Taking free translation tests

The Translation Journal blog has a post about doing unpaid translation trials. One question raised there, and heard rather frequently among translators, is whether some unscrupulous companies are piecing together free trials and delivering them to clients.

I'm pretty much with About Translation here: such practices are mostly an urban legend. That said, I have witnessed this practice one time. A shady salesman type at an agency I freelanced for called me up one day, asking me to proof a translation. During the course of our conversation, he let slip that this was actually an unpaid trial translation that he was selling to a customer.

Thankfully, the shady salesman soon left the industry (he went back to his original industry of tour-bus guiding), and the agency that employed him soon went out of business. So I can retain my belief that this was a very uncommon incident.

I'll thus assume that the only issue of doing an unpaid translation test is whether you're getting paid for your work, not whether someone else is getting paid for your free work.

So should you?

Let's start by recognizing that if you're seeking out new clients, you're already at a disadvantage. The best position to be in is to have a new client come to you, through a word-of-mouth recommendation, because they saw your blog, or what have you. If you have to go to clients to drum up business, then you have something to prove.

But let's take egos and outrage at working for free out of the picture for a minute. Have you got enough work right now, at rates you're happy with and the kind of work you want? If so, do pass go, do collect $200, and don't worry about taking trials.

If you're lacking one of the above, then you need to find more work, or better clients, or clients with the work that you want. Leaving aside for the moment how you find such clients, all of them are going to want to check your ability. Some will give you a small job and see how you do. Some (very few) will take some of your ready-made samples. Others are going to want to have you take an in-house trial (because the "standard" certification trials are uniformly horse pucky, in my experience).

If you get enough leads from the first two groups, then you don't have to spend your money (i.e. time) doing unpaid trials. Otherwise, you've simply got to balance the cost of taking the trial (time spent plus opportunity cost from potential paying jobs coming in 10 minutes after you agree to do the trial) against the potential reward in work, rates, and content.

One final note: some of my best, longest-lasting agency clients have come by way of unpaid trials. As far as I can remember, all my non-agency clients have come by way of word-of-mouth introductions.

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