Standardization in Measurement: Character, Word and Page

October 31st, 2013
Standardization in Measurement: Character, Word and Page | One Hour Translation

Quoting and invoicing for translation work is getting more and more complicated as markets such as China enter into the equation.

When we talk about standardisation (and if you’re like me you do so more often than many people would imagine) we often concentrate on things like currency rates, or languages. We don’t often consider the question of rate standardisation. But in an increasingly global and shrinking world we’re all competing with someone from across an ocean, and there has to be some kind of standard behind everything.

Certainly companies and freelancers will compete on rate and try to undercut the competition, but the metrics they use to determine just how low they can go must have some sort of standard backing. In the translation world, that standard is broken down into characters, words, and pages – all used at different times to determine different rates for different work.

The Standard Page

For the younger folks out there, I am sad to inform you of a barbaric time when there were no computers and everything was done using hard-copy. In those days translation services professionals such as myself had what were known as typewriters. I had several, in fact, ranging from a deluxe electric one in my office to a lightweight travel one that had a hard case and a handle that went with me everywhere.

Back in those days there was such a thing as the ‘Standard Page,’ which referred to the number of words that could typically be typed onto a letter-sized sheet of paper. For English and other languages that used the Latin alphabet, this always averaged out to about 200 words a page, or about 1200 characters. You might cram in more, you might come up short here and there, but over the long haul 200 words would emerge as the average.

That was useful for price quotes: If you needed a user manual translated, we’d ask how many pages it was and do the math, because translators bill in characters, not pages. Pages are, as I just mentioned, mercurial – some will have less text, others more. So in the end we only charge you for the words we translate, but the ‘Standard Page’ was a useful tool.

The Chinese Problem

The Standard Page was never perfect, of course. Different languages yielded different word counts – Russian, for example, tends to have about 1800 characters on a page. But these sorts of adjustments weren’t difficult to include, and since it all came down to characters anyway it evened out in the end even if your quotes were a bit off due to Standard Page problems. But now we’re into the 21st Century, and the biggest and fastest-growing economy in the world is China, meaning there is a lot of Chinese business translation work. And the various languages of China don’t work the same as English or even Russian, because a single Chinese character is more than just a letter. It can be a very complex concept.

Most translators have adopted a 1000-character per page standard for quoting on Chinese text, which is workable enough – but it still demonstrates how quickly the world is changing around us.

Image courtesy itsallchinese.co.uk