When I first started working freelance, I read an article written by an American translator explaining she had never accepted to take a free test. She believed it was unprofessional of her to work for free though she did not discourage it, as she had heard very positive stories about translators accepting to take tests and managing to establish very profitable partnerships with the agencies involved.
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I have since then tried to establish my own policy in that regard and only recently came to a decision. I have been a freelance translator for almost two years now. I am fortunate enough to be a writer with 12 years of U.S. professional experience, and to have received enough training in the field of languages from Ivy League institutions in the U.S. and Europe, so I know to recognize the quality of my work and fight back with words and style every time my skills are questioned. Over and over, I have been asked to perform tests. I accepted to take about 5 tests in my entire professional life. I failed 4 tests out of 5. The only test I passed was in IT, a field I do not understand and which is not listed anywhere in my profile. I am a perfectly bilingual writer but when it comes down to understanding computers and software, I cannot manage to go beyond the basics without step to step guidance. The quality of the translation test I turned in that day was not acceptable. Shortly afterwards, I was informed I had passed and asked whether I was interested in taking on the remaining of the project. It was a huge job. Several thousands of dollars were involved. I took a few hours to reflect and turned it down. I could not get involved in a project I did not have the skills to handle in a professional manner.
Strangely enough, I have successfully performed several tests in my fields of expertise, all the while being told I had failed to meet the agency’s standards. I gradually started realizing that to accept to do unpaid work is to give professionals a free ride to treat us as “not so professionals”, thus allowing them to issue unfounded critics without any loss for them. On the one hand, if you hire someone to weed out unprofessional translators, his/her job will be to “weed out”, or else loose his/her job. Therefore more negative feedback will be issued. On the other hand, an agency employee hiring a professional makes a decision that involves his/her ability to choose a person to do a job. Once the employee signs a business deal with you, he/she gets involved. Your failure to turn in quality work is their failure to select the right candidate, therefore you will be more likely be praised for the quality of your work than not. I was given very positive feedback from nearly all the agencies I have worked for, always receiving payment on time and for the full amounts of my invoices. But I did not manage to pass more than 20% of all the tests that were forwarded to my attention, and accepted, which I admit has been more the exception than the rule.
I have finally decided to grant agencies the right to test my skills prior to hiring my services by charging a flat fee for every test I accepted to perform. The flat fee is high enough so as to involve the agency’s professional commitment. I have figured that by asking a fee, I presented myself as a professional thus making a point that professionals do not work for free. This attitude also has the advantage of enticing agencies to take professional responsibility for their choice of my profile among others, so the financial commitment requested has every chance of weeding out unprofessional agencies and providing them from wasting my time.
I advise professional translators to adopt a similar attitude. Because of the internet, fees paid to translators have gone down and there is a lot of pressure to keep that tendency downward. I thus believe it is crucial for professionals in our field to develop new ways to fight this tendency so that it remains possible for us to make a decent living and to ensure that there are still freelance translators to do the (paid) job.