Ignoring reference translations

A few weeks ago, a translation agency asked me to do a trial translation for a potential new client. They sent me a short text to translate, and a few past translations that the potential client had commissioned before to serve as a reference. (The agency paid me for this trial, incidentally. An agency that asks you to do a free trial, which they are going to submit in order to get work, is unscrupulous at best.)

Earlier in my career, I tried to stick to the style and terminology of the reference translations as much as possible. I figured that since the client had accepted those translations in the past, that was what it wanted. Even if the translation was very bad, I'd just plug my nose and send that pile off.

That turned out to be a bad idea. If I passed the trial, I would then need to translate 10 or more times the volume of the trial using that same painfully bad style.

After a few years, I started ignoring these "reference" translations, and doing what I thought was the best translation. I might look at references to get a feel for terminology, but I'll also diverge from the terminology in the reference if I think it's wrong.

I figured that even if the client didn't agree with me on translation style, at least this way I could look forward to passing the trial with anticipation instead of dread. I work almost exclusively for Japanese companies, and I've also found that I don't want to work for clients that prefer brain-dead chokuyaku. We're both better off if those types of clients find translators who write English just like in their middle-school English textbooks.

It also turns out to be a lot easier and less stressful to do what you consider to be your best work, rather than second-guessing your translation, wondering if this is what the client wants.

To my surprise, I found that after I took the policy of ignoring reference translations, I started passing a lot more trials. But when I thought about it, it made sense: the client was looking for a new translator because they weren't happy with their current provider. In retrospect, it seems like a pretty bad idea to copy the work of the guys who just got fired.

So, back to the trial from a few weeks ago. The prior translations were very bad, and since I'm knowledgeable about the subject matter (software specifications), I ignored them completely and did what I considered to be a good translation. Fortunately, the client not only liked the trial: they were thrilled with it, and although they were originally planning to place a 10-page job, that has turned into a 30-page job, with a promise of more work to come.

And the best thing is that I can use my own judgment to produce the best translation possible.

7 comments to Ignoring reference translations

  • Jamie

    Very good tip! Thank you. Of course, terminology aside, no translator really wants to copy bad style. I’m glad that not copying poor style and terminology got you the work. It mean’s there is hope for us all!

  • Ryan – Thank you for the good post.

    Test translations can be stressful and time-consuming. As I was reading your story, I was thinking “Wow that makes a lot of sense!” I particularly liked the point about losing by winning, i.e., even if you pass the test that you then have to produce more of this level/type of work.

    The one thing that I don’t agree with is that clients that don’t pay for tests are “unscrupulous”. In our situation, 9 out of 10 tests are unpaid. Yes, we could elect not to to pursue those opportunities but if the tests are short, relevant, and a good fit, we typically choose to suck it up and do the tests.

    Thanks again,

  • //In our situation, 9 out of 10 tests are unpaid.//
    I guess I belong to the one out of ten.

    Especially a client, who has already given me a lot of work and is happy with me, does not require proof of my capability. He knows it already.

    That is why in the first place he is coming to me to send sample translation to a new client of his. This necessitates a certain investment on his part and that is represented by his payment to me.

    In such cases, if the client gets new job awarded to him and he passes on that job to me and if the new job contains the text I did as sample, I deduct the advance paid for the same from my subsequent bill.

    That is all.

    Dondu N. Raghavan

  • @Andres

    I can see not paying for a trial to vet new translators. But if you don’t pay for a trial that you are using to get work from a new client, then you’re asking the translator to bear a share of your business risk. How is the translator being compensated for bearing this risk? If the answer is, “they get the pleasure of working for us,” then I’d say that the relationship isn’t exactly equitable.

    Of course, that’s a business decision, but I certainly wouldn’t do a free trial on behalf of some agency. I’d do it when going after work directly, though.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Attila Görög, La Rassegna. La Rassegna said: ► Ignoring reference translations: A few weeks ago, a translation agency asked me to do the trial translation for … http://bit.ly/aTuX0R […]

  • I agree, not paying for a trial that is to be used to get new work from an end client is pretty tacky, but not because it asks the translator to share any risk, because it doesn’t, really. Such risk is borne entirely by the proposing agency, and a successful bid won’t affect a freelancer any differently than an unsuccessful one, unless the agency elects to assign a portion of the new work to the freelancer, and that’s where the problem lies.

    To me, asking for a unpaid sample that is to be used as part of a proposal is on a par with asking to freely include a translator’s resume as part of a proposal to better highlight the qualifications of the putative “team” that will work on a project. In both cases, there’s nothing to say that, upon award of a contract, the agency will use the translators whose product or expertise were relied upon in deciding what agency would get the job.

    Experience shows that agencies that undertake to cut corners by not paying (or making other suitable arrangements) for such services probably have other bad habits as well, such as relying on lowest-cost workers once contracts have been signed.


  • @Alex

    Good points. It’s risk in the sense that you gave up your time to do the trial, and there’s a risk that you won’t get anything out of it.

    There’s also the risk that the agency will use another translator after your trial wins the job, but that’s unethical behavior that goes beyond ordinary “business risk.”

    On the other hand, if I’m paid for the trial, then I don’t mind if the agency uses another (usually cheaper) translator for the actual work. It’s their business decision, although I personally see it as a “bait and switch” tactic.

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