In France, a legal translation done by a professional translator specializing in law can cost anywhere between €0.15 and €0.30 per word or between €40 and €100 per hour (excl. VAT). In some situations, it may cost as much as €0.50 per word. The exact price will depend on many factors that are specific to each translator and project.
How can you estimate legal translation costs? Why is there such a wide range of rates? And what can you do to receive your translation on time and at a fair price without compromising on quality? Let’s find out.
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How Can You Estimate Legal Translation Costs?
Let’s imagine that you need a 5,000-word IT contract translated from English into French. Before looking for a translator or asking for a quote, take a moment to analyze your project.
Think about the document type: A contract is likely the most common legal document sent for translation. This means two things:
- Most legal translators have experience with contracts, and many cite contracts as one of their areas of specialization.
- You could expect the quoted rate to be on the lower end — i.e., closer to €0.15 than to €0.30 per word.
Factor in complexity: Let’s pretend that your contract is well-drafted, but complex — with IT jargon and technical annexes. This means that:
- This document requires a legal translator who won’t be put off by its IT components and who can translate them properly. A translator specializing in law and IT — or in IT law — would be your best option.
- The quoted rate might be a bit higher than for a standard contract — perhaps between €0.18 and €0.22 per word.
Do the math: As a result, this translation might cost between €900 and €1,100 — before any surcharges for urgency or other reasons.
Consider the deadline: Let’s assume that your translator expects this project to take them 12.5 to 20 hours (with an output ranging from 250 to 400 words per hour):
- If your translator can work on it full time, they may need two or three days (plus at least one extra day if they want to let the translation rest before proofreading it).
- Of course, prior commitments may require your translator to spread out your project over a week or to postpone it until they have availability.
- If you need the translation by a specific date, it might require them to work in the evening or at the weekend and you can expect this to affect the price.
You may of course encounter a legal translator who charges a bit less or a bit more, and works faster or slower, but this should give you a good starting point. Based on this analysis, you should be wary if a translator quotes you a rate of €0.10 per word or offers same-day delivery for the project.
Keep reading to understand where those numbers come from and what other factors can affect translation costs.
What Does Legal Translation Entail?
Translation is a specialized service that is too often treated as a commodity. Per-word pricing doesn’t help change this perception, as it gives the impression that a translator’s job merely consists in replacing one word with another.
However, what goes on behind the scenes during a translation project is more complex — and each document type comes with its own challenges. To understand why, let’s see what the process entails and discuss the challenges of legal translation.
The Translation Process
There are three main steps in the translation process:
Drafting: we produce a first draft in the target language, dissecting the source text to understand it fully, doing ample research (for information and terminology), and adding comments as needed.
Revision: we compare this draft with the original document to make sure that we didn’t leave anything out, fixing any mistranslations or ambiguities, and doing additional research if necessary.
Proofreading: we read the target text alone — preferably a few times — to correct any errors, rephrase awkward sentences, and improve the style.
Sometimes we only start drafting after conducting preparatory research. Before translating a contract, I may read about the parties and the products or services involved in the deal. When faced with a document type I have never translated before, I may seek more information to understand what I am about to translate and how it should be rendered in French.
Before moving on to step 3, it is always better to let the text rest at least for a few hours or overnight — ideally several days or more. We need to create some distance from the original document so we can look at our translation as a standalone text.
Two Translators Are Better Than One
After completing this process, we might send the documents to a second translator for another round of revision and proofreading. Some translators include this service in their fees, while others only provide it upon request and charge extra for it.
Having a fresh pair of eyes look at the translation has several advantages:
- A second translator can pinpoint any issues we might have missed, such as misinterpretations, ambiguities, inconsistencies, grammatical errors, typos, etc.
- They may shed new light on a term or turn of phrase, uncover relevant sources, and provide unique insights to improve the translation.
- They may ask questions we haven’t considered, challenge our choices, and prompt us to dig deeper.
Collaboration helps ensure the quality and accuracy of the translation. It is also a great way for translators to learn from each other and keep honing their skills.
The Challenges of Legal Translation
Each type of legal document — such as a judicial decision, a trust instrument, or a patent — comes with its own challenges. You can ask your translator to go into more detail about these to better understand how they will approach your document.
A legal translation project often involves two languages, two countries, and two legal systems. Since each legal system has its own internal logic, it relies on concepts that may not exist in other systems, and terms that may not have equivalents in other languages. While this challenge can exist in other fields, it is much more common in legal translation.
In addition, authors of legal documents often write or copy and paste “legalese,” making legal documents more complicated than they should be. They may use a legal term where everyday language would have the same effect, favor Latin or archaic jargon over modern language, or write overly long and complex sentences containing errors and ambiguities.
