Posted by: patenttranslator | March 13, 2015

Obligatory Translation Tests Are an Admission of Utter Incompetence of a Certain Type of Translation Agency



Why do some translation agencies have to send obligatory translation tests to translators to determine whether these translators should be included in the translation agency’s stable of “linguists” (a word that needs to be further analyzed in another post with respect to how it is currently used by translation agencies), based on the result of an evaluation of the test?

And why is it that other translation agencies don’t need to send tests?

I am also a translation agency, sort of, anyway, since I also send work to other translators, usually in languages that I don’t translate myself. But I don’t need to bother prospective additions to my stable of major talents with no stinkin’ translation tests.

There are two main reasons why I have never done such a thing and never will.

1. As a humanist, I believe that it is wrong … more than just wrong …. evil, to force people to work for free. To stop this evil, a long and bloody war was fought in the United States of America between 1861 and 1865 in which hundreds of thousands of people died and millions more were injured.

And, incidentally, the pro-slavery camp lost.

2. Even if I were just another prospective slave owner who had the misfortune of being born in the wrong century, and there are still quite a few of them among us in any country, the fact is that I am able to evaluate on my own a prospective translator without forcing said translator to labor for free on a stupid translation test just to please me.

Whether a translation agency is able to determine the suitability of a translator for a certain type of work in a certain language without needing to ask for a free test translation in fact tells you whether the people working in the agency know what they are doing, or whether they are generally clueless about the product and the service that they are selling, called translation. (Of course, I have nothing against paid translation tests, and whenever I am asked to do a test, my response is that I will be happy to do it at my usual rate.)

I can usually tell whether a translator is worth trying out on a real job, risky though it may be on occasion, or whether he or she is likely to be a fake, by simply looking at the cover letter and the description of the education and experience of the translator. Because I can read several languages, all I have to do then is to ask for a sample of a previous translation to evaluate that sample. Even if it is a language that I don’t know myself, I can usually understand enough of the source text to be able to match it with the English translation because I often know a related language.

For example, I can match Chinese text with the English text and query Chinese technical terms and their equivalents in the English translation on the Internet because I translate Japanese, I can do the same in Dutch because I translate German, in Italian because I translate French, etc. And since I have been translating patents for almost 30 years, I can generally tell whether a prospective patent translator is likely to have an affinity for this particular field even before I send him or her a job.

It takes one to know one.

I can also proofread the patent translation quite competently …. because that is what I have been doing for almost three decades.

But poor coordinators working in translation agencies that claim to “specialize” in translation from and into every language and in every field generally have absolutely no idea whether the translation that they received from a new translator is any good. That is why they try to hedge their bets by asking every new prospective translator to take a test first. The problem is, the coordinators who are evaluating these tests are not qualified to evaluate the test because they generally don’t know the language from or into which the texts are translated, and often don’t understand the subject either.

If the test translation is close to whatever it is that it will be compared to by a coordinator, it must be a good translation. If it is not that close, it must be a bad translation.

But if the translations that the coordinators are relying on are problematic, the coordinators will have no idea about the problems, and it could be impossible and often counterproductive to try to explain to them where the problems are. In any case, they got the sample from their boss and their boss makes no mistakes.

It is also of course quite possible that if your translation is better than whatever it is that the coordinator is using, your translation will be deemed faulty, although it is the other way round.

There are some coordinators who may not know the language in question, but because they are very intelligent and have a lot of experience, they can instinctively tell a good translator from a bad even without having to rely on their knowledge of foreign languages.

Some people are smart, and they pick up things that they need to know about translating, even though they may be handicapped by being monolingual, by substituting other abilities that they may have, the way blind people use their superior sense of hearing and smell.

But smart people usually do not stay with corporate translation agencies because …. they always pay very little to the people who do the actual work, which would be the translators and the coordinators. If they like their job and are good at it, they usually leave after a while and start their own small business.

So there you have it. If you don’t mind being a slave who has no choice but to work for incompetent people, by all means, do the test every time you are asked for one.

But if you value your work and your time, my advice would be to offer a sample of your work instead.

Your offer may be rejected, but the thing is, if a translation agency is not even competent enough to handle a sample of your work, do you really want to work for them?


