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Different Languages, Different Word Length

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May 23, 2017

let's count words

When one language is translated into another, text contraction or text expansion occurs. For instance, if a source document with 1,000 Arabic words is to be translated into English, it would be converted into about 1,250 words. Alternatively, if English is the source text with 1,000 words and it is translated into Dutch, for instance, the average converted word count would total 900 words.

Knowing how to count words in different languages is important to the LSP business. Some agencies choose to charge per “target” word, which gives the client an idea of how much their translation will cost. Other agencies charge per “source” word (learn about translation rates). But, documents aren’t always in a format that allows for the calculation of words. For instance, if a document is in graphic form or even handwritten, it can be time-consuming and challenging to charge per target word, that’s why agencies charge a flat rate.

A few things to consider when counting words

Besides the unpredictability of counting characters and target words, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Width of characters

Languages like Korean and Japanese are scripts that tend to have a series of complicated characters compared to those languages with Latin script. So, even if the number of characters is the same after translation, the horizontal spacing may have to be considerably bigger. Take the word “desktop” in English. In Japanese, it becomes, “デスクトップ.” While the Japanese version has one less character, it still takes up more horizontal space.

  1. Compound nouns

Languages like Dutch, German, and Finnish have single, rather large words, to replace what would be a sequence of smaller words in some other languages. For example, the German, “eingabeverarbeitungsfunk” is “input processing features” in English.

  1. Abbreviations

If the text must be abbreviated to get it to fit into a restricted space, think carefully. Some languages cannot replicate abbreviations and the text may land up being bigger once translated. In certain languages, abbreviations are not particularly common. For instance, Arabic words are typically devised from rather compact roots with suffixes, prefixes, and only minor changes to the precise and express meaning. This means it can be challenging to abbreviate an Arabic word without losing its meaning.

  1. Expansion rate

The translation volume can impact the expansion rate. So, if you have a short compilation of words, the expansion percentage is going to be higher than that of longer texts.

  1. Subject matter

Legal and medical texts are usually longer once they have been translated. That’s because the linguist has less carte blanche to re-write the translation into shorter sentences as even the tiniest detail in such a text can make a drastic difference.

Examples of expansion and contraction

Language Into English From English
Danish 10% – +15% -10% – -15%+
Arabic -20% – -25% +20% – +25%
Finnish +30% – +40% -25% – -30%
Japanese +20% – +60% -10% – -55%
Swedish +10% -10%

Language word count can vary significantly. Understanding the above factors and taking them into consideration will help you when it comes to quoting on translation projects.

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