Posted by: patenttranslator | September 19, 2013

To do or not to do a free test translation, that is the question

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.

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Responses

  1. I had a possible direct client who asked me to translate a 2,000-word article as a test, to “feel” my translation.
    🙂

    Like

    • Potentially it could have been worse if s/he’d had in mind a different manner of feeling.

      Like

  2. As a translator i am also called for sample translation. Sometimes it is 1000 WCs. But i refused to do the free, at the most i do one para for assessment.
    For such rude behavior i lost many contract. But never mind.

    Like

  3. @Malu & Krishna

    I was asked to do a free translation from Japanese, which prompted me to write this post.

    When I refused, the agency came back a little later with this question:”Could you please let us know how much would the translation cost?”

    So I told them that it would be 95 dollars, and at this point I am still waiting to find out whether my work is/is not worth 95 dollars to a potential customer.

    (It’s OK with me either way).

    Update:

    Their last e-mail said:”Is this your best rate?”

    I said, yes, it is my best rate (my best rate is the same as my usual rate).

    Like

  4. Your article came at the right moment. We have recently lost a contract because we explained to the potential client who wanted a free translation test (in 3 languages) that we cannot ask our translators to work for free. They eventually found other agencies who do offer free translation tests. Or rather their freelancers do. Oh, well…. Maybe I should have asked them whether they ever offer their services for free (as a test) – I doubt it.

    As an agency, we have never asked any of our freelancers to do a free translation test. We don’t believe in them and I have actually written a blog post on this topic – http://inboxtranslation.com/blog/translation-tests-dont/

    @Malu 2,000 words is not a test, it’s a job in itself.

    Like

  5. “… we explained to the potential client who wanted a free translation test (in 3 languages) that we cannot ask our translators to work for free.””

    That’s because you are both a translator and an agency.

    Most agencies would just find warm bodies willing to work for free.

    Good post!

    Like

    • Thank you, Steve. Yes, I suppose this reluctance towards translation tests comes from my background as a freelance translator.

      I was reading the Terms&Conditions (yes, I am one of the weird people who actually read them) of one such agency that offers free translation tests for clients. And you know what they say? That they do not guarantee that the same translator who performed the test will be the same one working on the actual project if it is awarded (as a result of the free translation). What is the point then?

      Like

      • IMNSHO Alina clearly you’re not half as weird as this misbegotten apology for an agency. 🙂

        Like

      • The point, Alina, is that the agency gets a professional translator to provide a free sample for the agency’s client to look at, in order to win the ‘sale’. When the order has been received, a ‘cheaper’ alternative can be used to carry out the work.
        Don’t do it.
        Horse traders, used cars salesmen, polliticians, LSDs, etc.
        Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
        Steve calls it crapitalism. Right on!

        Get out of the ‘business’ and join the ‘profession’.

        Like

      • This is exactly what I was trying to get across, Louis. That there are agencies like the one I mentioned that do things like that, taking advantage of both their clients and their translators. This is a “model” that I would never follow. Having worked as a freelance translator for quite a few years and then in an agency, I know both sides of the coin.

        What I am trying to build (and I think I am succeeding) is a different sort of agency, one that truly values its collaborators (and no, I do not see them as “vendors” who are interchangeable), an agency that works not just for the clients but also for the translators and interpreters.Some of the things we are doing for our linguists: never ask them for free work, pay within 30 days (or sooner), give feedback and recommendations, don’t ask them to do formatting (DTP) work for free, we make sure that proofreaders understand they are expected to proofread (not ‘butcher’ an existing translation, as Steve talked about in a recent post) and work with the translator rather than seeing him/her as the ‘enemy’ etc.

