The first time when I was asked for a free translation test was in 1987. Even back then, as a newcomer to the profession, I refused to do it. I don’t work for free, I told the lady who called me from a translation agency in downtown San Francisco. Her name was Mrs. Namicas and she was from Chile. I kind of liked her, but I started having second thoughts about her when she told me that Pinochet was not as bad as people made him out to be. Even after all those years, everything is still fresh in my mind. Personally, I thought that Augusto was a pretty bad boy.
But then the owner of the agency called me and asked whether I could stop at their office on Market Street because he wanted to talk to me. So I took the elevator to fifth floor as I needed to buy something at a bookstore in downtown anyway, and the guy talked me into doing the free test as a favor to him that would be much appreciated.
When he put it like that, I felt that I could not really refuse. It so happens that I am one of those people who can be often talked into doing things that they originally didn’t want to do. (The technical term for these people is “pushovers”).
As a result of this test translation of German legalese, which took me about an hour, I then spent quite a long time translating mostly articles from German medical journals for a law firm in San Francisco on a project which continued on and off for about a year. It was my first “big job”. Up until that point I did not even know that big projects like this existed. I thought that translator’s life was a series of smallish and biggish jobs.
After this initial free test, I must have refused over the years dozens of free tests for various agencies. Interestingly enough, I have never been asked for a free test by a direct customer. Unlike translation agencies, patent law firms for some reason don’t expect people to work for them for free.
I feel strongly that as a rule, translators who think of themselves as experienced and qualified should refuse to work for free for the mere promise of future work. A translator who agrees to work for free is acknowledging that his work is potentially worthless, which means that if somebody pays him for this work just about anything, this person is doing the translator a big favor.
I even once said in an online discussion that prostitutes have more pride in their profession than translators because prostitutes generally don’t give free samples of their work …. while translators think nothing of doing a free test for just about anyone who happens to be dangling the carrot of potential work in front of their hungry faces.
I was eventually excommunicated from that particular translators’ discussion group where I dared to practice the First Amendment to US Constitution a little bit too much in this manner for the taste of the group’s Moderator whom I called “Terminator” in this post which is already 3 years old.
Unless you know the person who wants you to work for free, and unless this person knows that you are doing him a huge favor, I don’t think it is a good idea for translators to offer freebees to people they don’t even know who may be promising projects that don’t even exist.
The only occupation that I can think of where free samples are common is the acting profession.
When a film director is looking for just the right type of an actor or actress for a new role, a large number of usually inexperienced and often horrible actors or actresses is asked to give a free sample at an “audition”.
But how many times were Harrison Ford or Julia Roberts asked to give a free sample at an audition? Probably only once, when they were still very young and inexperienced: Harrison Ford for his role in “Star Wars” and Julia Roberts for her role in “Pretty Woman”. After that first audition, real actors no longer perform for free, they are usually offered roles which they can accept or turn down. They don’t need to go anymore to what is known in Hollywood as “cattle calls”.
If you have been translating for years and you feel that you still need to keep offering free tests for an uncertain promise of potential work, one thing is for sure: You ain’t no Harrison Ford, and you ain’t no Julia Roberts of the translating profession.
You can be easily replaced by the next person with a pulse calling himself or herself “translator”.
And that is exactly what is going to happen as soon as somebody offers to do what you are doing for a little bit less.