depends on the subject matter or area, my own expertise in it, the source text, the deadline, the client’s instructions on how to treat certain elements within the source. I’m glad to have bumped into this blog! Cheers, grazie!

  4. Thank you so much for this much-needed reality check and affirmation of the legitimacy of insisting on integrity at every stage of the work we do.

    I am going to stop angsting (or at least try!) over not being able to satisfy unrealistic demands of existing and potential clients!!

    Thanks again.

  5. There is definitely a view of Translators as having supernatural powers…!

    I also agree with Stanley comment above and we could easily add another bunch of variables that could/would add difficulties and time to any translation project.


  6. Great article.
    Let me share my figures: For an everyday terminology text, such as a newspaper article, HR manual, etc. I could produce as much as 1,000 words (new words, not repetitions) per hour (before my brain starts to smoke a bit). For more complex texts where you need to look at the dictionary often and research on the internet for obscure/specialized words, I may slow down to 300/hour.
    But… this is only for the first pass (draft) translation. I normally do a QC review after that at maybe 3000-4000 words per hour.
    Also, take into account that I have +35 of experience in touch-typing/computers use.

    1. Thanks Vicente for sharing your experience and for reminding that the translation process includes also revision and QC time!

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