        Like

      • To be fair, an agency which doesn’t guarantee to use the same translator who did the test piece may not be a con artist. When most or all of your suppliers are freelances, they aren’t necessarily going to hang around on the off-chance that the end client actually comes up with the job. Back in my translation-management days, we had a job come through from a regular client which was closely related to one I’d had to send out to an agency some months earlier because all my freelances were full. Fortunately, it had a nice long deadline (remember those?!), so the agency was able to use the same translator, but if she hadn’t been available or if the job had been urgent we would just have had to take whoever was available.

        Equally, I’ve just squeezed in a small-ish job I really don’t have time for for a good client because it’s a case I’d worked on previously and they need the consistency. Given that I’m currently booked up weeks ahead, if I’d had to turn it down they’d have had to find someone else, or get the deadline extended so I *could* do it. We’re only human.

        Like

  6. I’ve done quite a few free translation tests over the years (very short) out of curiosity as much a desire for new business; very few led to paid work and basically they’re a waste of time, but not because an agency is trying to get freebies, I suspect, but because their project managers are inefficient and file the things away and don’t remember them when the occasion finally comes along to pair a suitable translator with a specific job.
    I greatly enjoy your posts; lots to identify with and lots to chuckle over.

    Like

  7. @Elisabeth

    Many agencies routinely ask all potential new translators to do a test, and the test is then never even read by a person who would be able to evaluate it, i.e. somebody who knows both languages and understands the subject.

    The whole concept is dishonest as well as useless, unless the real purpose is to establish which translator will be obedient and desperate enough to accept a low rate.

    Like

  8. “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.”

    No wonder you were excommunicated. I commented the same as you did in another online forum and I am out for as well.

    Nice to know that people like you and Bernie are of the same make, except the food for breakfast.

    BTW, “You can be easily replaced by the next person with a pulse calling himself or herself ‘translator’.”

    This happens, anyway. “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.”

    That’s why one has to alwayas keep oneself in semi-retired state. Don’t work too much to make your colleagues and/or clients hate you.

    Like

  9. “That’s why one has to always keep oneself in semi-retired state. Don’t work too much to make your colleagues and/or clients hate you.”

    I wonder, what do you normally have for breakfast, Wenjer, that it makes you keep your defiant spirit undiminished?

    Miso shiru, rice with natto and some sushi?

    Like

    • Well, you know that the Monkey King ate everything on his way, from Xi Wangmu’s “peaches of immortality” through Lao Tzu’s “pills of longevity” to the Jade Emperor’s royal wine, until he got caught in the Buddha’s palm.

      The Buddha kept him 5 centuries long before Xuanzang passed by and took him for company on the Journey to the West.

      However, the Monkey King stayed defiant because of his desire for freedom and he had to be kept well-behaved with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.

      I would have had the same breakfast like Bernie, whom I admire, used to have, if I didn’t know what happened to the Monkey King. So, I am satisfied with whatever comes around, even when it has to be sauerkraut, empanada, taco with or without tequila or chicha – or even better with some Becherovka. And that’s fine to begin with the day.

      BTW, you recognized it well. Charlie is your like. He agrees more than disagrees with you, Bernie, Kevin, our missing friend Miguel Llorens or even with Wendell Ricketts, though he wouldn’t like to admit it. Yet, the devil is everywhere, not just in details. Auch im “Groben” und Ganzen.

      OK, now I have to chant to myself オン マニ ペメ フン for a while to apeace my 心猿 and 意馬.

      Like

      • “However, the Monkey King stayed defiant because of his desire for freedom and he had to be kept well-behaved with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.”

        I have to remember this Om Mani Padme Hum mantra and repeat it in moments when I feel that my defiance, which is usually my second nature, is slipping away from me.

        Like

  10. Depends to an extent on how you define “work”, I think. I agree entirely that tests that consist of a piece of work that is going to be used subsequently as a real live translation by the recipient should be paid for. In contrast, where the “work” is being done purely for evaluation purposes, I’m happy enough to file that under “marketing effort” with a potential client who is at least partly interested in my services.

    I will concede that the category into which any given test falls may not be clear. I can see that rejecting all tests for that reason is a valid approach. I don’t agree with it, but I can accept it is rational.

