Realistic translation times using human translators

The translation times suggested here should work for most projects.

They are based on realistic expectations for translation speed by professional human translators taking care to translate to a high standard.

In this article I’ll explain how we arrive at these translation times and discuss some factors that impact on human translation speed and thus turnaround times.

However if you want to skip all this you can jump straight to our table of suggested translation times below.

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The 4 key factors that determine translation turnaround times

The time any translation project will take is essentially dependent on the following considerations.

1. How many words need to be translated?

Calculations of translation times always start with the word count of the text to be translated, as this gives us the most reliable indication of the amount of work involved.

Note we use the number of words, not the number of pages. This is because the amount of text on individual pages, and hence the time spent translating them, can vary considerably.

See the table below for tips on how to get your word count. However for these purposes a reasonable estimation should be good enough.

Word2003: Tools, Word Count.
2007 and later: shown on bottom Status Bar. If not, right click, select Word Count.
Won’t include text in inserted graphics, or in text boxes (except for Office 365) .
ExcelCopy and paste into Word.
PowerPoint2003: File, Properties, Statistics.
2007: Home button, Prepare, Properties, Document Properties, Advanced Properties, Statistics.
2010, 2013, Office 365: File, shown in right hand column. If not, click Show all Properties.
Won’t include text in inserted graphics.
PdfUse a free word count program, or copy and paste into Word.
If the text can’t be selected you’ll need to count manually, or use an OCR program and copy to Word.
Hard copyCount manually or use an OCR program and copy to Word.

2. Assumed translation speed per hour and per day

We suggest working on an average human translation speed of 300 words per hour and 2,500 per day.

Now a quick web search will give you widely differing numbers to these. Anything from 200 to 500 words an hour and 1200 to 4,000 words a day, up to some claims of 6 to 8 thousand a day (wow!).

The highest numbers are frankly scary for their implications on translation quality. And the lower numbers are perhaps a little conservative for most projects.

We consider 300 an hour and 2,500 a day a realistic expectation for a quality-focused, experienced human translator. Certainly professional language translation companies will typically consider a translation speed of 2,000 words a day an absolute minimum from their professional translator employees over time. They would likely expect 2,500 and be pleased with 3,000.

Freelance translators though may well produce greater volume by working longer hours. Their work often comes in waves and they tend to want to make hay when the sun shines.

However there is no doubt that quality is affected with longer hours worked.

This is because language translation involves intense mental concentration and is very taxing. In fact, many full-time freelance translators will only work 5 or 6 hours a day precisely because of this.

Language translation times

It is tempting to reduce translation times by working longer hours. However language translation is mentally taxing, and a tired translator often means a less accurate and well-worded text.

So a human translator may well be able to produce a higher volume by working longer hours over a few days without affecting translation quality. However longer term it is difficult to do.

I’d definitely have my suspicions about anyone saying their translation speed is habitually 4,000 words or more a day.

I’d question how thorough their processes are and how much time they spend on checking for accuracy and improving their wording (see below). They would certainly need processes to mitigate the (virtually inevitable) drop off in quality that comes with translating over an extended period.

Some might well be brilliant and produce consistent high quality at this translation speed. However I suspect most will favour quantity over quality. This means work that will not be immune from the odd mistake and will have some less than ideal wording. Of course for certain purposes this level of quality might still be fine.

The one big proviso on these translation speed figures

These numbers assume there is little repeated or previously translated text in the documents being translated.

If previous human translations can be used as is or with only minor amendments for parts of the text, this will obviously speed up the translation process and potentially knock some time off translation times.

Translation memory (TM) software is ideal for identifying identical and highly similar text repetitions (called 100% matches and fuzzy matches) and is widely used by translators.


3. Allow time for the translator to check his/her work

Professional translators will generally consider their first run through a text as only a draft translation. It’s not unusual for either a nuance of meaning to be missed, or wording to be a little stilted and unnatural, or both these, after this first pass.

Experienced translators will take a break before thoroughly checking their initial translation.

Experienced translators will take a break before thoroughly checking their initial translation.

That’s why good translators will always allow time for thorough checking and revising their work. They’ll check all meaning has been correctly conveyed, and polish and refine their wording.

Ideally they’ll do this after a decent break to clear the mind so they approach the text again with fresh eyes.

Our blog on the 5 step translation process professional translators use covers this in more detail.

So, it’s not always a matter of just dividing the number of words by 300 or 2,500 to get the number of hours or days. Allowing a little extra time for a break and subsequent checking is recommended.

Best results tend to come from an overnight break and review the following day.


