A Chance to Sell Yourself (Or: Unpaid Test Translations and Why You Should Do Them)

NathanTranslation Thoughts

We’ve all been there. You’ve managed to get a response from a translation agency about a possible, and hopefully long-term, collaboration. But there’s a catch. They want you to carry out a test translation, an unpaid test translation. So what do you do now? Do you pass it up, say yes regardless, or is it a matter of the answer being “yes, but…”?

In my experience, there are few topics that can get translators so passionately involved than unpaid test translations. There are those that baulk at the idea, roll their eyes and start smashing at their keyboards in sheer indignation. Some of the responses to this forum thread posed some fascinating questions. Would I ask my plumber to do an unpaid test? I’d rather not, I might end up with a flooded kitchen. The problem is, we’re translators and not plumbers, and it’s certainly worth asking why agencies require these unpaid tests.

I can’t imagine the number of CVs and applications that agencies get, especially from those involved with one of the more popular language pairs. The truth is, you might have five years of experience, a perfectly polished CV and a dynamite cover letter, but does it mean you’re the right fit for the agency in question? Someone with five years of experience might well feel that an unpaid test translation is beneath them. If I was the owner of a translation agency, I wouldn’t care and I would require a test translation to be carried out.

It’s not necessarily to do with worries over translation ability, either. I would much rather have a translator who took the time to complete a test translation on my team than one whose self-importance stops them in their tracks when basically being asked to sell themselves. I’d want a translator who goes the extra mile, one who is actually specialised and experienced in what they claim and one who, of course, not only renders the source language accurately, but stylishly too.

When all is said and done, it all comes down to the “M” word. No, not machine translation. Marketing. What is a test translation if it is not another phase in the marketing process? Sure, you could provide samples of past translations. The problem with sample translations is that they are never performed under conditions that mimic a professional job and could be polished after countless hours, days or even weeks.

Talking of hours; how many hours do we spend polishing our CVs and our cover letters? Then we spend time researching agencies and making sure that we’re only targeting those that pay well, pay on time and are, above all, professional and a pleasure to work with. So you’ve done all this, is now really the time to baulk at being asked to continue this process and sell yourself?

There was an interesting poll on this subject from 2016 conducted on the Proz website that received 1192 responses. Only 8.1% of respondents claimed that they do not perform test translations. When it comes down to the debate, however, it seems that these people constitute the majority. Why is that? Is it just the latest leg in the war between the humble translator and the mighty agency? Are they easy points scored from atop a high horse? It could well be frustration borne from many performed, yet fruitless, test translations.

I imagine the majority of the frustration comes from quite simply being asked to complete a translation for free. I have personally carried out three test translations in my professional career, and one of them led to a long-term collaboration with an agency that I very much enjoy working with. If I had turned down that test translation then I would be worse off today. I’ve had other experiences, too. One test translation that came with genuinely helpful and insightful feedback but has yet to lead to any work, and the other didn’t receive a response.

Let’s say a successful test leads to the translator earning €5,000 over five years thanks to a successfully performed test translation. It’s a hypothetical, of course, but is half an hour of your time not worth €5,000? Some might argue that they’ll just work with clients who don’t require these tests, and there are plenty who don’t. I believe, however, that with a simple list of conditions, test translations can be a fruitful experience for the translator.

Firstly, I usually won’t take a test translation that is longer than 400 words. This would be my limit for a test that has three different types of text. I would also ensure that my rate has been agreed to by the agency before completing the test and it also almost goes without saying that I would have evaluated the agency beforehand and that the deadline needs to be fair.

For two of the test translations that I carried out, there was no fixed deadline and for the other I was given a deadline of a week. By refusing to carry out test translations with urgent or pressing deadlines, I believe that we are more likely avoid the possibility of allowing the agencies to use test translations to obtain free labour. In any case, I believe that this phenomenon is much less common than some translators believe and is a tactic likely used by those agencies that any self-respecting translator wouldn’t even consider collaborating with in the first place.

In summary, I find test translations to be beneficial on the whole where certain conditions are met. They are the prolongation of a marketing process in which we should already be investing time every day. Even a failed test translation can be a learning experience, and any feedback provided could be invaluable, especially for a translator who is just starting out in the industry. If you are interested in collaborating with an agency, what’s the harm of showing not only what you can do, but your commitment to a long-term collaboration? After all, such a collaboration could profoundly impact your professional life as a translator.