    (More in a similar vein here: http://cbavington.com/blog/2011/09/23/article-pros-and-cons-of-free-tests/ which includes other examples of professions that offer “free” things for appraisal purposes – I had included actors, because great minds naturally think alike!)

    Like your first commenter, I too was asked to do a test by a direct client not so long ago. It was for an in-house newsletter. I was sent a copy from 3 years ago and asked to translate the article of my choice. Unusual, but it does happen.

    I remain, etc.

    Like

  11. I saw your blog … you are still a very young guy, I think … it makes sense to throw in a freebee every now and then at your age.

    But at my age, it makes no sense to do that.

    I prefer to think of myself as Harrison Ford.

    And I bet you anything that Harrison no longer does free auditions.

    Like

    • Well, as you know (from my blog which you’ve read 🙂 ), I tend to shy away from comparisons and analogies, and prefer in general to discuss translation issues without referring to other professions. But I’ll play ball here, and suggest that if we assume the reason for bona fide tests and auditions is to seek confirmation of ability and performance for a given project prior to allocating the task/role, then yes, I’d be surprised if Harrison Ford does too many additions these days. He would rightly point any casting director at his freely available body of work, and suggest that be used to judge his suitability.

      My own body of work is, sadly, less freely available for examination by potential clients (and even the stuff that is may not always remain uninfected by client interference). Hence, sometimes, other means may have to be tried to reel them in. As far as I’m concerned bona fide tests are one such. Can even be quicker than trying to find an appropriate redacted sample or public website unsullied by subsequent client updates…

      I’m not suggesting everybody should always accept all tests. Or even that any one individual should ever accept some tests. I just don’t agree that all free tests are always unacceptable under all circumstances. I feel it is a more nuanced issue than can be covered by remarks such as “The whole concept is dishonest as well as useless, unless the real purpose is to establish which translator will be obedient and desperate enough to accept a low rate”.

      Like

      • “I just don’t agree that all free tests are always unacceptable under all circumstances.”

        But I did not say that at all, did I?

        I even described an example when it makes sense to do a free test in my blog, with a big potential payoff in my exmple.

        But the current practice when agencies routinely demanding freebees from translators is in my opinion definitely dishonest.

        Like

  12. […] 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 fr…  […]

    Like

  13. Great article again Steve–you’re like a machine 😀

    Problem with tests is that they usually do it as one-size-fits-all. When I first began I had to do tests in traditional Chinese medicine, a test about marine biology, a sample contract clause, and even a meteorology study, again none of which I was good at. It didn’t make any sense at all, even when they paid me to do it.

    Gradually I just waived the test by providing sample translations of non-confidential publications available in the public domain. Or I just declined outright and said I could “prove” my competence by doing the job they need done. That usually worked.

    Thanks for the great post again. BTW I cited your Thousand Monkey Post–love the classical reference.

    https://patenttranslator.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/the-thousand-monkeys-theorem-and-marketing-techniques-for-freelance-translators/

    Best,
    Anthony

    Like

  14. “Gradually I just waived the test by providing sample translations of non-confidential publications available in the public domain.”

    Good to know that some younger translators are resisting requests to work for nothing these days.

    Like

  15. (Can’t reply to replies!)
    me-“I just don’t agree that all free tests are always unacceptable under all circumstances.”
    you- But I did not say that at all, did I?

    No, you didn’t. My use of “agree” was clumsy; I meant it in the (less frequent?) sense of “hold the view” rather than “concur with a (or your) previous statement”. I had of course read that you’ve done tests in the past. I get it now (I think!) – it’s routine asking that you find unacceptable. Fair enough. If I were routinely asked, I’d probably get irked too. (I’m not, I so allow myself the luxury of considering each request on its own merits or lack thereof!) No doubt some clients could and should consider alternative means of achieving their aims without simply dispatching tests as a reflex response.

