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Words and Productivity

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Translators' productivity is generally measured by output, that is to say words per hour or day. Some language prefer to make this measurement using characters, or lines or pages of text, per day.

So word counts are at the core of assessing a translator’s ability for professional purposes. In principle, any person can translate any text, if given enough time. In the extreme, this means I can translate anything, if I have the necessary years or decades to master the language and then the details of translating from it into English.

But time is money, so translators are expected to perform. Many translators are accused of insufficient productivity, but compared to whom? Let us step back and get a broad view of keyboard output.

First, some general numbers. A widely accepted level of productivity for a translator is 2,000 words per day. Assuming a normal working year, this yields roughly 500,000 words. By comparison, a 300-page paperback novel is about 100,000 words. So the typical translator reaching normal levels of productivity is producing the equivalent in text of five average works of fiction per year.

Of course, translators also have to send a lot of email, and do a lot of other keyboard work in the process of producing their translations, but here we'll ignore this, since the same could be said for other professions, and there's no good data available for such matters.

So a translator produces half a million words of text per year. A journalist, by contrast, writing an article per week, would produce about 50,000 words per year, assuming an article is 1,000 words long. That would be a long article by today's standards, but still the comparison is interesting since most people assume journalists write for a living, and their output is one-tenth of a translator's.

Technical writers probably produce 500 to 1,000 words per day, depending on where they work and the nature of their projects. Again, another profession in which writing is key, but the output is one-quarter to one-half of a translator's.

Other forms of writing, for instance entertainment, involve miniscule numbers of words. A movie script is perhaps 10,000 words long; a television drama half that length or less; a sit-com half again less. And Hollywood television writers produce no more than one per week for half the year, and screenwriters produce maybe a few dozen in a lifetime. Again, no comparison in output to a translator.

So in terms of raw output, translators rule. No other profession produces as much, most others not nearly as much. That translators burn out, develop repetitive strain injuries, or find themselves looking for a position that involves some translation and something else is not at all surprising, given the number of words they produce.

I recall in high school while writing a report about J.R.R. Tolkien and his work that he wrote over 5 million words in his lifetime. I was incredibly impressed back then. Now I realize that at half a million words per year, any translator who has been in the business for a decade has equaled Tolkien’s output, and in a four-decade career will translate 20 million words, the equivalent of 200 novels, which is more than most people read in a lifetime.

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