  1. Yet more to love, from this always delectably frank blog! In the world of foreign-language legal document review, btw, where attorney-linguists huddle over massive volumes of usually electronic-form documents in order to isolate out key terms and assign sorting codes to materials, it is routine for the hiring agency to administer the ALTA test before signing an attorney on. Farther out on a limb are the wacky tests that some federal agencies administer that are based on the bizarre assumption that spoken fluency, for example, is somehow a valid measure of a graphic translator’s skills and gifts. . .I endorse fully the idea of asking for a sample (privacy-protected) work product, before engaging a translator, and, by and large, the typically nonsensical testing that is, instead, the common hurdle, is nothing more than a ritual aimed at creating, for an agency, the illusion of selectivity and quality control. My pet peeve: Agencies that rely on non-natives of the project’s target language to grade the tests submitted by translator-applicants who are natives in the project’s target language.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant!

    I love this:
    “If you don’t mind being a slave who has no choice but to work for incompetent people, by all means, do the test every time you are asked for one.”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Like you liked I loved it. I also love this one:
    “to determine whether these translators should be included in the translation agency’s stable of “linguists” (a word that needs to be further analyzed in another post with respect to how it is currently used by translation agencies)”

    Look frwd to reading about what translation agencies mean by a linguist. I admit, I can’t think of more than a few words: they mean low-qualified, anonymous miserables forced to work for peanuts. I’d really enjoy to see you clothing this simple clod in more words to make a full-length post.


  4. If an agency asks me to do a translation test, I just tell them my job minimum (which is the normal fee for 1000 words even when the word count is much less because in my areas, tiny jobs are very labor-intensive per word) and that’s the end of it… I do tell them that it is more cost-effective to hire me at my normal fee for a short job and evaluate that by running it past another translator who is equally competent in the field. I also offer to send a batch of samples for my language pairs.

    Project managers often have very little to go on when evaluating translators, since even if they know the source language- it is unlikely that they know the subject area in my fields (chemistry and physics). They are happy if the translation just looks like real English, but can’t recognize a poor technical translation that uses incorrect phrasing and terminology. Even their clients are little help, since the requestor is typically so used to awful translations and often thinks nothing better is possible. So they rarely get feedback telling them that Translator X is hopeless or Translator Y is fantastic (unless they have knowledgeable and honest editors).

    They really need to check out references and hire editors competent in the field if they have doubts about a new translator. A test seems like a solution to them, but it really isn’t for all the reasons given here. They want to automate a process which just isn’t amenable to automation.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. While fully agreeing with the main thrust of this post, I find myself delightfully distracted by the musical selection. Nabucco was something of an obsession of my choirmaster when I was a child, so I found myself performing that very piece in exquisite translation into Hebrew, standing in the soprano 12-strong section, along with some forty of my elementary school mates.

    Thanks for the blast from the ever-receding past!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. At best it is part of a QA process.
    However, it is more likely part of a deliberate process of subjugating crowd-sourced workers to agency control. Compliance is an essential trait in slaves.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A brilliant article, Steve!
    And except the fact that coordinators generally cannot evaluate tests properly because they do not know any of the languages, those tests do not help them to evaluate how reliable the translator will be (delivery on time) in the future, for example. For me, the only way to go is mutual trust: the agency sends me a small project first, so that they can see how I work (quality of the translation and delivery in due time) and I can see if they pay as agreed. Agencies who do not take the time to do this will never get really qualified translators, even if they have thousands of interchangeable “collaborators” in their database.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “Agencies who do not take the time to do this will never get really qualified translators, even if they have thousands of interchangeable “collaborators” in their database.”

      I don’t think agencies really need qualified translators. The less the pay, the higher the profit. That’s why agencies use interchangeable, anonymous “collaborators”. Clients are enticed by aggressive advertising, robbed and duped. Fraudulent practices are rampant all over the world. The shortest way to putting an end to those, is by fighting for abolition of anonymous translation, in my opinion.


      • “I don’t think agencies really need qualified translators. The less the pay, the higher the profit.”

        Of course, you are right here. But of course, not agencies are the same. I only work with those that accept my prices and conditions and are interested in my skills. I am glad I got rid of the others 😉


  8. Brilliant post! I don’t work with that many agencies, but the ones I do work with have three things in common: they’re boutique (owned by very respectable translators), they pay premium rates, and they never asked me for a “test translation.” Like you said, Steve, it takes one to know one; and it’s pretty easy to tell if someone is the right match based on their education and experience.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Chani, you’re a visual artist and a qualified freelance translator. On your blog you mention the copyright you hold over the images created by you. But you don’t mention any rights over the translations done by you.

