In Japanese-English translation, it’s useful to be able to estimate how long the English translation will be based on the number of Japanese characters in the source document. If you bill by the output word, you want to be able to give the client a cost estimate upfront, and if you estimate your productivity by the output word, you want some idea of how long a job is going to take.

Early in my career, I arrived at 2.2 Japanese characters per English word as a rule of thumb; I get the impression that a lot of JA-EN translators use a number around this. If a client asks me for an estimate, I’ve used 2 characters per word just to cover my ass.

Back when I started out, most jobs arrived by fax, so it was a lot of work to get an accurate character count on the source text. These days, most of my work arrives in some sort of live text, so it’s a lot easier. For the past year, I’ve been tracking the length of both the source and target documents when possible (my desire to track data like this is part of the reason I’m dissatisfied with every job-tracking app out there), and have come up with some average values for characters per word that surprise me.

  • Client A (newspaper articles, corporate communications): 2.66 characters per word
  • Client B (press releases): 2.92 characters per word.
  • Client C (discursive programming documentation): 3.10 characters per word
  • Client D (verbose corporate procedures): 3.16 characters per word
  • Client E (variety): 2.28 characters per word

There are a few jobs in my archive with more than 4 characters per word. I’m not sure if I’ve become a more economical translator with age—I’d like to think so—but perhaps I need to rethink my rule of thumb. I’d like to know what numbers other translators come up with.