Free test translations are a topic of hot debate nowadays. While it seems that more and more translators stand up against them, translation agencies sometimes defend them as their ultimate means of securing quality translators at the gate. There is a great chance that the topic of test translations will return in one form or another in any future period. Are translation tests reasonable requirements or are they don’t lead to anywhere?
My experience with free test translations
When I started out as a translator some seven years ago, I quoted on several translation jobs where a free test translation was part of the admission procedure. I took it for granted: as a newby in the translation industry, I didn’t know exactly what to expect and how to find clients. All test translations had a length of about 300 words and they enabled me to show off my knowledge and skills. In many cases my translation was judged as good enough to get on board and get the job. For me, test translations therefore were no high barrier to overcome and I considered them a reasonable requirement.
There were only a few occassions in which I ignored a free test assignment. One of them was for a Dutch company with six distinctive locations. They posted an urgent job on the internet for which I was selected. After having submitted it, they sent me a test translation and pushed me frequently to deliver it. After I finally found some time to take it on and opened the Word document, I found the test translation was 1,200 words long! For me that was ridiculous (equal to half a day’s work with the risk of still not being approved). I only translated a minor part and submitted it but it was rejected because I did not fulfill the requirements. Until today, I am still glad I refused.
The sense and nonsense of free test translations
Today, with a filled portfolio of clients – many of them long-standing – I still see test translations as a useful way for companies and translators alike to find out whether they fit the job and are ready for a longstanding relation. Seven years – and dozens of test translations – later however, some footnotes can be added concerning this selection procedure. Indeed test translations are a great way for agencies to find out how well a translator masters the target language and the subject matter, and how well s/he manages deadlines and works with particular requirements like style guides and file types. For translators who have a dry spell or some space for new clients, a free test translation isn’t a huge investment in time and enables them to show off their skills.
There is, however, something strange with free test translations. In the years in which I took part in several free test translations, agencies often promised to get back on it, but never did – neglecting my efforts and ignoring my need for a proper judgment of my test. It also happened several times that I received feedback that my translation was utterly poor, although in fact, this was not the case. Sometimes it appeared that translators actually working for the agency in question considered any new candidate as a real enemy, therefore completely burned down their tests to the ground. In other scenarios, I was promised a job once my translation was approved, but after approval (which was confirmed by email) I never heard anything back.
Free test translations might seem a reasonable way to test a translator’s skills, but if they are not used the right way they simply fail in what they do. That’s exactly what I have experienced time and time again: free test translations were not reviewed, but were surrounded by promises that were never kept, or judged incorrectly for any number of reasons.
Interestingly, free test translations are, in my translation business, only offered by agencies, not by direct clients. They therefore seem to be a habit that is introduced by our industry itself. That is striking because in many other industries similar tests are not required. An accountant who is in the process of winning a large customer is judged by his portfolio, while a railway company bidding on a tender is evaluated by its answers on particular tender questions and on its previous projects.
However, agencies seem not to trust translator’s CVs but require them to show that they are really working for large multinationals like Apple, Shell or Coca-Cola. That is strange as the afore-mentioned accountant does not need to prove that he has been working for Pepsi Cola before being approved to work for Coca-Cola (perhaps it is even preferable for him not to have Pepsi Cola in his client base).
A much heard complaint about free test translations is that companies are using them to compile a free translation. Based on past experience, that can be a reasonable presumption for some translators. In my business practice however, I have never dealt with anything like that. For companies to split a source text into several small assignments of about 300 words, compile translations and make sure they flow well seems an unreasonable and unlikely task.
Much more important is the fact that translation agencies don’t take translators at their word, and therefore use a test. The blog of Bluelines on test translations is flat, but not flattering. Of course people can fill their CVs with all the top brands and assignments in the world, but what self-respecting translator would do that? Stating that ‘It’s actually quite simple: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. You can fill your CV with all sorts of bold statements, and tell someone that you are an Einstein among translators. We’re not saying people are deliberately lying. It’s just that no one is going to admit that they are mediocre at best, let alone tell you that they’re crap. So tests are surely a better and safer way forward. Unless you want to ruin your reputation and drive your proofreaders mad’, is telling translators that you don’t trust your valuable partners and respected industry professionals before you have put them on the rack. Mutual trust is a cornerstone of business. If a translation test is an expression of a lack of trust and confidence, free test translations are completely on the wrong path and deserve to be done away with.
To test or not to test?
Now that I have an established business as a freelance translator and have worked for some clients for years, I am sometimes asked to review test translations myself. Frankly speaking, it convinces me that test translations are not a bad habit. There are many translators who submit test translations that show a complete lack of knowledge in the field and, even worse, a complete lack of spelling and grammar skills. In that case, test translations are a good way to find out the quality of prospective business partners provided that the tests are reviewed by professionals.
On the other hand, I don’t submit myself to free test translations anymore. Like many of us, I have enough clients to run a proper business, need to focus on keeping my existing customer base and cannot afford gambling with free test translations to see whether I am approved for a new and unknown client or not. I wonder whether I want to work for companies that do not trust my experience as reflected on my CV as I am sure it reflects my trustworthiness and quality. If I still prove not to be the right source for a particular company that is a pity for us both, but that is also part of running a business.
Looking back I still value the clients that trusted me on the basis of my blue eyes and gave me a chance without showing off my skills for free beforehand. Without them I would not have been able to build my portfolio. In many cases they have proven to be longer standing than many fly-by-night agencies that required a free test and afterwards only gave me one small assignment over several years.
Testing is good, but trusting is better.