Should I do a free test translation for a potential translation client?

A translator wondering whether or not she should do a free test translation

Written by Lucy Williams

Spanish-to-English translator and translator trainer

At some point in their career, most translators will be asked to complete an unpaid translation test. Should you agree to do a free test translation?

Imagine you’ve been in contact with a potential translation client, and they ask you to do a test translation. They make it clear that it’ll be an unpaid translation test, but that it could lead to more work. Should you do it?

Working for free. It’s not what most translators studied or have as their career goal. And, indeed, many translators refuse requests for unpaid translation tests. In fact, the American Translators Association Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices says: “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.”

One reason to refuse to do free test translations is that a good client will pay for your time. As a professional translator, time is money. Even a short test translation of under 300 words will take an hour.

Translators also point out that, as professionals, they have recognised qualifications (like the DipTrans or MA in Translation). These translation qualifications prove they can translate to a professional standard. Professional translators can usually provide samples of their work and references. An extra free sample isn’t necessary.

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What’s more, unpaid test translations don’t always result in paid translation work. Some customers ask translators to do free translation tests but provide no feedback and ultimately no work. Unscrupulous translation agencies may even use unpaid test translations as a way to get short translations completed for free. They then charge their end client for the work and keep all the revenue. My colleague Gwenydd Jones told me that she has even seen one company that was using them to piece together a much larger patchwork translation.

Is it ever worth doing free test translations?

It depends on how desperate you are. As Gwen said: “I’d never expect anyone to do one for me. I think it says something about the quality of the potential employer. For instance, you may get a translation agency saying that they need you to do an unpaid translation to help them in a tender. But if they’re serious about competing, surly they’re the ones who should be taking the financial risk in that case rather than sponging off the translator.”

If you’re starting out and still need to build up your first client portfolio, I’d say that it can be worth doing a free translation test if there’s a clear job at the end of it or for a long-term collaboration on a project you’re really interested in. But, if you do agree to do a free test translation, there are some things to bear in mind.

1. Research your client. Are they reputable? What guarantees do you have that there’ll be paid work once you’ve done the free translation test?

2. Limit the time you spend working for free. An unpaid test translation should be short (under 300 words) and it should be in your specialism or related to the area you’re hoping to work in. It shouldn’t be something you’re pressured to do either. If a translation agency asks for an urgent unpaid translation test then that’s a sure sign that they’re planning to charge a client for your work.

3. Remember to agree rates and payment terms for future work before you do the unpaid test. There’s no point spending your time on a free test translation only to discover that they won’t agree to your rates later.

Get qualified!

A gold-standard qualification like the Diploma in Translation (DipTrans) will help you position yourself as professional translator. It gives you the standing to be able to decide which customers to work with and on what terms. Find out today about our courses to prepare for the DipTrans exam.

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