Such challenges are better handled by trained legal translators, who know how to research legal terms, unravel intricate sentences, and choose the right approach to translating your document — retaining complexity or simplifying as needed.
What Should You Consider Besides The Price?
What clients are really paying for are the translator’s experience, qualifications, expertise, and soft skills — which all contribute to the added value we bring, but aren’t easily factored into our pricing.
When looking for a legal translator, you must take these aspects into account, as a bad translation can be quite costly.
Qualifications and CPD
In many countries, anyone can set up shop as a translator. Alongside experienced professionals, you may find students and “bilinguals” who have never studied translation and have limited practice to make up for this lack of training. For this reason, you should entrust your document to a professional with a translation qualification or extensive experience as a translator.
However, when it comes to legal translation, this may not be enough. The intricacies of the documents we translate often require extra training and continuing professional development (CPD) (see examples). “Learning never stops. We must keep up with changes in language or law and in the areas we specialize in, and learn new skills we can bring to our work.”1
Higher rates can reflect a legal translator’s specialized knowledge and CPD efforts, which normally result in better quality work. But price can’t be a guarantee — you need to make sure that your translator has the necessary expertise.
Specialization within Legal Translation
Just like lawyers, legal translators often specialize. We may focus on:
- one or a few areas of law, such as corporate law, private client law, or property law;
- certain document types, such as contracts, official documents, or judicial decisions; or
- a specific client type, such as European institutions, humanitarian organizations, or individuals.
For instance, relying on my background in information technology (IT), I decided to serve IT companies and their legal partners. This led me to specialize in contracts, IT law, and data protection. While I am open to projects outside this scope, I focus my CPD and marketing efforts on these subjects. This is my sweet spot, or niche.
This niche differentiates me from other legal translators and gives me more credibility to translate documents that require my specific skill set. As for my clients, having a translation partner who knows their industry and understands their goals and challenges makes collaboration easier.
How Does a Legal Translator Quote for a Project?
Translation rates can vary so much because each translator sets their own rates based on their target income, professional expenses, hourly and daily output, etc. As you just saw, we may also take into account the qualifications or specialized expertise that set us apart.
Some translators set a standard per-word rate and quote for every project using that same rate, making the price predictable for returning clients. Others consider that each project is unique and price it accordingly. Time may also play a part in how we quote for a project.
To help you analyze your project, let’s have a look at the criteria that a translator may consider when quoting:
- document type (e.g. contract, will, judicial decision, or statute);
- document length (often the number of words);
- quality and complexity of the source text;
- country and legal system;
- area of law;
- presence of terminology from other fields (e.g. finance or technology);
- available reference documents;
- purpose of the translation;
- deadline and level of quality requested by the client;
- particular requests (e.g. using plain language); etc.
We may also take into account more subjective and fleeting criteria, such as:
- current or expected availability;
- interest in working with the client;
- interest in the project; etc.
Surcharges may apply in specific situations (e.g. urgent projects, night work, poorly drafted source text, scanned documents, complex layout and formatting, or additional services).
To understand — or predict — the price and turnaround time quoted by a translator, you need to have at least a vague idea of how many hours or days your legal translation project can take.
The time needed to translate your document will depend on:
- your document’s length and complexity;
- our experience with the document type, area of law, and subject matter;
- the tools we use (e.g. computer-assisted translation tools, speech recognition software); etc.
Based on my experience, a legal translator’s output can be anything between 150 and 1,000 words per hour on a specific project — and is more likely to be between 250 and 500 words per hour on average.
You should also be aware that your translator can only dedicate a limited number of hours to your project every day. For an intellectually demanding activity, a sustainable pace is about four hours of focused work per day. Not to mention that we have other clients to cater to and other tasks to complete.
For these reasons, a translator’s daily output is estimated to be around 2,000 or 2,500 words. But we can of course work longer hours or leverage technology to meet a short deadline.
What About Translation Agencies?
I can’t give you a clear picture of translation rates without mentioning translation agencies. A translation agency is a company that hires independent translators as contractors to provide translation services to its clients. It might also employ in-house translators.
Many professionals prefer to hire legal translators directly — for instance, because they want to know the person who will translate their document. If this isn’t what you are looking for, here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a translation agency.
Two Approaches to Quoting
When you ask a translation agency for a quote, the agency has two options:
- Set a price of €X based on your requested deadline, then look for a translator who will accept a rate of €Y (equal to €X minus the agency’s margin) to deliver the translation by that deadline.
- Look for a translator who can deliver the translation by that deadline, then set a price of €X based on the rate requested by the translator plus the agency’s markup.
To keep things simple, I didn’t include revision by a second translator or the need for a longer deadline.