    „These rights frequently include reproduction, control over derivative works, distribution, public performance, and “moral rights” such as attribution“, says Wikipedia.

    Clearly, no person or agency has any legal rights to attribute your works to themselves, and that’s exactly what translation agencies do with your translation works. You would certainly NOT be pleased if an agency claimed they’d drawn, painted or shot your visual images, will you?


    • Hi Rennie,

      You are right, on my blog and website as well, I only mention my copyright as an artist because my those are about art only. As a translator, I do not have any website or blog: I (still) do not need them until now (and this since 1998). Of course this may change one day.

      You post gave me food for thought, thank you.
      But I do not think that you could compare someone who would steal one of my artworks to sell it pretending he/she is the author with a respectable agency (I repeat here that I only work with few agencies that respect my person and accept my conditions) that knocks on my door asking me politely (without free test) about my capacities. If I agree to translate a text, I have the possibility to negotiate my name appearing in the book/article (I must confess that I was not aware of this at the beginning of my career, but I was taught that it was important to register my translations at VGWort (at that time, I was living in Germany) to get royalties).
      Most of the time, however, I am translating contracts and general terms and conditions. I do not see such law texts (my speciality) as creative work, which does not mean that I do not love them. 😉 Accuracy and knowledge are needed here, not creativity.
      Of course, it would be fine if the end client knew I was the person who translated his/her contract properly, but I also have to accept the fact that, in some cases, I would never have got this job without intermediary (for example because the terms and conditions were needed in several languages).

      Have a nice day!


      • Hi, Chani,

        Thank you for your reply. I see, you favor the idea that translator’s work is not creative. Most people think so. I’m in favor of the opposite idea though, so I’m going to try and disprove you aren’t quite right.

        You may not believe it, but there have been ideas, and whole theories, that even stage acting is not creative, not only translating. What is an actor doing after all? Is he or she not a mere shade of the true creator’s ideas impersonating “a debased stage realism”? (in philosopher Edward Gordon Craig’s words; quotes hereinafter taken from Mediate Drama/Dramatized Media – 2000, pp. 58-59, see link below).

        Oskar Schlemmer, Kleist and Taylor are some more names on this line of thought. Schlemmer, a German painter, quoted the Russian symbolist Valery Bryusov as demanding that we “replace actors with mechanized dolls, into each of which a phonograph shall be built.”

        Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “The actor must go, and in his place comes the inanimate figure – the Ueber-marionette we may call him.”

        Source: Mediate Drama/Dramatized Media – 2000,

        Clearly, as a Bulgarian university teacher and translator writes (see link below), “if acting were non-creative, all actors would perform, say, Hamlet in absolutely the same way, as marionettes. It would be, however, very difficult, if not impossible, to define which one of the many interpretations should be deemed the only correct (the most precise) so that it could be declared universal for all times and cultures. Similarly, all translators should translate in absolutely the same way, like robots” Source: Naimushin, B., On the question of (non)-creative nature of translation, (in Bulgarian)

        In short, when we translate, we create something new; it hasn’t existed before; it is unique. And it will remain unique regardless of what kind of text we have translated – a literary work or a contract of whatever. Moreover, it will remain unique even if somebody else could translate the same text – better or worse than us.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Paula, you have posted a nice alegory on your blog. I don’t think you’ve drawn the right conclusions, though. As a legal professional, you should have compared the prisoners chained to the wall of a cave to the anonymous translators chained to the translation agencies scared stiff of being dragged out into the light of sun:

    “In an insightful passage of the Republic that has come to be known, among other names, as the Allegory of the Cave, Plato has Socrates tell us of a group of prisoners chained to the wall of a cave throughout their entire lives. These prisoners see shadows projected onto the wall of things passing in front of a fire behind them; these projected shadows are the closest view the prisoners have of reality. Now, let’s suppose, says Socrates, that one of these prisoners is freed and forced to look at the fire directly, “[…] it would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him.” He continues, “suppose […] that someone should drag him […] by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun, would he not be distressed and furious at being dragged and when he came into the light, the brilliance [of the sun] would fill his eyes and he would not be able to see even one of the things he now called real?” A philosopher, says Socrates, is he who has been freed from the cave and after undergoing the painful process of ascent is now able to perceive reality for what it really is. Beautiful! Isn’t it? Now let’s turn back to translation …”


