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Nov 21, 2008

The never-ending story of free test translations

A few nights ago I got a very nice letter from a colleague whom I'll call Susan (not her real name of course). She had noticed a positive post I made years ago on the ProZ Blue Board regarding a major translation agency in the USA, and she wanted to know if I had done a free test translation for that company and received any feedback. I had to tell her quite honestly that I no longer remember, because that was a long time ago, and - although I did quite a bit of work for that client back then and I think both sides were satisfied - I haven't bothered with US agency clients in a long time because of the unfavorable exchange rate with the euro. Maybe they'd still be willing to pay me what I want, but I feel sorry for the companies stuck in Dollar Land, and I don't want to embarrass them by confronting them with the typical European rates for an experienced translator with in-demand specialties. Not when there are plenty of prospects close by where I also have better access to legal measures of resolving any payment problems.

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....
Those are points dealing with the financial side. But perhaps even more important is the utility side. Are these tests really a useful predictor of how a translator will perform? I doubt it in many cases. Some have pointed out that there's really no guarantee that the test will be done by the translator. It might be hired out to a third party. Perhaps, though that seems like a lot of bother. That idea never occurred to me until I heard someone claim it is done sometimes. In cases where the outsourcer relies on a third party to review the tests and is unable to judge the quality of the feedback, there is the risk of missing out on a good translator because of an overzealous or incompetent reviewer. I have experienced this myself a few times in the past. In one case a German geologist was hired to "correct" a translation of soil analyses that I had done. She claimed that the terminology was all wrong, and she even went through and "fixed" my grammar and word order to give them a thoroughly Teutonic flavor. In high school I used to work for a laboratory that did these and other analyses for the EPA and many other clients, and I am thoroughly familiar with the relevant terminology, not to mention the basics of English grammar, but the timid agency could not bring itself to contradict the verdict of an "expert". I wrote them off, figuring those losers will get what they deserve. In a few other cases, I have heard objections where British reviewers were hired to screen my work for the US market, but these were fortunately overridden by the end clients in every case. That makes me wonder, though, how many times there are problems with the review of test translations if a Parisian is asked to check out a French Canadian's work intended for the Quebec market or a mix-and-match occurs with the Spanish or Portugese markets. My partner and I occasionally get asked to screen tests (paid ones - our clients are ethical) that are headed for the British market, but although I can certainly judge the translator's understanding of the German text and general facility with the English language, I cannot in many cases say whether the tone is exactly the right one for a British reader.

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.

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