The second approach to quoting is preferable, as it ensures that qualified legal translators contacted by the agency will consider your project. With the first approach, they may be offered a price that wouldn’t allow them to spend adequate time on research or proofreading.
While translation agencies often send quotes within an hour, be careful of lightning-speed quotes. Some agencies send you a quote before making sure that a qualified translator is available. Others email several translators about your potential project and select whoever replies first, even when that person barely had time to look at your document before replying.
Margins and Prices
For their services, agencies usually keep between 30 and 50% of the full price. For instance, if a translation agency quotes you a rate of €0.15 per word, the translator may receive between €0.075 and €0.105 per word. While translators recognize the value of agencies, such rates may not attract experienced professionals specializing in the legal field.
A reliable agency should charge a rate that attracts the best legal translator for your project and allows them to give it the time and attention it requires. While a high price doesn’t guarantee quality, a low price or short deadline should be a red flag.
For these reasons, it is especially important that you shop around and look into agencies’ practices, rather than base your decision solely on price and turnaround time.
If an agency can’t find a freelance translator in their own database, it may place your project with a different agency from its network. This “nesting dolls” set-up means that:
- The second agency will need to deduct its own margin from the price, resulting in an even lower rate — and less attractive offer — for the translator.
- The translator will have less time to complete your project, as the subcontractor agency will need to take delivery of the translation earlier than the first agency.
- The number of intermediaries may hinder communication — for instance, you might not receive the translator’s questions.
- This also poses issues in terms of confidentiality and traceability, as your document may end up in mailboxes around the world without your knowledge.
Make sure to ask your agency what will happen if it can’t find the right translator for your project. A reliable agency should be transparent as to whether or not they rely on other agencies to place your project with a translator.
Before asking for a quote, there are some things you can do to reduce the costs and turnaround time without compromising on quality. Some of those things can even improve the relationship with your translator.
While legal translations are often needed as soon as possible — if not “yesterday” — there are some instances in which you can plan ahead. This has several advantages:
- You can ask your translator in advance to book time for your project in their schedule, ensuring that they will be available when you need them.
- You can give them more time to translate your document, ensuring that they won’t need to apply a surcharge for urgency or night work.
- You can offer to pay your translator before the project starts in exchange for a discount — of course, they may not agree.
Planning ahead also means that your translator won’t have to share your project with (or delegate it to) a colleague — which would increase the risk of late delivery — nor sacrifice translation quality, or their health, for the sake of speed. This can even lead to a more pleasant collaboration.
Reduce the Scope
At the macro level: If your project includes several documents, are there any that you don’t need translated right now, or at all?
- Maybe your client or the other party needs ample time to study the French version of the main contract, but can wait a bit longer for the translation of the data protection schedule.
- If you need an IT contract translated, there might be some technical annexes that the parties can both understand in English and agree not to translate.
At the micro level: Are there any sections that you can remove or summarize?
- Besides lowering translation costs, removing superfluous information will make your English document quicker and easier to read.
- This is also a good opportunity to read through your document again and correct any typos, spot any ambiguities, fix the layout, and so on.
Make Things Easier
Some translators may offer a lower price if you can find ways to make their job easier. For instance:
- Instead of a PDF document, can you provide a Word document with a clean layout and fix any optical character recognition mistakes yourself?
- Have you had any documents translated in the past that closely relate to — or overlap with — the one you need translated now, and if so, can you share them with your translator?
There are other things you can do that may not result in a lower price, but can affect the quality of your translation and the relationship with your translator:
- Can you provide any background information on the document, its target audience, and the parties involved?
- If your document includes any words or expressions that may not be understood outside your organization, can you provide definitions for those?
- If your legal document relates to a digital product — such as a contract involving a website, an app, or a piece of software — can you offer to show them how it works?
If you anticipate needing other documents translated, taking some time to get to know your translator — and allowing them to find out more about your organization — may be a sound investment:
- You may find out that they offer additional services or have complementary skills that could help you in other areas of your business.
- As they become more familiar with your products, services, or audience, your translator may ask fewer questions, make relevant suggestions, and share useful industry news or resources.
- Since they work with other professionals from your industry, they may be able to put you in touch with potential clients or business partners.
Over time, communication and collaboration with your translator may become so smooth that you may come to think of them as part of your team. That kind of relationship is priceless!
I hope this article answered all your questions about legal translation costs and how to keep them low. If not, feel free to contact me on LinkedIn. And if you need a legal document translated from English into French, you can of course ask me for a quote!
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On this blog: Learning Contract Drafting: Parallels with Translation ↩︎
Hello! I’m an English-to-French translator based in Marseille, France. When I’m not translating legal documents or SEO content for IT companies, I’m rewriting legalese into plain language. On this blog, I share thoughts and information on diverse topics at the crossroads of translation, law, and IT.