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Test Translations: for, against or… It depends?

If you’re a professional translator or transcreator, chances are that you will have done at least one (free) test translation in your career. Personally, I’ve done many, maybe too many! It’s something I have mixed feelings about, so I thought it’d be interesting to take a closer look and give the issue some visibility, especially for those new translators who will very often be faced with this situation at the beginning of their professional career. Is it fair for agencies or direct clients to ask applicants to complete a free test? Do you feel frustrated when you receive this kind of request for the gazillionth time after sending your CV? And, most importantly, what should these tests be like? What purpose should they serve?

Is it fair?

Whenever I’m looking for new agencies or am contacted by one, the very first thing I normally do is a bit of quick research on the Blueboard (a top tip for beginners, for avoiding scammers or translation agencies that don’t pay). I might also ask my colleagues if they’ve had any experience with the agency in question and have a look at their website and social media profiles. Pretty basic research for my own peace of mind.

If the agency then finds your experience and languages relevant for their translator pool, they might ask you to complete a (hopefully short) free test translation. But, is it fair of agencies to ask a translator with years’ of projects under their belt or fresh out of a translation degree to take a test?

To answer this question, I thought that it’d be helpful to compare this request to the application process for any regular job. During the pandemic, a good friend of mine lost her job. I was talking to her regularly at the time, so got a glimpse into what this process entailed. Every time she applied for a job, she knew it’d take her the whole morning: tweaking her CV so that it was a perfect fit for that particular position, filling in the surprisingly long application form and, of course, like me, doing her own research on the company. If her application was successful, she would go through to the interview process. Sometimes, that meant three or four interviews, for which she had to prepare thoroughly and even create an elaborate presentation on a specific topic.

My conclusion, in this case, is quite obvious: Compared to this time-consuming process, asking for a short test isn’t such a big deal. However, let’s not jump to any easy conclusions because, as with any other topic, nothing is quite so black and white… And this takes us neatly onto our next questions.

What should a test translation be like?

Let’s get straight to the point. I think that a test translation should be no longer than 300 words. As a rule of thumb, a professional translator can translate 300 words per hour, but this is when you’re familiar with the topic, terminology and tone of voice. In a test scenario, this may not be the case, so you’ll have to study the brief and do your own research, which (surprise, surprise) also takes time. Therefore, a 300-word test will actually take you around two hours, at least.

On the other hand, receiving a test can also be interesting for the translator, for them to test the agency, too: It will reveal whether they provide clear instructions, create a detailed brief, encourage a culture of collaboration through feedback or have unreasonable demands.

Any feedback, please?

After investing two hours of your time, I think it’s only fair to expect at least an answer. In my experience, this is not always a given. As agencies receive such a large volume of applications, they sometimes simply don’t have the time or resources to review them. This means that sometimes you won’t even get a “You’ve passed” or a “You’ve failed” reply by e-mail, and instead will have to chase them up to get an answer.

But, is an answer enough? Should we not also expect some feedback? I think so! Receiving some constructive feedback is a sort of “quid pro quo” after spending a considerable amount of your free time on a task. This feedback will be especially useful if you are less experienced, to help you optimise your approach to tests.

What should be the purpose of a test translation?

When we take a test, agencies or clients will not only be testing our creativity or translation skills. In a world where you don’t see the other professional face to face, a test can be a tool to check if the translator is a reliable professional, who can take on a project, do it properly and submit it on time. They can see how resolute you are as a translator or if you’re not afraid of asking questions. Are you able to adhere to the glossary or a brief? These are all matters that a good agency/proofreader can evaluate with a short and well-thought-out test translation.

Does the test have any other purpose?

Time for controversy! This is something that we should definitely think about when we receive a request for a test translation. It’s not uncommon for agencies to ask their existing pool of translators to complete specific tests for a client. This enables them to build the best team for this account. I think that this is fair. However, some agencies might ask you to take a non-paid test, which will be used as a sample to pitch to their potential client. This is a tricky one… In these cases, I apply my rule of thumb: If it has a purpose other than testing my skills as a translator, then it should be paid. After all, it’ll also benefit the agency, because, let’s be honest, we’re all more motivated to work when we get paid.

What’s your experience with test translations? Do you feel frustrated every time you’re asked to do one? Or do you think it’s a fair system for hiring talent?

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