Monday, April 29, 2013

Test Translations – Trial Period for a Freelance Translator

There's an opinion within the translation and localization industry that PERFECT TRANSLATION is not a measure of quality – it’s a lie! It's one I'm inclined to agree with, because nowadays our client requirements are so different that it’s almost impossible to guess precisely every single preferred word and style. I'm using the term 'guess' because translation is not simply changing words from one language into their equivalents in another language. Quality translation involves knowing the context and cultural background of the words in the original text, and then choosing those words and phrases of the target language which will best convey the idea and meaning of the original in a new and different cultural context. However, there can be at least one hundred ways of translating each document, all of which may seem correct from a language point of view, but there’s always a little something extra you can add or change to make it sound even better.

So how can translation agencies prove their ability to deliver quality translations? And how can translation agencies recruit appropriate linguists for the job? Normally there’s only one answer – ask for a test translation. Competition among freelance translators and translation agencies is constantly growing: therefore, an unpaid test translation is becoming commonplace. This may not be the ideal situation for the translator but usually - it’s all or nothing! Either you go from working free of charge to receiving paid assignments in the future if you pass the test, or someone else will get the job instead of you. Of course, there are some clients who agree to pay for tests, but this tends to be more of an exception than regular practice.

RixTrans has been offering quality translation and localization services for some time now and we've collected many interesting cases, some of which I'd like to share with you now. For example, an excellent translator who had received only positive feedback from random clients on his website and marketing text translations was rejected by one of our prospects. He even claimed that our translation was done using machine translation software, although it was not. After long negotiations, we finally came to realize that our client was actually in need of transcreation, not translation services. So we swopped our qualified translator for a third-year university student, who did an excellent job of creating a new marketing text for our client. Can we call it a 'perfect translation' though? Well, it certainly was perfect for this client, but it could just as equally be unacceptable for someone else.

Just a few weeks ago, we received a rather strange request from a large and well-known company who asked us for a free test translation of about 50 pages. Of course, it's up to you if you want to accept such conditions, but in my opinion, unpaid tests shouldn’t exceed 500 words.

So, what is worth considering?
  • First, consider whether it’s really necessary to evaluate your potential linguist. Sometimes it can be enough to call on a few references to evaluate whether the candidate can handle the job or not.
  • Divide all tests into specific subject matters – marketing, medicine, history, finances, etc.
  • Determine which language pairs you might need additional help with in advance.
  • Plan the budget. Test translation and vendor evaluation is a major part of the translation business, so it's essential you factor in resources, providers, salaries, office rent and marketing activities.
  • Create a plan for linguist evaluation – who will be responsible for this? It's better to keep linguist evaluation in-house as far as it's possible.
  • Use test results to rank your potential providers. Client feedback is of course the most important measure of quality, but you still need to start somewhere.
  • Test translation doesn’t have to be long. Sometimes three tricky sentences can be enough to determine if the potential candidate can handle the job or not. 
  • Think of how much are you are ready to invest in a test translation? At RixTrans we usually don’t take test translations above 500 words. However, every rule has an exception. Coca-Cola once asked for a free test translation of around 3000 words, which we took without a hesitation.

Here at RixTrans, the following criteria is considered before we assign any job to a new vendor:
  1. Vendor's qualifications (copies of diploma, previous work experience)
  2. Test sample in each category (medical, technical, marketing, IT, law, finances)
  3. References
I have a strong belief that there’s no perfect translation in this world, and there’s no single translator that can deliver perfect work for everyone. But considering our vast experience and know-how there’s a great chance that among our team of carefully selected international linguists we will find that perfect one for everybody

What if the costs of the required translation exceed your limit?
  1. Don’t give up on a client – making that first contact  means that your potential client is interested in your services. You can either suggest selecting a couple of paragraphs you will translate free of charge to prove your expertise, or offer them a special test translation rate.
  2. It’s important to determine actual costs versus potential benefits before you accept any work you are not getting paid for. Always try to think long term (if this is a perspective client who could possibly order from you on a regular basis).
  3. Think of each test translation as a learning opportunity. Every passed or failed test translation will give you some lesson you can use in the future. For example, start asking questions and receive quality expectations from the client up-front, asking the client to give feedback on the work, etc.

To be honest, I think that test translations should be looked at as you would a trial period in a new job. Even if you are a qualified employee and fit in perfectly in your new working environment, there’s always a period when you have to accept a lower salary with an option to be fired without prior notice. It's the same story with translations – our clients test, double check, measure and audit our work. Service providers have to either accept it or let the client go.

But the common goal remains the same for both translation agencies and freelance translators – to resolve client language problems and receive an adequate remuneration for the work. Only by working together towards this goal will we succeed.

RIX Translation Service Agency
About the author

RixTrans ( – rapidly growing translation agency providing innovative language solutions.