How Much, If Anything, Should Translators Charge for Formatting?

Posted by: patenttranslator | August 11, 2013

Patent translators generally don’t need to worry about maintaining the exact formatting style of the original patent documents, partly because many patent application in foreign languages include numbered paragraphs, each  of which contains only one or a few sentences. This means that it is very easy to locate a corresponding paragraph in a Japanese or European patent application, and fortunately also that the translator is unlikely to skip a paragraph when all of the are
sequentially numbered.

But many patents contain tables, sometime very complicated tables taking up a whole page, and they often also have a number of graphs, flowcharts, drawings and illustrations at the end. All of this information must be scanned in and included in the translation since patents are often available only as a PDF file.

The question is, how much, if anything, should translators charge for this additional work? Tables can be quite complicated to recreate, but this timid patent translator never had the courage to charge clients extra for creating tables. I create tables for free and charge only for words and number contained in them.

While patent lawyers charge for their time in increments of 15 minutes, they don’t like it when translators try to do the same to them. More than 20 years ago when I was still greenhorn in the field of patent translation, I included a modest charge for 15 minutes of scanning on my invoice. The law firm paid the invoice, which came up to well over a thousand dollars based on the word count, but they did not pay the modest scanning fee.

So I stopped charging a scanning fee and instead started slowly increasing my per word rates, starting with the company that did not think that the  time I have to wast scanning graphic elements was worth anything at all to them.

It actually makes sense to throw something like that in for free because even if I spend for example several days translated a very long patent in PDF format that has a dozen pages of graphs and figures at the end, it rarely takes me more than an hour to scan and cut and paste the graphics into the word processed file, and I still do charge for the words contained in these figures that I have to translate.


But it is a very different story when I translate articles from technical and medical journals, or for example test reports, because these documents often have several figures and illustrations on each page and it can be very time consuming to match the dimensions of the illustration to the translated text.

When I am translating a similar article for a direct client, I still generally do not charge anything for the time spent scanning and formatting because I feel that since I am already charging a higher rate to all direct clients, I don’t need to do that.

When I am translating an article for a translation agency, I generally don’t do any scanning and formatting unless the agency agrees either to pay a higher per word rate, or pay an hourly rate for formatting in addition to the per word rate, which almost never happens.

The third option that I offer in these cases to agencies is to key-code the original test by assigning numbers or letters to the text in figures that must be translated and creating an additional PDF file of the key-coded original document. The project manager can they create the entire documents with the graphic elements based on my files.

There is only one agency that gets special treatment from me in that I include all the graphic elements in my translation for them without charging a cent extra for this – because this agency always pays me within a few days once they receive my invoice.


How do translators in the same field or in other fields handle this issue? I don’t know. I think that some have simply accepted the notion that the this kind of free “desktop publishing” task is  just another freebie that is naturally expected from them, similarly to obligatory discounts that many translators must agree to provide for so called “full matches” and “fuzzy matches” generated by computer assisted translation tools.

Call me crazy, but my time is really valuable to me.

I think that working for free when I spend a lot of time as an unpaid desktop publishing nerd is not a good use of the valuable commodity called time.

This is a commodity that is quite limited for all of us, as all of us will one day simply run out of it, with the possible exception of Mick Jagger, who is still singing and jumping up and down and around the stage exactly the way he was doing it 50 years ago.

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