American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Word Counts and Confidentiality

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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Word Counts and Confidentiality

Word Counts and Confidentiality

This month's questions concern the practice of submitting a word count and the wording in a confidentiality agreement.

Dear Business Smarts:

Now that I have submitted my invoice, a client of mine is arguing over the word count of a project. The project included more than 80,000 words. In my word count, I deleted all tables of contents as well as headers and footers. Having used four different kinds of programs to figure out the word count, with each giving me a different number (one being thousands of words off), I decided to go with an average. Now the client says that there were already English words in the documents that shouldn't have been included in my count. I must admit that there were English words, as you can imagine there would be in any technical document.

How can one possibly discount these English words? How many were there in this project? 100? 1,000? 2,000? Regardless, the customer wants a 25% discount. I could offer a reduction for repetitive words, but I've already "bent over backwards." Any good advice?
— Wolfgang Brech

Dear Wolfgang:
  1. Were the English words really "English"? That is, were they written in English (proper orthography) in the proper place (English syntax)? For instance, "management" in the following sentence is NOT English: "Den Organen der Gesellschaft obliegt das Management." In this example: 1) the "English" word has to be corrected to lower case; and 2) the entire sentence must be written in English syntax.
  2. Did the English in the original consist of complete sentences or merely individual words? If the former, the client "may" have a point, but the issue still should have been discussed and settled before the translation. If the latter, see #1 above. Such "English" words must be processed in context and "fixed" accordingly.
  3. To obtain an approximate count of the English words in the original document (assuming it is a Word file), "you could try setting "autodetect language' and then search and replace all language: "= German (or English) with font = hidden text." I doubt it would be very accurate, but it may give some very rough indication of how many words the client is looking at.
  4. Probably the best argument you can advance is that a translation must be viewed (and made) from a holistic viewpoint. Individual words, be they in English or German, must be viewed within the context of the whole sentence, paragraph, and document and "processed" accordingly. Asking for a discount for "English" words in a German text is nonsense because these words must still be processed within such a context. Such a request is similar to the "logic" behind not paying for spaces between words because they aren't "words." Should we then not be paid for proper names because we don't "translate" them? Should we not be paid for numerals or paragraph markings because they aren't translated? "I. A. 1. b)" in "German" is "I. A. 1. b)" in "English," but I want to be paid for it.

Personally, I can't see granting ANY discount for English "words" in a German text. I could see not counting complete sentences, but not words. And as you have probably already shortchanged yourself by using an average word count, why take even less?
— Ted R. Wozniak, Freelance Translator


Several translation companies, even long-time ATA members, have sent me confidentiality agreements containing unacceptable wording. The clause would require me to return, at the end of the assignment, ALL documents related to it, including my own copy and computer file of the translation. Once my work leaves my hands it often undergoes several phases of editing and then desktop publishing by non-linguists, so errors may naturally occur. If a legal challenge to the translation subsequently arises, I would be left with no documentation whatsoever to defend myself. What should I do in such a situation?


My company's only experience with this issue has been very recent, when we were required by our client to return or destroy all paper or electronic materials associated with a project and to sign an affidavit stating that this had been done. So this situation may be becoming a fact of doing business in today's world. I recommend that the translator simply call the project manager at the company to discuss the situation in general, in a professional and collaborative tone and manner. Why is such an agreement being required? Is any part of the agreement negotiable? What is the project manager's answer to the translator's question about being able to defend himself? This conversation may or may not result in an acceptable arrangement between the company and the translator, and the translator may have to choose not to work on that project or for that agency, but at least a valuable attempt to understand and educate each other has been made.
— Kim Vitray, Administrator of ATA's Translation Company Division

Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: February 2006, pp 38