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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Test Translations

Many translation clients request free translations as a precondition for a paid assignment. Is this a reasonable request? And if so, what is a reasonable size of a test translation that will give the client an idea of the translator's capabilities, yet is unlikely to be resold, possibly supplemented by other "test" translations, to the client's client. The Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices" of the American Translators Association stipulates: "As an employer or contractor of translators and/or interpreters, ... I will not require translators or interpreters to do unpaid work for the prospect of a paid assignment." Is this a reasonable rule for translation buyers? (Note that it does not prohibit translators from doing free test translations.) How common is the abusive practice of requesting test translations as freebies to be used by or resold to the final customer? Some translators refuse to do free translations. Others establish a limit of X words they are willing to do free of charge. Again others charge for test translations, but credit the amount paid against the price of the actual assignment. How should the translator respond when asked to do free work against the prospect of a paid assignment?


Blogger Harry J. Huang,Macquarie University/Seneca College said...

Saturday, May 6, 2006

Test Translations Is Reasonable But Unnecessary

Harry J. Huang,Macquarie University (Australia)/Seneca College (Canada)

The Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices" of the American Translators Association stipulates: "As an employer or contractor of translators and/or interpreters, ... I will not require translators or interpreters to do unpaid work for the prospect of a paid assignment." (, 2002)

As it appears, “unpaid work” in the stipulation may mean more than a free sample translation, though such a sample is a popular form of “unpaid work.” In this article, however, I will just address the issue of free test translations including the impossibility of knowing the cases of abuse, the fragility of such an abusive case, and alternate means of demonstrating a translator’s competence.

Test translations may be reasonable but are unnecessary. Definitely, they could even be abused by clients. First of all, if a client is able to evaluate the quality of a sample translation, the person has to be a pretty competent translation quality evaluator who knows much about translation quality assessment criteria. Any translator who deals with such clients has to be extremely careful when providing sample translations, especially those translated from client-selected passages. Theoretically, though unlikely, a client may contact five or ten professionals and ask each to translate part of a document, which may be joined together to create a free translation. Some adjustment may be necessary but that is not difficult for mediocre translators or translation sales representatives to complete. In my humble view, free translation samples should not be provided, and client-selected passages must not be rendered for free.

Abusing free test translations is unethical and sinful, if not illegal, and abusers may never admit to their guilt. Thus, it is hardly possible for anybody in the world to come to a close estimate of cases of such abuse. The translator is entirely on his or her own and has to rely upon his or her judgement when deciding whether or not to provide a free sample for a client.

When translations are stolen, it is very difficult to make a case. For one reason, the translator is not the owner of the source text, and therefore the public may not take it as seriously as a case of infringement of original copyright. For another, there is never one fixed or best way of translating something; rather, there are always many ways of rendering the same text. That makes it very difficult to determine which translation is the original one and whether or not the original one should legitimately be re-translated if another person can outdo the first. Any mediocre translator can change a few things in any translated text either with or without substantial changes. Even if someone really copies someone else’s translation, it may not be easy to prove it, unless the translation has already been published. Worse still, translations may be stolen and abused without the knowledge of the original translators. In this respect, protective measures are probably the first choice.

The question is: could a client learn about the translator’s competence without a test translation?

In most cases, the answer is yes. If a translator has published some translations, it is easier. One thing a published translator could do, for example, is create a translation folder that contains samples of different genres. If a client wants to review it, the translator may simply show it to him/her. Alternately, the translator may just refer the client to the publications. Unpublished translators, on the other hand, may keep copies or passages of the translations that have been rendered for previous clients (of non-confidential nature, of course), which may be reviewed by a client in the presence of the translator. Needless to say, such a folder, especially one with a substantial amount of unpublished work or clients’ documents, is not suitable to loan, for one never knows what may happen when a client takes it away. Personally, I have several pieces of translation stolen, or rather, I suspect so. Two individuals have even retranslated two of my own translations rendered from my own English stories. They simply changed some words and placed their names as translators under mine (as author). Experience warns us against insufficient protection for translation copyright, which is dwarfed by that of original works.

Due to the aforementioned reasons and others, unless the translator is really new in the profession and has no other way to demonstrate his/her competence and/or he/she is desperate for the paid assignment, it is unadvisable to provide free samples of translation for clients. In any case, if the translator really decides to provide one, for a book-length project, for example, a free sample of approximately 300 words suffices to demonstrate his/her competence.

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It does look like we're working for free. I've been asked to do so, but after my first time I started thinking that is not fair, and that they may be taking advantage of our work. I'll be shocked to think that someone does take the time to open a website, invite translators to test their abilities and simply make profit with the so-called "sample translations"...

5:26 AM  
Blogger MT said...

Unpaid translation tests are inappropriate, and many translators say no to them; I would encourage any translator reading this "to just say no" to any request for an unpaid translation test.

In a sense, then, the test works two ways: the client gets to see if the translator can translate, and the translator gets to see if the client will pay, and on time.

7:53 PM  
Blogger johnrawlins said...

Last year I gained two excellent clients after agreeing to test translations. However, both translations were short - well under 80 words.

You might want to see why translators should use their feet more at my blog ;-)

3:31 PM  
Blogger Бюро переводов "Окей" said...

I believe doing free test translations is a normal practice, and normally I ask candidates to do a test (about 300-400 words long) when they apply for inclusion into our database.
1) I send several test translation pages on different subjects in a zipped folder - requesting to do only one at which s/he feels best. This saves us from suspicions.
2) I always offer candidates an option of providing me with their translation samples instead.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I work for an agency and a prospective client asked for a translation test. I handled it and it was a very technical matter...pharmaceutical label...and it was excellent, according to the client...unfortunately i have never heard back from them and i think they just needed a small job done and they wanted it for free.

That experience makes me skeptical to provide sample translation tests for free the policy is the client has to cover the translator and proofreader's costs.
Kim -

9:57 AM  
Blogger Alba-translating.Ru said...

In Russia the industry standard is that test translation should not exceed 250-300 words.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Ala said...

I sometimes do short test translations of 100-150 words, and recently came across one of my free test translations published on the corporate website... But I must admit that very few clients ask for a test translation.

4:15 AM  

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