by Paul Koehler
Out of all the questions that translators are asked while doing their jobs, there is one that pops up with regular frequency and needs to be answered, even if the answer is not as simple as many people may think.
How many words or characters can you translate in a day?
Anyone working as a translator inevitably hears this question, whether from a new client or from acquaintances, friends, and family who want to ask about the profession. From the client or agency's point of view, this is one of a variety of pieces of data that they collect in order to determine a translator's ability to do any job that may come up. It is definitely in a translator's best interest to be able to give a ballpark number that is doable workwise and that can meet the needs of the end client or agency.
It goes without saying that this figure varies widely depending on a variety of factors. Some of these factors include familiarity with the subject involved, experience, the presence of software such as CAT tools or voice recognition to speed up the process (in fact, voice recognition was used to write this article), and the format of the file in question. Finally, as JAT members always like to say: "It all depends on the context."
Let's tackle some of these points. Familiarity with the subject involved and experience definitely help speed up the process. Specialization has many benefits to translators, and while higher rates per character or word are definitely one of the main reasons people encourage specialization, the ability to translate material in a specific field while maintaining a similar style and using relevant vocabulary is extremely helpful. Ask any of the pharma, law, or patent translators (to name a few fields) working from Japanese to English or English to Japanese, and they will tell you that their specific knowledge of the subject at hand and their experience translating such documents helps increase their output significantly.
Output speed also comes into play when using some of the more advanced tools out there. First and foremost among these are CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools. While the learning curve for these particular programs can be steep at first, they are incredibly useful to streamline the vocabulary used and help insert segments that are either the exact same or very similar. The subject of CAT tools is one that is best covered in another article, but the use of such tools helps increase daily output and can help with quality assurance when used correctly.
Voice recognition is another one of those technological tools that can be used to great advantage. The quality of these programs can vary depending upon a variety of factors. However, such technology has progressed to the point where even built-in applications such as voice recognition on most current mobile phones can be effectively used to increase output speed and provide text that flows more naturally.
File formats are another very important point to consider. PDF files, despite their universal appeal, are often a nightmare for translators, as they have to consider the time taken to extract text and re-create the original document in a different format. This is where many translators end up doing desktop publishing work, and indeed DTP work is a major service offered by many individual translators and agencies. The problem that arises here is that some agencies and clients will expect the translators to be able to meet the same daily output with PDF files as they would with a standard text or Microsoft Word file. Obviously this is not doable, and while the determination to make extra demands or continue regardless is up to the individual translator, this is an extremely important point for translators to consider when accepting a job. Other file formats such as Microsoft PowerPoint and Excel can cause major issues in terms of formatting, but if handled correctly they can be a welcome source of income as well. It should also be said that many agencies and end clients are willing to help out with these issues, and often all that needs to be done is to ask the agency or end client to provide the raw text files for translation. It doesn't hurt to ask.
As this article is appearing in the JAT anthology, it is only appropriate that one of the organization's mantras be covered here. "It all depends on the context." The question of daily output is often asked with the expectation of having a consistent answer for every job and every field, but needless to say this is not the case. There are so many factors to consider when estimating daily output. Here are some potential factors that may alter a typical answer for daily output…
Are you working on another job at the moment?
Does the agency or end client have any special requests, such as specific formatting, affidavits/notarization, or rush requests?
How are you feeling? (While freelancers don't often have the luxury of taking time off due to sickness, it goes without saying that output won't be as high if you're not completely healthy.)
It took about two years of translation experience until I was able to confidently provide an answer to the question posed in this article, and even so I will vary my answer depending on the particular needs of the client and/or project. Simply asking other colleagues what they are able to do in a single day is also helpful, if only to get an idea of what can be possible, but in the end the answer to that question is up to the individual translator. Coming up with that answer may be problematic at first, but being able to answer this question confidently only helps with work in the long run.