4. Will there be a second translator review?

Often a foreign language translation will also be subject to a full second translator review. This can involve various possibilities but is normally designed to pick up any inadvertent errors made by the initial translator, check for translation accuracy, and further improve wording if needed.

It is particularly recommended for essential business documents where guaranteed accuracy and high quality of expression is required.

Incorporating such a review is considered best practice, as prescribed in language translation Standard EN15038. It is what our company offers with our quality-assured translations.

Our rule of thumb is to add 30% to translation times for the peer review component.


Putting all this together, we suggest the following guidelines to translation times:

Table of expected professional (human) translation times

Word countwithout 2nd translator reviewwith 2nd translator review
up to 1000 words:next day1 - 2 days
1000 – 2000 words:1 or 2 days2 or 3 days
2000 – 3000 words:2 days3 days
3000 - 5000 words:2 – 3 days4 days
5000 - 10000 words:3 – 5 days4 - 6 days
10000 - 15000 words:5 - 7 days6 – 9 days
More than 15000 words:over 7 daysover 9 days

These translation times:

  • are for a single human translator translating the full text(s)
  • assume translator output of 300 words an hour or 2,500 per day, plus checking time
  • should be sufficient to ensure high quality standards
  • can sometimes be reduced by the translator working extended hours
  • can often be reduced for larger projects by using more than one human translator

Ways to reduce translation turnaround times

There are really just two ways to reduce the overall time needed to translate a given text or set of materials:

  1. the translator works longer hours
  2. use more than one translator

The first option may well be possible in some circumstances. However it does come with some risks, as we know translation quality can drop off rather markedly when your translators tire.

The second option is definitely an option for longer projects.

Using multiple translators on the same language translation

Using more than one translator on longer texts should generally speed up the project turnaround time. For example, a 20,000 word text might take one translator 9 days, but be completed by two translators in 5 days.

Note that in calculating translation times frames for a single language translation project using multiple translators, it isn’t always just a matter of splitting up the documents and assuming the time frame for the longest component will be the time for the whole project.

This is because for most materials care needs to be taken to ensure the translators have all translated key terms in the same way, and the writing style is consistent throughout the texts.

Depending on how the project is structured, this will generally imply a small amount of additional time.


Factors that will extend translation times

1. Projects involving more than one language

In multi-language translation projects, all languages can generally be translated at the same time. Thus overall translation times are often much the same as for a single language translation project.multiple languages

However there is more administration required, so complex projects involving numerous files and/or languages may require a little extra time to reflect this.

There may also be issues around translation consistency across the languages.

For example you would want to be sure any difficult or key terms or concepts were handled in the same way by the translators in each language.

Again some additional time might be required to co-ordinate and confirm this.


2. When typesetting is required

Typesetting is the placing and formatting of text in a graphic design file. It will be required whenever files such as InDesign, Quark Express and Illustrator are involved. It needs to be done by specialist foreign language typesetters familiar with the design and layout rules and conventions in the relevant language(s).

Typesetting won’t start until the foreign language translations are finalised, so will add time to any project. And in multi-language projects, individual languages may well be typeset consecutively and not concurrently.

Typesetting time can vary considerably. It will depend on text volume, layout, languages and the program(s) used. A page might take 5 minutes to typeset, or 35.

Giving an average time per page is therefore difficult. However many, and probably most, design files can be typeset at a rate of around 5 or 6 pages an hour. However proofing time needs to be added to this, as thorough checking and proofing of the artwork is vital.

Thus a 32 page brochure in a single language translation project, and an 8 page brochure in five languages, might each add 2 days to the project time frame.

However we’d recommend getting a separate time frame for any typesetting component as times can differ markedly from project to project.


Conclusion/Summary

1. The translation times given in our table should be valid for most translation projects that don’t involve typesetting or significant repeated, highly similar or previously translated text. They assume typical human translation speed and productivity, and allow sufficient time for best practice quality control checks. Thus they are sufficient to produce translations of professional standard.

2. Turnarounds can sometimes be shortened by using multiple translators, or a single translator working extended hours. However remember that translators often struggle to maintain quality when working long hours.

3. Conversely some projects may need more time. Examples would be when there is limited translator availability (especially in specialist fields or very low demand languages), or the complexity/technicality of text necessities lengthy researching of terminology. And typesetting will add time to any project.

4. We’d suggest using these translation times as a rule of thumb and confirming with the translator or language translation company you’ve chosen for the project.

Other articles that may be of interest:

- The 5-step translation process that professional translators use

- The 4 main types of translation in business, and when to use each one

- Two simple rules to help identify when a text needs to be translated by a specialist technical translator

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