Translation Tests with Translation Agencies – Part 1

Every now and then, another LinkedIn post on the issue of translation tests with agencies in the localization industry shows up on my feed again. In fact, if you search for the hashtag #translationtests on LinkedIn, you’ll find over a dozen results with posts addressing the matter from various viewpoints.

Should you accept doing a translation test for a potential agency client? Is it OK to do it for free, as a manner of showing goodwill and interest? Or perhaps… you should charge for it? Hey, do agencies even pay their potential freelance translators for translation samples?

In this article, I’m going to introduce my personal take on the issue of translation tests with agency clients in the localization industry. Just so you know what to expect, I am looking to address this matter thoroughly and with as many subjective remarks drawn from my experience and that of my marketing mentees, as with objective information.

Moreover, this article is mainly aimed at freelance translators, but if you are an agency owner, or a vendor manager, I still genuinely hope it will help enrich your perspective on the matter, and your comments are most welcome to help enrich mine as well. 🙂

Free translation tests are never for free

When first dealing with a translation agency contact person (this could be the HR Manager, Supply Chain Manager, Vendor Manager, or a similar position), a freelance translator seen as a potentially valuable vendor or collaborator will be often* asked to do a free translation test.

*Note: I say “often” because, in my experience, this has not always been the case. On two or three occasions, vendor managers who happened to find me on LinkedIn have actually asked me to send them my confirmation of interest in a specific project or account and my rates directly, with no translation test request attached.

When the translator is asked to complete a free translation test, the agency contact person usually explains that this is the agency’s standard procedure for all potential vendors. From my perspective, one of the key problems with how this request is often phrased on the agency’s side has to do with the adjective “free” or, worse still, with the omission on the agency’s part regarding whether they are ready to pay for such a test.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry for the word, free means “not costing or charging anything.” In the context of translation tests with agency clients, it simply means no one will pay the translator for the time, energy, attention, and expertise to be invested in working on the test piece.

Additionally, from the agency’s side, if the test is really a test project and not a live job disguised as a test (unfortunately, scams are the order of the day in the localization industry), the project is not free to the agency either. With serious, ethical agencies, someone from the in-house staff, or else a third-party vendor, will be entrusted with the task of correcting the translator’s test piece and, ideally**, with giving them specific feedback based on their performance.

**Note: I say “ideally” here because I keep reading and hearing stories from translators who complain that not only did the agency never reached back to them or sent them any work, but also they never got any feedback, which is the least many freelance translators expect in return for accepting to provide an unpaid sample of their work ad hoc.

So the first thing I’d like to shed some light on is that “free translation tests” are never for free. In any case, they are unpaid to the freelance translators who take these tests and deliver their work without charging anything to the agency. And they are paid as part of their hourly wages or other business arrangements to the agency’s in-house team or third-party collaborators in charge of revising the translators’ work.

Related Post: How to Price Your Servicies as a Freelance Translator

Freelancing isn’t free

Personally, I always charge for translation tests, at least a minimum fee, as a safeguard. Why? Because freelancing isn’t free. Because I am not a tiny little freelancer trying my luck out there. I have a freelance business.

This is my profession, how I make ends meet every month, and when I spend my time on something work-related, it’s not just my time I’m investing there. ?

It’s the value of all those years of hard work at uni, my family’s investment in me so I could grow into a polyglot, plus my CPD, my multi-disciplinary academic background and experience, all of my hard and soft skills, and, more than any other credential, I have built and care to build every day a reputation as a personal brand specializing in what I do and offer as a service.

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Opportunity costs—is it worth your loss?

There’s something called opportunity cost in microeconomic theory. It means what you’ve got to lose if you choose one of a set of alternatives in a given situation. The opportunity cost is the “potential benefits that an individual or business misses out on when choosing one alternative over another” (Investopedia).

Therefore, I’d like to invite you to reflect on the following question: when you say yes to an unpaid test, what are you saying no to?

Is it another, willing-to-pay-for-your-work agency client? A direct client? Some free time on the beach? More quality time with your family, friends, or loved ones?

“It’s the value of all those years of hard work at uni, my family’s investment in me so I could grow into a polyglot, plus my CPD, my multi-disciplinary academic background and experience, all of my hard and soft skills.”

This is my profession, how I make ends meet every month, and when I spend my time on something work-related, it’s not just my time I’m investing there. ?

It’s the value of all those years of hard work at uni, my family’s investment in myself so I could grow a polyglot, plus my CPD, my multi-disciplinary academic background and experience, all of my hard and soft skills

Every time you consider saying yes to taking an unpaid translation test, just remember there’s an opportunity cost implied, other than the material direct costs of, say, using electricity and your own paid Internet connection to work without charging for it.

What are you not doing so you can complete this test for an agency that doesn’t pay for your work nor —as is often the case— can guarantee they’ll send work your way or even feedback?

You are a freelance business owner

The way I see a freelance translator is not as the passive, will-say-yes-to-anything individual some freelancers, unfortunately, see themselves as, but rather, as the active and proactive owners of a freelance business. The kind of professionals who were proud to call themselves self-employed even before remote work became a thing.

So, if an agency business won’t invest in my freelance business, why would I blindly invest in theirs?

By being active and proactive freelance business owners, I mean:

We, freelance translators, need to do the work beforehand. We need to work on building our personal brands and spreading the word!

Personally, I do it every day, every week, of every month. At present, I get help with it, like with the web development of this blog page or even some blog articles on this website. But you can start small, with a free web domain, even. That’s how I started, and it’s done wonders for my business growth.

How to avoid unpaid translation tests

As you probably know, no one will buy from you unless they know or feel they can trust you.

So don’t just expect new agency clients to trust you if they’ve never worked with you. Trust needs to be built, worked on, shown, and forged throughout time.

