The problem with “screening” translators

An acquaintance who owns a translation agency was complaining to me the other day about the pool of freelancers who send him applications. He claims that he wants top-quality translators, but so many mediocre ones apply that he can't sift through all the noise. He keeps creating stricter screening procedures in the hopes of filtering out the riffraff, but it doesn't help.

I had a look at this agency's requirements for application:

  • Email lengthy resume, with lots of required information
  • Email statement of motivation for applying
  • Email several sample translations
  • Send above documents via postal mail

Motivation for applying? Is this a freelancer application or an essay contest? And why require the same documents to be both emailed and posted?

I think the problem is clear: the agency's screening process is screening out the top applicants, not the bottom ones. I don't think many established translators would go through this kind of rigmarole just for the chance of getting work from this agency; established translators already have a good stream of work.

In other words, when you hire an established translator, you're competing with other translation buyers for this person's time. Why make it a hassle to switch?

It's pretty obvious to me that this agency thinks too highly of itself. You might even take the cynical view that the agency is screening for exactly what it wants: the timid and easily controlled. That's fine. But then don't come complaining to me that you can't get any decent talent.

How to get good translators

The big problem with this agency's approach is that it's passive. The agency puts up an "employment opportunities" page, and waits for the applications to roll in. This kind of approach is obviously going to be biased toward people who don't have enough work for whatever reason — in at least some cases because they're beginners or not good translators.

In my book, the best way to find good translators actually involves doing some work. Instead of passively waiting for applications, go to where translators hang out — mailing lists, forums, what have you. Find the ones who look competent, and contact them. Then if rates, specializations, and other factors match up, send them a small, paid job. If they do well, send increasingly large jobs. I've had several clients approach me this way, and these have turned into some of my best customers.

Sure, this is more work than casting your nets and seeing what turns up in them. But if you truly want good translators, and aren't just paying lip service to quality, can you afford not to?

7 comments to The problem with “screening” translators

  • I agree completely. As a company we are very small, and only very seldom do we need to look for new translators (we normally either do all the work internally, or rely on a small group of colleagues we have known and worked with for many years).

    When we did look for someone, however, we did so actively – contacting those who looked to us as strong candidates, then sending them some small jobs to see that they actually fit with the way we worked.

  • As a freelancer who works mostly with agencies, I can understand an agency’s desire to screen translator, but I agree, this really is going about it all wrong. The “postal mail” and “motivation” requirements seem especially arbitrary—they’re not screening for quality, they’re screening for a high bullshit-acceptance quotient. They’re recruiting the people who have the most free time.

    Over the years, my best clients have been ones I’ve gained either through referrals by fellow translators or through meeting in person. The Internet might be undoing that, but I can also imagine that (assuming this is a broader phenomenon) it might be reinforcing it.

  • The “motivation” requirement may be appropriate when applying to colleges, but it is absurd for a freelance position with a translations company. We have had the best results from reading translators’ blogs, and from sites like We are also actively looking for translators on sites like LinkedIn and Twitter.

  • MT

    This is how teacher education programs in the U.S. work. You may occasionally get smart, dedicated, motivated people applying to earn a teaching credential. People who have had successful careers in business or the professional science world. But the best ones quickly see that the teacher credential process isn’t worth their time. And teachers are treated like kids once they have their certificates (must remain on campus even when not teaching, must eat in the cafeteria, must arrive by 7am no matter when first class is, etc.) And they leave. Which is a terrible tragedy for kids.

    I totally agree with your post. If you know what to look for, it’s easy to find a translator who’s probably good. I don’t translate or speak Japanese, but after a couple decades in the industry I guarantee that I could pick a good Japanese translator out of a list of 5,000 random people claiming to be good Japanese translators. My e-mail inbox certainly wouldn’t be the first place I’d look. The people who turned stuff into my “apply with my agency” e-mail box would get a quick glance some afternoon when I got tired of Web surfing and didn’t have any work to do. And maybe there’d be an application in there that piqued my interest. But I’m sure I’d get a much better “hit” rate by doing a quick search on my own…

  • I completely agree! I came across an agency like this recently who wanted a CV and covering letter sent by post. What a waste of everyone’s precious time!

    Like you say the only translators willing to jump through these kinds of hoops must sadly be those that are desperate for work and have plenty of time on their hands!

  • @Sarah

    It must be a sign of the times that we see postal mail as an unreasonable requirement, but I agree with you that it usually is. On the other hand, I often have to sign NDAs for my clients, and that still involves postal mail.

  • “On the other hand, I often have to sign NDAs for my clients, and that still involves postal mail.”

    I normally sign NDA’s and other contracts electronically, with a VeriSign signature. The only thing we regularly send through the mail is checks to our suppliers, and, very seldom, certified copies of our translations, since these have to bear the original notary’s stamp.

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