What's Wrong with the Word Count?

By Stacey
Sep 4, 2014 · 3 min

Using the GMX-V standard to calculate Word Counts can ensure fair and trouble-free billing on your translation work.

What's Wrong with the Word Count? | One Hour Translation

It surprises newcomers to the language translation industry, even those with specific training and degrees, to hear some of the very basic advice that I give out, because almost none of it has to do with the work of translation, and almost exclusively deals with the nuts and bolts of running your career or freelance business. 

This is because I assume that if you’re looking to launch a career in translation services you already have the necessary training and education in the field (if not the experience) and you certainly aren’t looking for me to repeat the lessons you just absorbed in school.

What really surprises people, though, is how much of my advice centres on a single troublesome metric that has a tremendous impact on your work and your pay in this business: The pesky little thing called Word Count.

The Variable Invariable

Word Count seems so simple. You type words into a document, your word processor or other software simply counts them and reports back how many there are. Simple! And for translation workers (and writers and other professionals) this is how we’re often paid: By the word. When you agree to work on a translation project, you tally up how many words are in the documents and that’s how you get paid. Simple, yes?

Except, not so simple. Because different programs will return different results for Word Count, depending on several factors:

  • Do we count prepositions and linking words or not?
  • What language and Unicode character set are we agreed on using?
  • Which software package do we agree will return the ‘official’ Word Count?

Different software can return Word Count values that can differ up to 20% depending on these variables – which means your pay can vary up to 20% as well.

Dealing with Word Counts

Your best strategy for dealing with Word Counts is to agree up front which software package will be the ‘official’ count. This way, if nothing else, you can make accurate estimates on payment instead of relying on some unseen metric you have no control over.

It’s also a good idea to calibrate your Word Counts with your client by checking a few sample documents and ensuring you get the same results. Better to know up front there’s a problem than later when you’re trying to collect on an invoice.

Finally, there is a standard for compiling and calculating Word Counts – the GMX-V standard. Make sure your clients agree to follow it for the calculation of Word Counts and you will at least have a consistent formula for calculating this troublesome but vital metric.

It’s amazing that my whole life has come to revolve around something as banal as the Word Count reported by a piece of software. Always remember that software can have bugs and make mistakes – when you’re getting paid by the word, always double-check that number as best you can.

Image courtesy youtube.com

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The translation industry is a relatively small one but it’s also a highly competitive one. Basically, do your research on a translation agency prior to making initial contact and it will certainly pay off; perhaps not immediately because there may not be any work available at the time, so just be patient. Your application must stand out above the rest, and by following these simple steps you should have no problem whatsoever in achieving your translation goals.