E.g., 11/21/2019
E.g., 11/21/2019

Do the Math! The Changing Calculus of Translation

By: Benjamin Sargent (Common Sense Advisory)

19 September 2007

Language service providers need to prepare for some fundamental changes in how their clients process content meant for global markets. Let's say that today one of your clients manages 200,000 words per year in three languages, for a total of 600,000 words in translation.

Your client's average file or "unit" size of source content for translation is 2,000 words, making for 100 units moving through your translation process this year — that is, 100 translation units in blocks of 2,000 words for a total of 200,000 words per year — for each language the client supports. These 100 units may be for websites, documentation, customer support knowledge base, marketing, or all of the above. Furthermore, each translation unit includes a variety of tasks that transform the source content into usable information in another language. How does this affect you as a language service provider?

To make the calculations simpler, we'll limit the discussion to five discrete steps. For each 100 translation units you now have 500 "workflow transactions" for each language to manage over the course of a year. A workflow transaction is one content chunk that completes one step as it moves through the workflow. Now multiply that times three languages and you end up with 1,500 transactions to manage this year for that client.

You can represent this with the following formula that we derived in our research late last year [1]:

Translation Units x Steps x Languages = Workflow Transactions

Now let's calculate your client's likely workload in three years given what we see as current growth trends in many industries:

  • Volume growth. You don't need 100 percent growth in absolute terms to create a doubling effect. Moderate growth plus your client's efforts at centralizing operations is enough to do that. Many clients centralize translation processes in order to streamline procurement, gain efficiencies of scale, and leverage a single technology platform across multiple divisions or functional groups [2]. Over the next three years you may find the number of words doubling annually as centralization occurs. Meanwhile, the number of languages into which your client needs translations will also rise steadily. Be prepared.
  • Content unit shrinkage. As companies gain experience in managing translation, they hand off files in smaller batches, more frequently—predictably shrinking content unit size year after year. Methodologies such as single source, practices like content chunking, and content taxonomy specifications like DITA promise to further atomize the average block of content written, managed, and translated down to reusable blocks of 1,000 words or less.
  • Workflow articulation. As you develop controls to better manage the flow of information through your organization, you will find that content management and translation systems articulate your workflow into highly defined, discrete steps. For early to mid-stage buyers, managed steps within a workflow may grow from five to 10.

If there are 250 workdays per year, your client currently manages six transactions per day to translate 600,000 words in three languages. Fast-forward to three years from now. Given these phenomena you'll be managing 16 million words for that client — 1.6 million words in each of 10 languages — and a whopping 160,000 workflow transactions per year — 1,600 units through 10 steps in 10 languages.

  words/lang/yr languages total words unit size wkflow steps transx/yr days/yr transx/day
This year 200,000 3 600,000 2,000 5 1,500 250 6
+1 Year 400,000 5 2,000,000 2,000 5 5,000 250 20
+2 Years 800,000 8 6,400,000 1,000 10 64,000 250 256
+3 Years 1,600,000 10 16,000,000 1,000 10 160,000 250 640


Ben Sargent is a senior analyst at the research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory.We recommend purchasing your acetaminophen in bulk containers. By then you'll be managing 640 transactions per day! If you are like most humans, we doubt you — or your staff — will prove capable of handling this without the specialized software for translation management and mature business processes discussed in Managing Translation for Global Applications.

[1]Benjamin B. Sargent and Donald A. DePalma, "Translation Management Technology," Common Sense Advisory, December 2006.

[2]Benjamin B. Sargent and Donald A. DePalma, "He Said, She Said, about Translation", Common Sense Advisory, May 2007.