Susan was upset because she did a free translation for that US company months ago and never received any feedback. When she contacted the project manager again and asked for a look at a marked-up copy of her allegedly "inadequate" test, she was icily informed that this was against "company policy". She described this practice as abnormal and unfair. Well, I won't express an opinion on the fairness issue, but the lack of feedback is all too normal. But I wonder too if it is normal for corporate ATA members to engage in blatant violations of point II D of the ATA's "Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices". The company in question is a corporate member presumably bound by this code. I checked. Maybe, like the Ten Commandments, the First Amendment (under the G.W. Bush regime) and other unreasonably restrictive principles, this code is meant to be violated.
So after replying to her letter, I decided to have a look at the latest posts in the ProZ forums before getting back to work. And what did I see there on top of the list of new messages? Another new, long thread about an agency expecting free test translations and giving no feedback.
This subject never goes away. Anywhere. I read about it constantly on the private boards for BDÜ members. It comes up at every gathering of translators I attend. Online translator forums have numerous forum threads and articles from translators debating the issue, with some translators declaring their objections to tests and others, including the occasional agency PM, declaring their necessity.
I agree very much with point II D of the ATA's code of conduct, and I refuse to waste my time or my prospect's time with an unpaid translation. Why should I engage in such foolishness when I spend so much time turning down work every day that it is sometimes a challenge to get to the projects I have accepted? But even in the days when I was starting out and jobs were few, I avoided this trap in most cases. Why do I object to doing something that so many agencies and inexperienced translators consider a necessary evil? Here are a few of the many reasons I don't think any of us should play that game:
- Asking for free translation is not a serious business proposition. It is generally accepted by serious business people that one must be willing to invest money to make money. If you can't afford to pay a few dollars or euros for a half page or page "sample", then maybe you can't afford to pay my invoice for a larger job when I submit it. Tests go both ways, and I might like to test your ability to pay. (Rest assured that I will be checking this out on rating lists like Zahlungspraxis, Payment Practices and the ProZ Blue Board too.)
- If translators are good and very busy, asking for free work (which, of course, causes them to lose money by leaving less time for the paid work) is not likely to get you taken seriously. Why should I trust and want to do business with someone inclined to pick my pocket at first acquaintance?
- If a translator is young and inexperienced - probably not earning very much yet - is it really fair of me to exploit her further by demanding work for free? If the samples of her volunteer translations for Greenpeace, the quality of communication in her correspondence and the qualifications listed on her clearly organized, well written CV or profile give me the impression that this person might be capable of doing a good job, shouldn't I want to make a good impression by showing respect for the value of her effort and offering to pay for it? It's a small investment to pay for a page for what could become a very profitable relationship for me as an agency owner. But what if I have a long list of candidates whom I "must" test? Well if I'm not able to narrow this list down by other criteria before getting down to translation tests, then maybe I'm not efficient enough to be running a successful business in the first place....
I see "testing" as a fairly complex matter, one which for the reasons cited above should always be compensated and where the reviewers should be chosen with care. (In many cases the end clients are also not really able to judge quality - I've seen too many cases of "denglisch" being perceived as better English by persons whose English is so limited that they understand it better when it is written like German. A good agency should be willing and able to deal diplomatically with such situations and provide appropriate resources for reviews.)
These days I do no outsourcing at all (if my capacity if booked, I prefer to refer clients to a competent translator who takes full responsibility for a project and get full remuneration). However, in the days when I did a little bit of it, it never occurred to me to ask anyone to work for free. Like the reputable agencies I deal with, I offered a small, paid job that I could re-do quickly if necessary but which would enable me to evaluate the person's skills and trustworthiness. To do otherwise simply feels very wrong to me.