Charlie Bavington @ C Bavington Ltd

French to English Translation Services

Meeting translation needs since 2003

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Charlie Bavington - French to English freelance translator

Pros and cons of free tests

(This article is now (more or less) replicated in this blog post where you can leave comments.)

Ah, indeed, tests, and the payment or otherwise thereof. An old issue, scarcely a week goes by without some translator somewhere passing comment thereupon. Translators being the largely discontented bunch they appear to be, the comment is rarely along the lines of “How topping! I was asked to do a free test and you can imagine the pleasure I took in agreeing to this perfectly reasonable request.”

Actually, it seems to me to be a fairly straightforward issue, regardless of its age. An issue comprising two key points, namely a) why do tests and b) should they be paid for? Plus a third, subsidiary point which irritates yours truly beyond all reasonable measure, so we’ll come to that last, in the hope that I will have worn my typing fingers out by the time I reach it and so lack the energy to communicate the incendiary strength of my feeling on the matter, for fear that the very internet itself, or my Ethernet cable at least, might melt in the heat.

So, a) “why do tests?”

I confess, I think “why do tests” is probably a little simplistic – it should be “what need drives clients to ask for tests and do tests meet that need?” – but I was looking for a short title.

Three reasons justifying requests for tests

The obvious first point is that clients ask for tests in order to test (naturally enough) that translators can deliver what they say can deliver. If you claim to be a legal translator, that you can translate a paragraph or two from a contract. If you claim engineering knowledge, that you can translate the description of a cable stay for a bridge, say. And so on. Unfortunately, the translation business is full of people with a misplaced confidence in their abilities, or who deliberately mislead clients, and anything in between. Your exams and credentials may be perceived as not having examined the specific subject area to the depth that a client may need. Or maybe the information about you in the public domain doesn’t really indicate much one way or the other. So they ask for a quick couple of paragraphs to prove capability to deliver.

The second point is that clients may ask for a test to check translators can follow simple instructions. I have limited outsourcing experience, and even I can tell you that some translators will get the document, and just jump into translating that document, before they have read the accompanying email all the way down to the inevitable “Regards….” bit. So asking people to start at the third paragraph (say), can just be used to test how much attention the translator pays.

Third, they may ask for test to see if you are actually able to meet technical or ancillary requirements. Can you handle XML? Provide a TM in TMX format for the client? Giving the translator a handful of HTML pages and receiving a nice Word document back, even if translated perfectly, may not be what is required.

Counter-arguments - valid

A common counter-argument to that first point is that samples demonstrate the same thing. True to an extent, and more so for a specialist. As a counter-counter-argument, I would say that I would expect a sample made available to be as near to perfect as a translation ever gets, and all it demonstrates is the ability to hone that particular text to the nth degree. It does not necessarily demonstrate the ability to deliver the specific type of text the client requires. And it in no way demonstrates the important additional ability to follow instructions. And neither do credentials, certificates, diplomas, membership of professional organisations, or indeed paid membership of popular translation websites. Some of these can indeed be easily forged, faked or presented in a misleading way, and also be a bit of a bugger to check, particularly from another country.

A more reasonable but conversely less universally-applicable counter-argument is that if you are being asked for a test, you probably don’t know the potential client from Adam, and the potential client also does not know you from any other character from the religious text of your choice. So we should be careful. It is certainly safer to acquire new clients by personal recommendation and referral, and the same is partly true of agencies using new translators. I have also heard the viewpoint that a client who is testing several people (not that we usually know how many are being tested at once) is likely to view each of them as interchangeable or disposable, initially at least, until they prove otherwise. Once again, a spot of (demonstrable) specialisation is your friend.

Counter-arguments - invalid

"I have done several tests and have never subsequently received any work. So tests are pointless." Or you might be incompetent, or out of your depth in the tests you have done. In any event, if you genuinely believe that your personal experience represents a universal truth, there is something amiss with your logic ciruits.

An inconclusive conclusion

In a nutshell, then, if the work is likely to just be general blurb requiring no particular specialist skill or knowledge, then I would agree that testing seems a little excessive when the client ought to be able to meet that need with little effort. The more obscure, specialised and technical the work, the more reasonable it seems to me to check, with a test, unless the translator has a relevant sample or samples or has been recommended. And yet, tests do typically tend to be fairly straightforward, as if testing for adequacy rather than specialisation. But there are vast numbers of self-proclaimed translators out there who struggle even to be adequate. And let us not forget, self-proclamation is all it takes (in most countries, anyway). So for many clients, unfortunately, even adequacy is a step in a welcome direction. They can’t believe a word half of us say, and so they feel the need to test us.

