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 How we count lines

We calculate with 55 characters per line including spaces, using the count function in MS Word. This is a rather controversial point in the translation community.

Several years ago, I had several discussions with a couple of major translation companies concerning this very problem. One company insisted on a line count using Transit, or used the analysis function in Trados, while another company used a different counting tool altogether. Neither wanted to consider my combination of the count functions in MS Word and my favourite text editor, NoteTab, the main reason being that Word was not reliable. In both cases, I would have had to accept a considerably smaller number of lines than I had actually translated.

At this point I must say that opinions often differ with regard to how previously translated text segments should be counted. In one specific case (concerning the CAT tool Joust, although I cannot remember the exact details; I only know that the discrepancy was rather considerable), the company simply could not understand why nobody else had ever questioned how they counted lines. However, I was able to prove beyond doubt that the company’s figures were incorrect, indeed to such a degree that it made a difference of several hundred deutschmarks.

I stumbled by chance on a survey on the Internet, which finally justified my suspicions and reasoning, and I was able to issue invoices for the correct number of lines. I have been using my method ever since. In the survey, Trados and Transit admittedly both delivered the same results, but the point of the exercise was to prove firstly, that considerable discrepancies can occur, and secondly, that Word is not as unreliable as many people maintain.

The original survey (in English) originated from the website of Triacom, a translation agency in Northern Germany. The survey, which has meanwhile been updated, deals with ascertaining the number of words in a given text, but it can be applied to the problem of establishing the number of characters.

You can also find the survey below (we would like to thank the author, Per Dohler, for giving his approval to publish it here).

A concrete example:

Several years ago, a freelance translator claimed a line count for his translation which differed considerably from the number of lines I had calculated. I must emphasise, however, that the translator was up to this point not aware of the problem, and that we came to an amicable agreement:

“I have analysed your translation using three different versions of MS Word, in NoteTab (an extremely powerful tool, which I would recommend to anybody) and in Lotus WordPro, and all five applications delivered the same result: 386 words and (important for our needs) 2470 characters. I consider the result given by CountIt (the count tool used by the translator) to be incorrect. In the survey, this software also delivered a very poor result, which was only rivalled by Textcount and WordPerfect for Mac. Interesting, don’t you think!”

In this case the discrepancy amounted to 33 %, which would be totally unacceptable for a translation of any reasonable length.

Word processor word counts

  • Introduction

Word counts of several common word processors are commonly said not to agree. We wanted to check if this is true.

  • Materials and Methods

A standard text containing about 400 words were counted by different people on their word processors and counting programs. The sample text is given at the end of this page.

  • Results

The results are shown in the following table. The word counts seem to converge over the years, and it appears that the most popular word processor, Microsoft Word, has influenced these word counts.

  •  Discussion

The results speak for themselves….

But perhaps it is worth pointing out that the discrepancy in word counts will be significantly greater in some texts than others, for example if the text contains many hyphenated words, which are treated as single words by some word count programs and as two by others. Other discrepancies can be explained by the fact that some programs that used to be very popular stubbornly refused to count numbers.

  • Acknowledgements

We would like to thank all those who helped us establish word counts for their word processors.

  • Sample Text


Hamburg, a major city in north central Germany, is both an incorporated municipality and one of the sixteen states that make up Germany. It is located on the Elbe River about 110 km (68 mi) from the point at which the Elbe empties into the North Sea. Hamburg covers an area of 754 km2 (291 sq mi) and has a population of 1,600,400 (1984 est.). Because of Hamburg’s low elevation and proximity to the sea, its weather is humid and mild. The average annual precipitation is about 715 mm (28 in.).

Hamburg is laid out in the form of a semicircle that is based on the eastern bank of the Elbe River and is bisected by the Alster River, a tributary of the Elbe, which is dammed to form a lake. The old part of the city, traversed by many canals, lies on the eastern side of the lake, and the newer part lies on the western side. During the 19th and 20th centuries Hamburg grew to its present size by incorporating the numerous communities around it. In 1842 much of the old city was destroyed by fire. After the destruction during World War II, Hamburg was again largely rebuilt.

Hamburg’s main economic asset is its port, which ranks among the largest and busiest in Europe. Shipping is also the basis of the city’s highly developed industries. The city’s international airport is one of the busiest in Germany. Its educational and cultural facilities include the University of Hamburg (1919), several music conservatories, symphony orchestras, museums, and theaters. The best-known theater is the Hamburg State Opera. The world-famous Hagenbeck Zoo is also inside the city.

Hamburg originated early in the 9th century AD, when Charlemagne built the Hammaburg fortress at the confluence of the Elbe and Alster rivers; he also founded (811) a Christian church there. Hamburg became (834) an archbishopric that was given the mission of christianizing Jutland and Scandinavia. In 845 and several times thereafter, however, it was plundered and burned by Danish and Slav invaders. In 1189, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I granted the city substantial privileges, including its own judiciary, exemption from tolls, and the right of fishery from the city to the mouth of the Elbe. During the 13th century Hamburg became a member of the Hanseatic League. In 1815 it joined the German Confederation. The city was incorporated into the German Empire in 1871.