    • Thank you for your feedback, Rennie; but what you quoted is just the description of the Allegory. My conclusion in that post (in reference to the event that inspired the last two posts on my blog) is this: “We witnessed a lot of young translators […] resisting the notion that their reality is nothing but mere projections on the wall and that their limited worldviews are **chaining them down to the dominant discourse of two cent agencies**.” I think that’s compatible with what you are saying and I could probably discuss this with you for hours, but I wouldn’t want Steve to feel I’m trying to hijack his blog. 😉


  11. Thank you, Paula. I believe we are helping Steve with his next post (see first paragraph of his current post above).

    No need for long discussions with you here. I just meant “we witness a lot of translators resisting the notion that their reality is nothing but mere projections on the wall and that their limited worldviews are chaining them down to the dominant discourse of agencies.”

    In my view, translation agencies worldwide play a cheap trick: they sell goods of unknown origin, so to say. Clients don’t know who did their translations. They sort of believe it’s the agency itself, which is as funny as if you believed a publishing house itself wrote or translated the books it published.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dear Steve,

    I translate from English to Brazilian Portuguese and vice versa, and this recently happened to me: I was given a translation test 1-2 months ago by an agency here in Brazil, which claims on their site to translate most languages and subjects to a high professional standard, which naturally makes merely bilingual poor little me feel quite overawed. I recently received an answer from them claiming that I had not passed their highly objective and professional test, but “we believe in your potential” (what does that even MEAN?), and I could try again in 6 months (haha, they wish). What sort of COMPETENT agency takes so long to assess the quality of work in any case?

    Yes, I realise I was probably dealing with a monolingual (or nearly so) Portuguese speaking coordinator who was collecting as many applications at once as she could to bulk up her boss’s list of obedient little worker bees. Then she found herself overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of work she had to assess by laboriously comparing it word-by word to an original document to which the test attempted to get you to back-translate, since she wasn’t competent to assess it in any other more efficient or appropriate way, as a skilled linguist might have done.

    How do I know this? Well, I noticed quite quickly when doing the test that the English portion of it was a (bad) translation from Portuguese, and suspect they wanted something close to their “template” – evidently an original English document of unknown quality – meaning something much better or worse would be rejected. I noticed several other warning signs when I went to look at their site: the smiling portraits of random well-coiffured young anonymous corporate nobodies (who they presumably want us to believe are their actual translators), the claims to do almost any language and subject, the implication that they were a massive multinational business employing thousands of “highly qualified” translators all over the world, and the fact that the actual quality of English on the English version of the site was only one notch above Google Translate’s standard.

    I know I should probably be proud I wasn’t selected! They, however, appear to be getting work (and cheap people to do it) by this method. I probably would be willing to work for what they are charging their clients, even if perhaps not for what they would want to pay me after passing their rigorous selection procedure. Do you know a reliable technique for getting yourself selected by “proper” translation agencies? Or even finding them? I have yet to figure this one out for myself. As a relatively inexperienced translator who needs more work coming in (and isn’t able to benefit from the wealth of contacts that those with 20 or more years’ experience will presumably tend to have built up), I find myself feeling almost obliged to take these tests sometimes even though I have little expectation that anything good will come of them.

    This is definitely one of the best translation blogs around, by the way! I keep reading it and not quite getting around to commenting, but today I was feeling extremely grumpy about the idiotic robo-response I received in response to my considerable unpaid trouble, and came to see if you had written anything on this subject, only to find this very topic was the penultimate post!

    May I post this blog entry in my blog (with due reference to your page) and translate it into Portuguese? I’m tempted to just refer the agency coordinator to your blog directly to point out the error of her company’s ways (or at least to passive-aggressively vent some of my frustration), but I have good reason to think she wouldn’t actually know what you were talking about in any case.

    All the best,

    Lívia F. Worgan


  13. Hi Livia:

    Thank you for your comment.

    Yes, you have my permission to translate my post and publish it on your blog as long as you include a link to the original post in English.

    There are generally no shortcuts to finding good clients, whether agencies or direct customers. You have to do good work and do it for a long time and eventually, they will find you.

    What does not work is working for the type of agency described in your comment. Just ask for your normal rate every time somebody wants to make you work for free and let the plantations on the Internet work with slaves who don’t mind that they are slaves.


