Posted by: patenttranslator | October 27, 2010

Which Professionals Offer Free Samples Of Their Work As Willingly As “Professional” Translators?

Some time ago I participated in an online discussion of translators on the topic of free translation tests. Somebody, a beginning translator, asked whether it is customary for translators to agree to “do a translation test” for free for a prospective customer, almost always a translation agency. If you Google “translation tests”, you will find many translators discussing this subject, such as for instance here. What this mild mannered and soft spoken patent translator said on one occasion on this subject, was approximately the following: “Translators who automatically agree to work for free clearly display even less pride in their profession than crack whores. As far as I know, prostitutes do not offer a free BJ when they are promised the prospect of potential further work at some point in the future. But when an agency asks a translator to do their “test translation”, many if not most translators will agree to work for free.” My innocent remark, which, as far as I know, is factually correct, caused some gentle ladies in that group to denounce me for using such crude and inappropriate language. But what is the polite term for a crack whore? What is a more polite, gentler term for “a BJ”? I don’t know. I do know that this is probably the lowliest of all possible occupations to which a vulnerable, desperate human being may debase herself. That is why I chose to use this example. Yet, most prostitutes will not agree to do what many if not most “professional” translators will readily accept – working for free in exchange for a promise of potential work at some point in the future. Some of the gentle ladies in that discussion group eventually came around and expressed support for my position. Nevertheless, I was eventually “unsubscribed” from this particular discussion group for this and other thought crimes, see my blog here.

Why are translators asked by agencies to submit to a demeaning, free sample of their professional capabilities in the form of a free translation test? Would you dream of asking another professional such as an accountant, a lawyer, or even the guy with a lawnmower who comes a few times a month to mow your grass because you are too lazy to do it yourself to give you a free sample first? Probably not. This would not be advisable especially with the guy with the lawnmower. He probably works out and the situation might escalate from a simple verbal disagreement to something more physical than verbal.

I think that the major reason for this sad state of affairs, in addition to the abysmally low self esteem of translators, is the fact that most agency coordinators are unable to determine on their own who is a good translator and who is probably not translator material at all, mostly because they don’t speak or read most or any of the languages they “handle”. Since they don’t know Japanese, they want to send you a few hundred words to translate from Japanese to English and then compare your translation to an existing translation. If they do speak Japanese, they usually don’t know English well enough to be able to evaluate a new translation. If they both know Japanese and are really fluent in English, they usually don’t know enough about the particular field, such as patent or financial translation.

Because if they knew both the source and target language, as well as the field in question, why would they want to work for a translation agency? They could work for a Wall Street firm or for a major patent law firm for a decent salary right out of college instead of having to work for the salary of an agency coordinator. That is why many coordinators working for agencies are often well meaning but clueless individuals, oftentimes fresh out of college, who are sometime just biding their time before they can find a better job in a different field, or before they leave to start their own agency.

However, I am not completely against all free translation samples. If you are a well established entity, such as a law firm or even a respected translation agency, I will consider working for free for you. But only if I have concrete information about the potential reward for the free sample of my work, such as your description of a box of Japanese documents from a medical study that need to be translated within the next few months. If you want me to work for free for you, I need to know what is in it for me if I agree to demean myself by working for free. Come to think of it, I have never been asked for a free sample under these circumstance by a law firm. Lawyers generally don’t work for free and they generally don’t expect other people to work for them for free either. I do remember that an agency asked me 22 years ago to translate a German document as a free sample for their client. At first I refused and pointed out that it is unethical to ask people to work for free. But when the guy explained the situation to me and asked me politely to do it for free just this once, I eventually did accommodate him. This resulted in the first major translation project in the career of this freelance translator which lasted more than six months.

The fact that translators are customarily asked for a free sample of their work is in my opinion a reflection of the arrogant and ignorant attitude toward translators on the part of not only translation agencies, but of the general public as well. Here is a sampling of search engine terms that were used by people who found my blog today and yesterday:”how long have human translators got?”, “why need human translators”, “good business software to translate my w”.

I don’t know what this “w” was, but apparently all that was needed to translate it was “good business software”.

We human translators should be grateful that there is work for us out there at all, even when we are asked to work for free.  After all, everybody knows that within a few years, human translators will be replaced by “good business software”.

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