Translation Tests: To do or not to do?
When to avoid or accept doing a translation test.
Most translators will probably face this dilemma at some point in their career. In the fifteen plus years I've been working as a freelancer, I’ve been asked to do tests on several occasions. But should you do them?
Well, let me start with a story.
When I first started out, I hadn't really entertained the idea that there might be bogus agencies out there. Bad payers yes, but not translation thieves! Parasitic companies that ask translators to do tests to get their clients’ projects done for free.
I was only a few months into my freelance career when an agency contacted me, asking me if I could do a translation test, with the promise that there would be more work if I passed. New to the game and eager to get established, I stupidly agreed to do a free translation of approximately 4000 characters. [I saw you shake your head and roll your eyes then].
To be honest, I did have my suspicions, but I'd checked their website - they seemed a legit agency - and we'd exchanged several e-mails. N.B.: they were always very responsive during the negotiations and when I had any questions about the job...
Anyway, I finished the job on time, sent it off and awaited their almighty verdict. Nothing came. I sent them an e-mail, asking them if they’d received the work, but they never replied. I chased them again: not a bleep came from my inbox.
So, I went on the company's website to look up their telephone number and, to my horror – and shame –, I discovered they didn't have one. Again, mia colpa, I should have known better. I'd checked just about everything else except that one extremely important detail.
I'd been taken for a proverbial ride.
Determined not to let it happen again, I started trawling the online forums and found quite a lot of sensible advice – as well as disagreement – on whether it was good practice to do translation tests or not.
Armed with this contrasting but valuable knowledge, I decided that I would only do a translation test under very special circumstances, i.e. if a reputable client was offering a long-term contact, and, in any case, I would never do a test of more than one file (I usually work on a 1500 characters, spaces included basis, which is roughly half a page).
This decision has, in fact, served me well for the rest of my career, and I’m usually able to spot one of these rats a mile off now.
Which brings me to the reason for this post.
Last month I responded to an advert for an Italian-English book translator. They said they were selecting for long-term translators – the guy claims he is an experienced publisher, who is launching a new publishing house – and that they would be in touch with the short-listed candidates in September. I also checked him up online: he didn't have a company website yet, but he did appear to have a history in publishing…
Well, what do you know? Yesterday I got an e-mail from this, ahem, ‘publisher’, who said that they were now contacting all of the translators to ‘wheedle out’ the ‘false mother tongue speakers’ (i.e. those with a British surname, who might not be pure native speakers, because they’ve grown up in Italy, for example) and that if I wanted to be considered for the job I would basically have to do a two-page [!] translation test of the book. After which, if I passed his 'exacting standards', he would send me the details about the payment terms and conditions, etcetera.
Come again? So you’re basically saying you want me to do a two-page translation of a book, without even telling me when the deadline is or what the payment terms and conditions are going to be? Sei matto? (Are you mad?)
For a conscientious professional, a book translated by multiple translators is enough to keep the author, translators, proofreader and publishers awake at night - for life.
But this sly customer doesn’t care, because he’s hedged his bets on getting his job done super quick – and practically for FREE! Capisici?
So, I wrote back, politely telling him that as a busy professional, I am not prepared to do a two-page translation test; a shorter test would be enough to understand the quality of my work. And, that I would like to know the payment terms and conditions before I even consider his offer.
Guess what? I haven’t heard a peep from him since…
So, after all my rambling, what you probably want to know is when should you agree to do a test translation? Well, it really depends on the case, but here’s a few tips that should help guide you in making a decision.
Forewarned is forearmed
If you’ve vetted a company as much as you can (by Googling, checking the translator forums, etc.,) and you agree to do a test, make sure the text is short. It’s also important to check – you can usually tell just by reading it – whether it’s actually a snippet from a full text or a finished piece. If it looks like a finished piece and your instincts are telling you to run for the hills, run for the hills!
Today, the only people I do tests for are usually reputable companies or translation agencies, who ask me for a ‘reasonable’ test, i.e. not a ridiculously long one. This shows they understand the job and also appreciate the time and effort that goes into a translation.
It ain’t necessarily so
In any case, bear in mind that even serious translation agencies won’t necessarily ask you for a test. They will usually try you out on a [paid] short job to see how you work first, then, if they like what you do, they’ll use you again.
Terms and conditions
Always get them to provide you with the date of the deadline and the payment terms and conditions in writing before agreeing to do any test. If they won’t give you this information they’re probably up to something and should be avoided.
The personal touch
If possible, have a telephone or Skype call with the potential client first. Even better, if they’re in your area and the deadline allows, arrange to meet in person. That way you’ll have a better idea of who and what you’re dealing with. Usually, most serious clients will be more than happy to Skype, talk on the phone or meet face-to-face.
Set firm boundaries
Where reasonable, impose your own limitations on the interested party politely, stating that you usually only do translation tests of approximately 750 characters, which will be more than sufficient to evaluate the style and accuracy of your work. You will soon get an idea of their true intentions.
Obviously, there’s always the risk of making a mistake and even when you’re really cautious you can still be conned. But, if you stay within the less than 1500 character rule, you’ll probably feel a lot better about it than if you slogged over a couple of pages work for nothing.