From my experience, having certain materials in place has helped me explain to new agency clients how and why they can trust me.

Let’s say you want to get active and proactive as well and try using new strategies when negotiating with new agencies, instead of saying yes to an unpaid translation test.

Here are some external marketing and communication materials I use to build trust and raise brand awareness among both direct B2B and agency clients:

  • An updated portfolio with case studies. If you are unable to cite your work or the brands you collaborate with, paraphrase the industry and product type or vertical, and focus on explaining what problems you’ve helped your clients solve through your translation services. If you are new to the industry and have little to no experience yet, you can create a one or two-page translation project sample: for example, you could invent a brand name, a product, or a brand message in your source language and include your translated version as a sample, with a copyright byline and a non-commercial use license.
  • Testimonials. If you’ve done some kind of translation work before, whether it was volunteer work, unpaid, or paid, chances are you can reach out to the corresponding project owners or clients and ask for a review or testimonial. It’s very important that you request that they let you cite their name, surname, job title, and organization whenever you share these testimonials with new clients. Specific testimonials signed by real people definitely help build trust, and even more so if given as recommendations on LinkedIn.
  • An updated LinkedIn profile. Whether you are a junior, semi-senior, or senior translator, I can almost bet you’ve heard of the importance of having a nice, complete, specific LinkedIn profile in place. LinkedIn is where most vendor managers and project owners are looking for qualified vendors, interacting with their fellow in-house colleagues and with us translators, so if your profile is out of date, incomplete, not very specific, or simply non-existent, my humble recommendation is that you invest some time and creativity in building one as soon as possible.
  • An owned website. While many translators are comfortable using LinkedIn as their personal platform where they share not just posts, but also videos, articles, insights, stories, and more content of their own, the truth is LinkedIn is not theirs. It’s not yours or mine either. LinkedIn is a third-party site we love using to interact with one another, share insights, network, look for clients, have clients find us, etc., but it doesn’t belong to us. We have no power or control over LinkedIn, not really. If, for instance, LinkedIn decided to stop existing tomorrow, there’s nothing much we could do about it, is it? As a seasoned content creator, my recommendation is that you don’t just build trust through social media platforms and share your precious content there, but that you also invest some of your resources into creating your own website. It doesn’t have to be expensive or big or complex. Short and simple will do the trick.
  • It’s “company policy.” Respectfully letting the agency know that it is not my policy to provide unpaid ad hoc samples of the value I can provide them and their end clients with, especially if the request involves working under a set deadline (as with live jobs), has many times gotten me a surprisingly nice reply back: “Sure, how much would you charge for taking this translation piece for us?” See how this changes the course of things and preps the way toward talking about money? The conversation is no longer about my working for free for the agency, it’s now about how much it costs to work with me as a specialist.

Dare to challenge the status quo

As Steve Jobs would put it, “Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

I am sharing my mindset in nutshell below to help you see this as a matter of attitude toward “how the translation industry (apparently) works” and to propel you to question and challenge an agency’s request for a “free” translation test by trying a different response the next time you find yourself in this situation.

Perhaps you can show them your portfolio? Case studies, samples, or testimonials? How about your website or LinkedIn profile with some recommendations as well?

Now, I’m not saying that your marketing materials alone will do the work. But they can definitely boost your professional image to the eyes of the agency, and will surely help empower you to say something like: “If you still need a translation test piece from me, I’d need to charge it for it as work.”

My paid translation test mindset, in a nutshell

So this is my mindset when it comes to translation tests with agencies: do them as paid work or don’t bother.

Please note that this mindset-turned-business-policy for me is the result of my personal experience, critical thinking, specialization, and my overall belief, attitude, and sense of certainty that reality—the localization industry, as well call it—is not there to be taken as is, but rather made as we go (made by everyone, not just translators; vendor managers, project managers, agency owners… we all stakeholders taking part in this amazing industry, and we all have the power of changing things for the better for us all. Call me an idealist.).

In a nutshell, this is how I see it: if an agency uses translation tests as a standard operating procedure for them to scan freelance translators as vendors, they should pay for the work provided by the potential vendor as well as for their reviewers. After all, no one forces the agency to use translation tests. And if it’s a matter of an ISO compliance requirement, well, the agency may still pay for the test as well.

Know your worth before you work

Finally, I am happy to claim that I have been paid to take translation tests in 8 cases out of 10. Did the agency offer to pay? Only in the minority of cases. As for the rest, it was I who dared to request that the test piece be paid. I set the boundary first to myself, next to my potential client.

Knowing for sure that I and my brains are worth my price, and that I deserve to be compensated for my work, makes it easier to set boundaries with my clients. The way in which you ensure you are worth it is not by being blindly proud of yourself—it’s through exploring and knowing in detail your strengths and weaknesses, through external feedback, and through internal work targeting the imposter syndrome in you.

I hope this first article on the issue of translation tests with agencies has given you some food for thought. And perhaps a few ideas as to why and how you can try charging for the next test piece you agree to take.

And never be afraid to say you charge for your work, whether it be a test piece or a live job. If they are not your client yet, the stakes are so low. In my experience, good agency clients are like good ties—they take fair boundaries as reasonable and healthy boundaries for mutual benefit. And will still want a relationship with you if you show them how it could best work for you both.

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Delfina Morganti Hernández
Delfina Morganti Hernández

My name is Delfina Morganti Hernández and I’m the founder of a strong, globally renowned personal brand known as orangepowerDMH, proudly morphing into a creative boutique of bilingual writers making things happen for brands." por "Hi, I am Delfina. I help write copy that converts and brand stories that s(w)ell for global human brands. I also mentor and coach freelance translators so they can make a living out of their profession. Want to find out more?

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