(As a related aside, as translators, we sometimes experience some mental anguish in deciding whether a potential client is a worthwhile prospect. There are payment practice lists and blacklists and halls of shame and boards of various hues on various websites to help us in our ruminations. Obviously that works both ways. Any client offering work can never be entirely sure of a translator’s reliability, especially in the early days of the relationship. To help, some websites have set up services whereby existing clients of translators can vouch for translators. This is a contentious issue for some. I do understand the need. It is the methodology I don’t much like. If I were an agency, this is the position that I would adopt)

And b) “should tests be paid?”


If you do a free test, does that mean that client gains the impression you have nothing better to do? Some say it does. It is hard to construct a convincing counter-argument to assumptions that other people might hypothetically make. But that risk can be minimised. Do not immediately jump to it. Take a few days, perhaps (unless there is a deadline, of course). Email it at 10 p.m. or midnight. Give the impression (whether true or not) that you had to squeeze it into a busy schedule – although obviously make sure it is well done. Or ask for payment, of course. Ultimately, though, when there is no duress or compulsion or threat of sanction, I have trouble accepting that anyone is being "exploited".

... or marketing?

Some argue that a free test is merely marketing (a sprat to catch a mackerel, perhaps). The time spent is merely time spent on marketing. Not only that, it is marketing time spent on a potential client with at least a passing interest in the service you offer. Otherwise why test that service?

Yes, that could be slightly idealistic or even naïve of me. Note that my own experience mirrors the common observation that the more hoops a potential client wants you to jump through, the less likely you are to ever get actual paid work out of them. So if the test comes combined with a questionnaire and application form and bank details form and non-disclosure agreement and a request for a copy of your grandparents’ birth certificates, you can probably just hit the Delete button and move merrily on.

Personally, on balance, I can see more merits to the “free tests = marketing” point of view than drawbacks.

Working for nothing

Some say that they just don’t want to do “work” for nothing. Fair enough. I have put “work” in quotes because it can mean many things to many people, yet it is so often the word used by those rejecting the idea of free testing. It is clearly “work” in the sense of taking time and effort for the testee, even if viewed as a marketing task. Whether it is “work” for the tester, in the sense of being of saleable value to them, is debatable. Ideally perhaps it should not be – a test should have a standard (of) translation for the testee to aim for, so the tester can pass/fail testees on a consistent basis, which would imply consistent, if not the self-same, text being used on all testees. But if they are testing you for a particular project…

It must be said that a paid test does tend to demonstrate good faith by the client, if the test is paid promptly. That said, any such relationship is still a new one, and just because they paid your 9 groats for a test within a fortnight, it does not mean they will ever pay your 300 guineas for the entire user guide you subsequently translated.

And a paid test also demonstrates that the potential client recognises that your time is worth something, which is a point in favour of paid tests, without in my view managing to conclusively demonstrate the opposite.

Fraud! Scam!

Others don’t trust most potential clients as far as they can throw them, and seem to assume that every single person who asks for a free test is somehow going to cobble together a paid-for deliverable for a third party from a disparate collection of 300-word tests. And they are not going to get caught out like that, oh no. Fine. I’ve never actually seen a scintilla of concrete proof that this has ever been done, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Even if we accept that it has happened, that does not mean that the purpose of all tests is this kind of deception. Those wiser than me have calculated it would probably cost about as much in time for the tester to coordinate such a stunt as it would cost in money to get the job done properly. That said, it could certainly not be ruled out if the test were approaching about, say, 600-700 words in length (or more), then, a 3,000 word translation, say, pieced together from "tests" provided by 4 or 5 people would probably be feasible, and much more feasible than attempting to achieve the same result from 9 or 10 different people. Moral: Tests ought to be short.

Some argue that if a free test comes with a deadline, then that is proof of some fiendishly cunning plan to construct a patchwork translation for free. Not impossible. But note that a deadline could be imposed on a test simply to determine the ability to follow instructions (as mentioned above) or because there is a deadline for the project being tested for, hence a translator needs to be booked from date D and so the tests need to be evaluated by date D minus 5 and so all the tests need to be delivered by D minus 10, say. It definitely helps to know the purported purpose of the test, so if the stated aim is to confirm suitability for being added to an agency's database for projects as yet unspecified, a deadline would appear unnecessary.

