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How long does it take to translate a document?

For most people who are not intimately familiar with foreign languages, translation just seems to be a matter of getting words onto paper—typing.   Indeed, the phrase “I’d like an English text transcribed into…” is often heard in the industry.  Not to split hairs, but translation and transcription are two very different activities.  Transcription to a linguist is the act of recording spoken words in written form, in the same language.  Translation is rendering one language into another.

But translation is still a matter of word processing and a keyboard is every translator’s trusted tool.  As is to be expected, most translators are good typists, and typing 55 words per minute comes easy to most.  If an  8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper is formatted with margins of one inch, double line spacing and a font of 12 points, such a page will hold approx. 250 words.  So you’d think the average translator could crank out one of those every 5 minutes or so.

To the contrary.

So how long does it take to translate a document?  On average it takes about 2–3 days to translate a document of about 4,000 – 6,000 words or about 16-24 pages of text.  Most translators will quote an average translation volume of about 2,000 – 3,000 words per day or about 8-12 pages.  Even the best will “only” produce about 5,000 words or about 20 pages per day.

What takes so long—and why?  Just like writing good prose in a single language, translation is inherently labor intensive, as surely anyone who remembers struggling with a college paper will recall. Good translation requires good writing skills and thoughtful decision making to capture the meaning and intent of the message.  It is a mental balancing act of thinking in two languages.  Is the wording I’ve chosen too literal—will it sound like a translation?  Or is it so loose that it really does stray too far from the original and is no longer an accurate reflection of the source text? The translator’s mind is often busy translating the target language back to the source language to make sure it reflects the original—with good style, grammar, syntax and word choice. There are many ways any given sentence can be translated, and translation is the process of sorting through the options and settling on the best one.

And just because something has been committed to paper, does not mean it is done.  After a first draft of the translation has been produced, a diligent translator will carefully compare this translation to the source text, line by line, to make sure there are no omissions or errors of translation.  With that accomplished, proofreading is the next step.  Now the translation by itself without reference to the source text is polished and fine-tuned so that it reads well without any orthographical, punctuation or stylistic errors.

By definition, good translators are good writers.  But as anyone who has had to write a text for public consumption knows, what really contributes to a well-crafted text is time.  Having the luxury of time to put a text away for a day or two, to not look at it long enough so it actually fades from memory, is perhaps the best thing a writer can do.  Because a fresh set of eyes will see many things a tired brain just cannot.

So when trying to determine how long does it takes to translate a document, always consider: the time spent away from a text is just as important as the time spent concentrating on it. For more information about the translation process, please visit our Best Practices—Translations.

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