  14. What a lovely blog you have here! I was so bummed earlier today and going through your blog made me feel a bit better. I stopped going to my local translator’s chapter because of the fact that they are such a a sorry bunch. I mean, after civil servants, they are the worst people I have met in my young life. And, since I follow yogi masters who say to never, ever, lower yourself like the way they do, I had to stop hanging out with them.

    I love translation and it is the only job to do as a med student from home between studying for exams. But lately, my goodness, the agencies suck, the translators suck (excluding the ones on this blog) and, though a billion dollar industry as they boast, it seems like it is going down the toilet and I miss making money doing it. 😦 Peace.


  15. “and let the plantations on the Internet work with slaves who don’t mind that they are slaves.”

    Not much hepful advice, Steve. There will always be newbies who don’t mind being slaves, or rather, are not aware they are slaves. The moment they realize, usually very soon, within a couple of months or years, most of them will leave embittered, and a happy few will become “plantators” themselves. Then a fresh portion of newbies will rush in. So it goes.


  16. “Plantators” is not a word, and I think that it is generally not a good idea for non-native speakers to try to create new words in a foreign language, unless they are very talented and very funny.

    People who ignore this rule often end up sounding funny the wrong way.

    Unless you mean plantain, which is basically a tasteless banana, you were probably looking for the term plantation owners.

    (Glad to be of help to our Bulgarian know-it-all).


    • Sure, a translator needs to perfect his or her language skills, Steve, so as to do better translations. Therefore, a translator needs decent pay so that he could travel, meet colleagues, stay in the country of his or her foreign language, etc. For most translators/interpreters, this is NOT possible nowadays. Btw, my mistake with “plantators” was just an overlook. I have used plantation-owners before, you know.


  17. I don’t understand a few points here

    1. There are loads of pseudo-translators who use fake CVs. How do you expect an agency to know your skills if you’re not willing to send a test translation? I wouldn’t trust you if I were an agency just as you don’t trust agencies.

    2. You’re not forced to submit a test translation, so you’re not a slave. You can work for the agency you want and that’s it.


    • The problem, Viktor, is that the free-market principles that you presuppose are simply no longer at play, now that translation is heavily dominated (at least oligopolized) by the low-balling agencies that have succeeded in drawing massive volumes of business away from independent freelancers, while concentrating all wealth gained from this business at the executive rungs of the agencies.

      So, though I personally choose to work for no agencies, at all, due to nearly unbelievably low per-word rates offered by agencies for my language pair, I also don’t have the choice, that you advocate, to “work for the agency I want,” because agencies have systematically dumped/depressed translation compensation rates across the whole industry, greatly reducing the NUMBER of agencies offering ethical rates.

      In addition, no one here has advocated no screening at all, as you assume in your first point. We are simply protesting the use of uncompensated tests graded by incompetent monolinguals in lieu of the opportunity to provide privacy-protected work samples, or other REAL evidence of our skill levels.


  18. @Viktor

    1. I am willing to do a test translation.
    I am just not willing to do it for free because I am not a slave.That should be easy enough to understand.

    2. There are ways to evaluate a translator without a test translation. Because I am both a translator and an agency, I have never needed to send a test translation to anybody.

    In fact, if somebody offered to do a free test, I would be unlikely to send any work to such a person because the chances are that it is an amateur who is probably not very good.


    • You’re not a slave, that’s easy enough to understand. But you’re not a businessman, either.
      As for myself, I do not complain about being treated as a slave when I go to a job interview, sacrificing 1-2 hours of my life “for free”. I even submit tests if that is what they expect.


      • I’d rather be a non-slave and non-businessman than a businessman who has slaves working for him.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I can’t argue with Colheo…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Viktor, I respect your consternation, but the economic trends in freelance translation are not collectively in our favor (to put it mildly), and while any single encounter with a prospective contracting partner may not classify an applicant as a lackey or slave, freelancers today who do not work proactively against the severe degradation of our professional environment by often unscrupulous agencies ignore the problem at their peril. Patenttranslator and those of us who admire his spunk and brilliance are on YOUR side, Viktor. . .So give us a listen. . .

        Liked by 1 person

  19. […] It is similar to the reason why they send translation tests to new translators who are want to join their stable of translators. If they lack the capacity to evaluate a relevant sample, they have to send them their own test, whic… […]


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