    Apols if I got your back up unintentionally.

    Like

  16. @Charlie Bavington

    No apologies needed, I think that we probably more agree than disagree.

    As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

    Like

  17. I’m an English into Spanish translator, new in the profession. Right now I’m working on my portfolio. I think it might be a good way to show the quality of my work. Do you think a portfolio is a good alternative to translation tests? I tend to think so, since I’m already showing the agency what I can do, they won’t need a test.
    I really enjoy your posts!

    Like

  18. Great article Steve.
    Free translation tests are certainly a dishonest practice, even so-called paid tests are useless unless the “testing” body has a proper system in place – and from my experience, those who ask for tests wouldn’t recognize a professional even if he or she falls and hit them on the head, and from a professional service provider they generally don’t offer any value and could be considered an unnecessary risk.

    The amount of fraudulent activity (from both sides of the equation) that is laundered via this abusive practice is alarming, and alone a reason for professionals not consider them.

    We are not offering premade goods and try to move them before they expire, in such scenario a sample might make sense as a sales driver. We provide a commercially, professional custom made service.

    From my experience in the past, and from conversations with colleagues who still offer such tests for free to these day, there are three more things to consider:
    1) The flow of requests for free stuff won’t stop, if anything it will increase. Some of those who are professional at identifying suitable victims and in squeezing freebie know all the right buttons to push, and they will prey on someone until he or she are all squeezed out.
    2) They will never want to really pay one for the work. If one constantly offers free work, when one is finally fed up and decides to charge or make any change in the terms of “work”, they simply won’t go for it for the simple reason that in their mind one’s service is of no value (other than being free), and if they now absolutely must pay for the work, they might as well hire a true professional.
    3) Ethics. How can one charge full fee from some clients, who apparently just never thought to be bold or rude enough to demand some of the work for free, while offering the same work for free to others?

    Like

  19. Thanks for your comment, Shai.I agree with everything you said.

    You have almost enough in it for a whole blog post!!!

    Like

  20. “my best rate is the same as my usual rate”–haha, I’m totally stealing this.

    I used to do a lot of free tests in the beginning, and I don’t think anything ever came of any of them. So I stopped and swore I wouldn’t do it again, until only a few weeks ago when an agency dangled the carrot of a Google project in front of my nose. I caved because it would have been nice, regular work with ok pay and, you know, Google. The test was very comprehensive, with different types of translation plus glossary creation, and it took me all of 4 hours. I waited a week, then contacted them only to be told that I had failed the test. That was it–no thank you, no actual feedback, nothing.

    So, yeah, beware of the carrot. I’m still kicking myself for having fallen for it.

    Like

  21. “my best rate is the same as my usual rate”–haha, I’m totally stealing this.”

    Go ahead and steal it.

    After all, without you, this blog would not even exist.

    (For those who don’t know, KB is the one who told me that I should start my own blog three years ago.

    So I did, and the rest, as they say, is history).

    Like

  22. Aww, Steve. You’re the most productive blogger I’ve ever known, so you must have had in you the whole time!

    Like

  23. I did a “translation test” many moons ago for one of those bi-/multilingual job agencies, not one specialising in translation particularly. It was a French business letter. I either failed or got marked down because I actually put it into Business English (you know, “Yours faithfully” rather than “Please accept, Ladies and Gentlemen, the expression of my … [whatever it was French people used to write at the end of business letters before emails came along] 🙂 ) rather than sticking to a relatively literal translation.

    Hey, perhaps it was the trauma of that which caused me to become a patent translator …

    Like

  24. @Allison

    Yes, in addition to the fact that it is unethical, to say the least, to ask translators or any other professionals, such as plumbers, nurses, or lawyers to work for free – I have never done it and never will – another problem is that most of the time, “the test” will be evaluated by people who are not qualified to make such an evaluation, especially with “exotic languages” such as Chinese, Japanese, or Czech, but as your example shows, even with common languages like French or German, because they don’t know these languages, and they are not translators.

