Are test translations worth the effort?

If you’re relatively new to freelancing like me, you’re probably spending some your working time doing test translations for agencies. I’ve seen a bit of discussion about them on LinkedIn recently – you seem to tolerate them or despise them. Reading people’s opinions has given me a chance to re-evaluate what I think about them.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, test translations are normally sent out by translation agencies as part of their onboarding process for hiring new freelance linguists. Sometimes they’re paid, but mostly you’ll be asked to do it for free. It really depends on what type of agency you’re working with, but the fact is most people can get away with asking for a free test, so they will.

From the other side of the fence, most agencies will have a policy that they can’t use translators they don’t know, or sign off work by someone new until it’s been checked by a separate linguist beforehand. For this reason, it’s easier to use a linguist straight off the database. Using an unknown for a job could jeopardise delivery (and be costly) if the translation isn’t up to standard and has to be repaired by someone else.

Once you’re on an agency’s books, they might sometimes offer translation samples by different translators when trying to land a client. This way, the client can choose their preferred writing style. Up to you, but in this scenario I would want to be paid for that kind of test, which should be factored into their marketing or job budget.

When it comes to doing tests for potential new agency clients, I don’t mind doing them for free if they’re less than 400 words. That’s because I enjoy the opportunity to try out translating new texts or subjects, and you also get free feedback on your work from another linguist, which can be very helpful.

Of course, there are some downsides to test translations. They are by definition testing. They can be gruelling and time consuming. There’s nearly always a red herring thrown in, and when there isn’t, I always find myself spending extra time looking for something that isn’t there. Like with all translation, it’s subjective, and in the hands of whoever is checking it. I like to think that agencies will either do the checking in house, or only ask a linguist that they completely trust to avoid any bias. There is of course also the risk of spending precious time taking a test and not getting much work in return. It’s a legitimate concern, and the reason why I tend to do tests in my own time, so that they don’t get in the way of paid work. I haven’t had it happen to me, but I’ve heard some horror stories about scammers sending out unpaid ‘tests’ to several people, then stitching them together and sending them on to paying clients. To avoid falling into this trap, do a background check of the person or agency you’re in contact with, and don’t translate anything too long. The ProZ scams forum is useful for double checking before investing. If you’re not keen on doing free tests, you could suggest sending over sample translations or references instead – it’s better than cutting off any potential for collaboration outright, anyway.

I look on these tests as a dry run of a real job – for both parties. You can tell how you’re going to work together, in terms of professional conduct and punctuality. There’s not normally strict deadlines for tests, but getting it done quickly, or pre-warning that you’re busy for X amount of days and will do it after then is a good indicator of how you would treat a real job. If you take a long time to deliver the test, it could imply that you’re not that bothered about their custom. It works the other way too. Quick deadlines are unreasonable when you have to prioritise paid work, and indicate how they might operate in a real job scenario. Taking too long to get back to you with feedback is also poor.

So, what do you think about taking test translations? I don’t mind them, as I can understand why they’re sometimes necessary. Hopefully they can lead to a long and fruitful collaboration. If you’re looking for a French – English translator to work with, and you think my profile fits the bill, send me a test! I’d love to show you what I can do.

2 Comments

  1. Another super concise and informative blog!

    I think you’ve hit all the main points on the head in this potential minefield. After background checking a potential client to ensure as much as possible that they are legit (I’m fortunate that the majority of agencies I work with are very well established multinationals), I’ve mostly been happy to do tests, as they’re a good indicator of the LSP’s QA processes. They’re also a good learning opportunity. Especially, as you rightly point out, for new translators. As I’ve gotten more experienced, I’ve been asked to test less as part of a general onboarding process and more in connection to, for example, new bids/tenders in which I’ve been asked to participate as a named supplier. These tests focus on specific text types (some will even include multiple document types) and a highly specialist field, such as EU immigration policies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Mike! It’s great that you’re working with clients that are dedicated to using the right translator for their job. I’m glad you get something out of test translations as well – I feel the same way.

      Liked by 1 person

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