Unpaid tests

I never, ever do unpaid tests.
Well. Maybe sometimes.
The problem, as I see it, is that there are unpaid tests and there are unpaid tests, and each of them has to be considered separately. When I first started off, I did lots of unpaid tests for various translation agencies, naively thinking that it was the best way to kick-start my career, but they yielded poor results. Most of the time, I never heard from them again, or if I did, I was informed that I was now in their "freelancers’ database" and would be contacted as soon as a suitable job cropped up. Which rarely did. But come to think of it, what do these tests prove? Nothing! If you’re a bad translator trying to con agencies, you could just pay a good colleague to do the test for you. On the other hand, I did gain an excellent client who I still invoice every single month five years later. However, this is the exception, not the rule. Now that I have the benefit of experience and that I’m not quite as desperate to gain new clients, I would never again take a random unpaid test for a translation agency.
However, recently I was contacted by a department of an English university to take on a large project (50,000 + words). They had found my website and thought I might be able to help them. Although my profile satisfied them, they wanted to check for themselves whether I was capable of producing a good translation of their important and lengthy document, and asked whether I’d translate a short sample of it for free. I said yes, for different reasons: first of all, the woman who contacted me was extremely professional in her approach, and I liked the tone and detail of her emails. Second, it is a large project, with a tight deadline, and I can understand that they want to make absolutely sure that there will be no quality issue. Although my qualifications and experience prove that I am a "serious" translator, the subject of that document is so specific that they weren’t necessarily enough to guarantee I was the best person for that particular job. Third, I really wanted to take on this job! Apart from the fac that December and January are normally quiet months, I was really interested in the subject matter and know that I’ll enjoy working on the translation.
They reviewed my test very quickly and came back to me with valuable comments on my translation, and now I can look forward to developing a good working relationship (hopefully!) with an interesting direct client.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:40+00:00 November 23rd, 2005|Freelance Translation|5 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Johanka November 23, 2005 at 6:12 pm

    What do you recommend then to translators who are still in the beginning stage of their career? To do the tests or not to do the tests? 🙂 Or are there other ways to prove that I’m “serious” when my translation portfolio is not as huge as yours, for example?

  2. Stuart Mudie November 23, 2005 at 6:15 pm

    Is this the same Céline who once carried an ad on her blog for a Spanish-speaking translator interested in fine wine that includes the sentence “In order to make a decision, I will send those I shortlist a brief exercise of a few hundred words …”?
    In any case, since I did the test in question and ended up getting the work, I don’t suppose I should really be complaining.

  3. Nic November 23, 2005 at 7:06 pm

    I think it’s all right to do translation tests for free, provided that the wordcount doesn’t exceed 200 – 300 words.

  4. May November 23, 2005 at 7:31 pm

    since we’re on the subject, i would love to hear about how you got your start. i dont mean your education, since thats already on the page, but all the fun and not-so-fun stuff of starting your own business. i only discovered this website a few months back when i was doing online research on becoming a translator, so i dont know if you’ve gone over this already.
    ps, i think this website is super!

  5. céline November 24, 2005 at 6:07 am

    Stuart: yep, that’s me. With this entry, I was trying to explain that things aren’t completely black and white when it comes to translation tests. Some are a clear no-no, others are “justified”, for others, it’s difficult to tell, but they shouldn’t be discarded outright.
    I was very happy to let Ricard post his ad on my site because I know that he is passionate about translation and the written word in general and wanted to find someone who could capture the specific tone he wanted for his communications, which not every translator, however excellent s/he is, can do. I just trusted him, as someone who highly respects translators, to know what he was doing. Plus every candidate got a present worth €30, which I think is rather nice! This particular point (style) raises an interesting question, however: in your opinion, should a translator be able to mould or adapt his/her writing according to the nature and tone of any document, or do you think translators, as writers, have their own style which carries its own limitations?
    Johanka: I think it depends what stage you’re at in your career. When I took all those tests for translation agencies, I actually didn’t have much else to do, so it was a worthwhile investment of my time. If doing a test eats into your time spent doing paid work, then I’d say don’t do it, unless the test is directly linked to a specific job.
    May: sounds like I need to write an entry on “Céline: the hungry years.” 😉 Not a bad idea!

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