The Translation Sample Dilemma

So far, we've been fortunate enough to work with direct clients only, steering clear of agencies. However, some potential direct clients seem to have adapted a controversial approach commonly used by agencies: sample translations. While nobody would think about asking a lawyer or a CPA for free work with the goal of verifying his or her qualifications, it is common practice with translators. Why is that?

We believe that part of the reason is our profession's low prestige (we might discuss this issue in the future). Be that as it may, while we usually decline to do a free sample translation, we offer to send the potential clients previous translations in the area of expertise that they are looking for. But hey, we do make occasional exceptions, especially when we are really interested in a project or if we feel that the client is just about to hire us if we just did the darn sample translation.

We draw the line at half a page, which does not stop potential clients (among others, the Austrian Umweltbundesamt, a public authority) from asking for several pages translated at no charge. While we do believe in accommodating our clients, we have no intention of becoming the Mother Teresa of translation. Why should we? After all, we are trying to run a business here.


Susan Johnston on September 17, 2008 at 7:26 PM said...

Writers have the same issue. Sometimes clients want a sample customized to their publication or they want to have the option to view the piece before they agree to purchase it (called writing on spec). Generally, I say no to samples or spec work, but there are always exceptions.

Corinne on September 18, 2008 at 8:19 AM said...

Unpaid test/sample translations annoy me too, but one thing I try to keep in mind is that we are actually not the only profession that does this. I recently met with both an accountant and a financial planner who offered a half hour "try before you buy" consultation for free. That's about what I offer for a sample/test translation, 200 or 250 words, which takes 30-45 minutes.

Judy and Dagmar Jenner on September 18, 2008 at 12:39 PM said...

Good point, Corinne. I think what bothers me with translation samples is that, as opposed to free first-time consultations with other professionals, is that the receiver of the free sample translation ends up with an actual product to be potentially misused. Does that make sense? If you get a free consultation with say, an immigration attorney, it's not like he/she will do part of your immigration paperwork for free (BTW, I wish someone had -- I spent a lot of money on immigration lawyers!). This free consultation, in my experience, is more of an opportunity for the service provider to talk about his/her credentials, his/her services, etc., and the potential client doesn't walk out with a useful product.

Which made me think of perhaps adding a blurb to a sample translation to the effect of "To be used for evaluation purposes only. No part of this may be published without the author's written permission" -- or something like that. Might be an option to prevent customers from "free shopping" around and piece together an entirely free translation by asking many translators for a free sample. I've heard that actually does happen -- I hope it's an urban legend, though!

Ryan Ginstrom on September 19, 2008 at 7:19 PM said...

Great article. I think it's very very rare for unpaid translation tests to be misused, but I have seen it happen. Usually you can spot the shady clients and avoid them.

To me, if the client has really attractive work and I think there's a good chance to get the job, I'll probably take a short trial. Most of my best clients come via word of mouth, but unpaid trials have won me some great clients as well.

Another problem is that most of my work is under an NDA, so I couldn't give it as a sample. That leaves pro bono work, but that's usually not in my field of expertise.

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