Is Translation a Product or a Service?

It’s a simple question really. Is the work you do more about producing that document that your client might print out or publish or turn into a webpage or is it about the time, the skill and the expertise that goes into producing it? What is a better sign of a successful job: a document that looks pretty or a client that feels satisfied that a true expert has been helping them?

All of this could seem a bit academic. After all, so long as we get paid we aren’t going to really care about how our clients see our work, or even how we see it for that matter? Or maybe not.

To see why there might be more to this than debates over mere labels, let’s think about the difference between a product and a service. Products, by their nature, are tangible. You can hold a product in your hand. You can count them. You can price them per item or per batch. Products tend to be members of a set of similar items. You can think of a bunch of bananas or a bag of potatoes or batch of mobile phones.

Services, on the other hand, are intangible. Are there units to measure cleaning? Can you measure consultants by the kilo? Does it makes sense to price up accounting per figure or per decimal point?

So, the question becomes: is translation more about the tangible product (the translated document) or about the intangible service (your expertise, your skills, your knowledge)? If it is the former then really our business should be all about bulk. For most products, the more you sell the better, hence why industrial economies have facilities for mass production. The more products you make, the less each costs to make, the cheaper you can sell them for, the more you sell and so on.

See translation as a product and it makes sense to give discounts for recurrent jobs, large projects, repeated words, translation memory use etc. After all, if translation is a product, more is better. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would lead to us all working out what each word costs us to translate and setting our prices according to this number.

But we all know translation doesn’t work like that. Instead of larger translations taking comparatively less time per word, they can sometimes take more. While TMs might reduce the time we spend on some parts of our work, the can extend other parts. You have to buy the TM tool, learn to use it, build your TM, check it, import a TM, manage software crashes, schedule upgrades, attend more classes and the list goes on.

In short, it doesn’t seem like translators can actually benefit that much from economies of scale. Well then, it would seem like translation is a service. If translation is a service, we have an issue. You see, most translators I know, myself included, were indoctrinated into the “price per word” model. If translation was a product, if we were word producers or sentence manufacturers, this would make perfect sense. However, if we are service providers, the logic breaks down a bit. If translation really is more about expertise and knowledge and skills, does it really make sense to charge per word? What do you think?


2 thoughts on “Is Translation a Product or a Service?

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    To my mind, the process is what customers pay for, not the product. What we are selling is the linguistic and cultural knowledge, the subject-specific expertise that goes into coming up with a suitable translation for our target readership.

    Having been lucky enough to chat with a few experienced translators before I started freelancing, I took their advice and have always calculated on a “per hour” basis, even though I do actually invoice per word because it’s the “industry standard”. I think many translators have a similar approach, they “think time” but “invoice words”.

    I often work on marketing documents which include company taglines, baselines or slogans. I send an “ordinary” quotation per source word but I add a separate line for the slogan, for which I charge per hour. My clients know how long it took them to come up with their slogan and don’t expect me to charge a per word rate for the transcreation. I also charge per hour for proofreading and editing, so really, there’s not much stopping me from charging an hourly rate for translation. Old habits die hard, that’s all!

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