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.