    But then again, if these agencies had on their staff people who would be able to judge the quality of translation, these tests would not be needed as they could simply ask translators for samples of their past work, which is what I do.

    So that’s why these brokers have these “tests”.

    Like

  25. Speaking of free tests (or rather a free job in this case), here’s a discussion on LinkedIn in which a translation company asks for translators to translate (of course, what else) their ad in a few languages, for the benefit of the company, with the promise to be put on a list of potential suppliers.
    http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Do-you-want-help-new-138763.S.275497283?view=&srchtype=discussedNews&gid=138763&item=275497283&type=member&trk=eml-anet_dig-b_pd-pmt-cn&fromEmail=&ut=16LKy5tjx9-RU1

    I don’t even know where to begin to say what is wrong. Yet, again, as you’ll see if you click the link, there have been enough willing translators.

    Like

    • “Speaking of free tests (or rather a free job in this case)…”

      Exactly. The smiling James Donaher may describe it as “marketing effort” which is, after all, a phrase I have used myself (as have others – I prob’ly nicked it!) to explain why I am not always averse to a test, but that does not mask the fact it is an actual job he needs doing. And I do insist that a test cannot take the form of actual work of commercial value other than as an evaluation (which is why I object to half-witted comparisons about dentists doing a single filling or builders building a garage as “a test”).

      He can call it a test, but it doesn’t meet the criteria for the type of test I have in mind when I blather on about accepting them.

      It’s work, and should be paid as work.

      Like

      • He doesn’t even call it a test, does he? He needs some free translations, some will readily oblige and that’s it. The only promise is to add their names to their database.

        Real tests may have their place (maybe for an in-house position for example), but not for a translation agency (I run a translation agency and I am totally against FREE tests for freelancers). Even really big agencies would have difficulties in assessing all candidates this way, as it implies having a second translator to check. Can you really do that for all languages you work with? What about specialisations?

        As for the request on LinkedIn in question, there is nothing you and I (or the rest who commented here) can do about it. I have tried in the past (together with others) to “educate” translators as well as clients that work should be paid, but there will always be some willing to work for free. Maybe one day…. Let’s not lose hope 🙂

        Like

    • With his poorly photoshopped photo (probably using MS Paint) and a .biz domain, you can see exactly what kind of ship this guy is running.

      Like

      • A slave ship.

        Because he knows that some people were born to be slaves.

        Jedem das Seine.

        Like

      • I hadn’t even noticed that (the photo I mean). Well spotted. Yes, it looks like MS Paint was used).

        Like

  26. @Alina

    There is a smiling picture of the guy on LinkdIn … so now we know what a typical bottom-feeding lowlife looks like!

    Like

    • 🙂 I am still in shock. I mean, if he was a client with no connection to translations, I may have overlooked this issue (while still discouraging the practice), but considering he represents a translation agency who is just trying to take advantage of freelancers, it makes my blood boil. I would never dare to ask for free work.

      By the way, I sent you an email earlier today. Did you receive it?

      Like

      • Some people were born to be slaves. And some people eventually work their way up and become bottom-feeding lowlifes taking advantage of people who have a slavish mind.

        I try not to belong to any of these two categories.

        I received your comments, but no e-mail.

        Like

      • @Steve I used the email on your “About me” section. Have you checked your spam folder too? If you have not received it at all, send me an email and I’ll reply to that one (you can see my email).

        Like

  27. […] Quality in your Work Thoughts on Interpreting: “Do Interpreters Practice?” (Video) To do or not to do a free test translation, that is the question Sailor Sayings: 12 Common Words with Nautical Origins Extra sausages, tap-dancing bears, and […]

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  28. My response is and always has been very simple. ‘My minimum charge is X. Next time you get a small job in drop me a line.’ I get paid for about half a dozen “translation tests” a year.

    Liked by 1 person


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