On the subject of length, I would tend to agree that a free test should take about an hour of one’s time (otherwise it could indeed give the impression you have nothing better to do). I guess a paid test can be any length at all. Indeed, one could reasonably suggest that those agencies which make a habit of giving short texts as their first job to a new translator are blurring the distinction between tests and paid work. But while there may not be much consensus on the subject of testing in general, there does seem to be consensus that a test, if tests are permitted to exist, should be no more than 300 words, plus or minus 50.

Another inconclusive conculsion

So, a whole set of pros and cons and conflicting logic. Tests should logically test specialist knowledge, but in reality usually don’t, and specialists usually get new clients by word of mouth and recommendation – no testing required. Tests do not logically need to test adequacy, since even a basic qualification should guarantee that… but there are no barriers to entry to this profession. Upshot - some people do tests, and some don’t, and adopting either position, be it permanently or case-by-case, is perfectly valid and logical.

That is, of course, merely my opinion. It would be remisss of me not to point out that while the Chartered Institute of Linguists in the UK has no such restriction at this time (and neither does the ITI), the Code of Conduct for the ATA in the USA in fact used to say members "will not require translators or interpreters to do unpaid work for the prospect of a paid assignment".

A small addendum on the subject of feedback. I think that as a matter of good manners and probably good practice, those asking for tests should at least provide minimum feedback. I don't personally see the need for a time-consuming point-by-point breakdown of the factors that led to one not being selected, just the first such factor would suffice, merely to demonstrate that the test was at least reviewed seriously (notwithstanding the fact that incompetent or overzealous reviwers are one reason why some translators decline to do tests at all). Unfortunately, other than the grapevine, there isn't really any mechanism to draw attention to those agencies/outsourcers who make a habit of asking for tests and then maintain radio silence (as was discussed here).


c) The Ethernet cable-melting subsidiary point.

I think I have mentioned before that certain translators seem to be constantly comparing the translation industry to plumbers and builders and lawyers and architects and doctors and taxi-drivers in an attempt to justify their position. They will reel off a litany of professions, make the bald statement that “they don’t do free tests/work” and then wrap up with “and neither do I”. Or perhaps the would-be opinion-former will endeavour to create an amusing scenario whereby they ask a builder to build some stump of a wall as a test, or a plumber to install one tap as a test, or an architect to sketch out a shed before awarding a contract for a tower block, or a taxi driver to convey the translator a few hundred yards as a test prior to booking a trip to an airport, before asking the reader to compare such a scenario with being asked to do a free translation test and then share hollow laughter with the author of the said opinion.

Now, analogies and comparisons that do not work well really do tend to irritate me more than a thistle-lined jock-strap.

So, perhaps we could stop comparing ourselves to professions with strict entry requirements, such as the law and medicine, where there are equally strict sanctions for charlatans and chicanery and a qualification is generally likely to be both genuine and proof of reasonable competence.
Perhaps we could stop comparing ourselves to professions where testing is indeed highly impractical.
Perhaps we could stop comparing ourselves to professions where asking for a test genuinely is tantamount to performance of the actual job required, demonstrably and self-evidently so.
And perhaps we could stop pretending that, as consumers or as businesses, if there were hypothetically a way to test builders, plumbers, lawyers, mechanics, and other providers of goods and services we use, we wouldn’t do so. Of course we would. We would test everything, if we could. But we can’t. Which is why some critical professions are strictly regulated, and why we have trading standards authorities (and consumer magazines/websites such as "Which?" in the UK or "Que Choisir" in France) for the others. Oh, and contract law… but don’t get me started on translators and contracts here.

And let us not forget in our enthusiasm to paint translators as the only profession in the world where some practitioners do “free work”, that lawyers (oh yes, them again) often offer free consultation, the actors do auditions, that graphic designers submit designs for competition without payment, that advertising agencies submit ideas ditto, that some software publishers offer a trial period or an evaluation version, car dealers will offer test drives for entire weekends, and so on.

Not all such “free work” takes the form of free testing, granted. But I genuinely believe one reason translators are asked to do tests is because it is a service which readily lends itself to the concept of testing. If other services did the same, they too would be tested, and some in fact are.

Now if you, personally, do not wish to “work” for nothing, that is absolutely your prerogative. It is an entirely reasonable stance to adopt.

But there are plenty of sound and economically-rational reasons for doing tests, even free ones, so perhaps those of you who have opted not to go down that path could treat those who have with a modicum of respect. Argue your case from a perspective related to the business of translation or even language service provision more broadly, and please keep your incessant and irrelevant drivel comparing translation to other occupations to yourself. (A bit more on comparisons here.)

(Needless to say, this rambling too was inspired by a thread here)

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