Tuesday, 4 November 2014

On Free Tests

I'm hardly being original in bringing up this subject, but it's popped up a lot in recent Facebook discussions I've been part of. In short, everybody's being asked for free samples, and feelings are polarized with a marked tendency towards the negative.

My own position in this matter is complicated, and you could hardly call it consistent. I definitely won't be speaking in favour of free tests here, but I'm going to give you some thoughts to consider in making your decision whether to accept free tests or not.

First, let's perhaps state the obvious by noting that the problem is essentially twofold:

  1. The notion of your work or time going uncompensated (given out or expected to be free of charge).
  2. The notion of getting tested per se.
It seems to me that #1 invokes more emotions, while it feels more natural to me to focus on #2 and maybe from there move on to the added concern of unpaid nature of such tests and the burdens of the testing being imposed on the translator. However, this is clearly a cultural and individual, subjective difference.

Perhaps in both cases the common denominator in feelings evoked by free tests is the underlying humiliation or disrespect.

Because if it were about money alone or just simply the economic balance without any serious feelings involved, then we could redefine free tests as a form of investment rather than cost and get it out of the way. Even where an agency you've worked with for a longer while asks you to complete a test for a new client, it can be that the client requests the agency to provide that test free of charge and the agency looks to you for that as a partner in a joint venture of sorts. I would actually support the notion of establishing and cherishing ties like that, regardless of the outcome of cooler, more balanced analysis. After all, the outcome will always be subjective, no matter what, and you just can't say whose point of view is more correct in some sort of objective sense, if that even matters.

Emotionally, the problem here is that:

  1. Almost everybody and his dog expects to tests professional translators before placing an order.
  2. For some reason almost everybody thinks the testing should be free of charge to the tester.

Let's delve into the why of it and dissect the surrounding circumstances for a while for a better view of the problem.

Generally, nobody tests doctors, lawyers or accountants free of charge before retaining them. I'm pretty sure you'll find a firm or clinic that offers a money-back guarantee with its subscriptions, probably mostly as a risk-elimination-based inducement to drive conversions with, perhaps only available for a short period of time, so there you have it. And I'm pretty sure you'll find exceptions anyway, but the point is that's not normally done.

And there's no such thing as, let's say, going to a car workshop or calling out a plumber and running a free test. See what happens if you try. (It's okay if you stop reading for a couple of minutes here while your belly shakes with laughter. You can resume when it stops. This post will be here.)

Free testing implies some extreme level of buyer focus, a completely client-centric perspective. No matter what marketers keep saying about the importance of adopting and showing such an attitude, it doesn't sit too well with some of us — and rightly so. We all have our limits, and there must be moderation in everything.

An important issue that comes into play here is how unreasonable some of those requests appear. For example:

  1. If they've worked with us for a longer while, how come they can't assess the quality? And how come they can't just take any random piece of work already done, they need a new piece?
  2. Whatever makes them think they can test us better than university professors, state boards (DipTrans, Polish sworn translator exam, German staatsexamen etc.), even existing clients and other referrals?
Re: 1, it's probably not 'they', rather a new client who comes with a lot of red tape, and they're somewhat intimidated to begin with. If it's literally the same company, then maybe some higher-ups have changed or management has decreed some new insightful policy into place. Either way, it probably comes down to red tape — and perhaps ease of use. We'll get back to ease of use later.

Re: 2, it's probably either red tape or ease of use, too. Red tape means someone somewhere has given orders, and the people who work with you are powerless to argue, resist etc. Or they could do it, maybe, but it would cost too much time or energy or risk.

Chances are rather than getting confrontational inside their organization or supply chain, they hope the matter could be resolved by you being reasonable or helpful or understanding or whatever they see it as being. I'd normally have compassion for them because I know what life is like in corporations with management's brilliant ideas and policies versus the real life that goes on in the trenches. Whether you agree with me on this or not, consider that these are the people you work with (not the management), and your relationship with them is important. A helpful question here is whether this counterbalances any points of principle involved in the request.

Points of principle include generally relate to how unreasonable and preposterous the demand is. For example a half-botched test piece being graded by a semi-competent reviewer to assess a well-reputed translator with a proven track record just because a small private buyer has an attitude like that (meaning the very idea is ludicrous). Or because, 'it is not our policy to make exceptions,' (meaning they're playing high and mighty and telling you to love it or leave it).

Ease of use, on the other hand, means the convenience of moving forward with a standard, familiar procedure instead of having to think about something different. For example processing the standard sample they're used to as opposed to evaluating some samples provided by you or making a risk assessment on the basis of your testimonials. This factor may be more prominent in cross-border relationships, where, for example, your sworn translator/traductor jurado/público/vereidigten Übersetzer just doesn't ring a bell, or rings only faintly.

They are usually unreasonable in thinking that their little inhouse procedure can test you better than a respected government exam, but perhaps they're just being overprotective of themselves rather than disrespectful of you and your credentials.

In some cases you'll have to stand up for your credentials and demand that they be respected, pretty much because of being a member of some respected association or narrower professional circle you have an obligation to uphold the dignity of that smaller profession-within-profession.

A fuller range of emotions concepts or needs involved will look like this:

  • Safety
  • Convenience
  • Compliance (regulatory requirements)
  • Inaertia
  • Distrust
  • Fear of the boss/client
  • Corporate ego, or a small company's attempt at looking serious
  • Device intended to soften translators
  • Simple cheapskating with no ego involved
  • Entitlement
  • Knowing no other way

Your tolerance levels may differ for each of these.

Your contact's willingness or ability to drop the idea of a free test will also differ. For example, if it's a regulatory requirement, they probably can't do a thing. In many companies, the frontline PM in the trenches probably just doesn't have the authority to waive it or the contacts to go higher up the ladder. This is diametrical different when you talk to the owner of a small agency who writes the rules. With a young intern or someone in a temp position or the average secretary this will be a coin flip.

It will be pretty much the same whether the proposition is that they waive the test altogether or keep it but pay for it — there is always red tape and the need for approval unless you're talking to a proper decisionmaker, which is probably true only in a minority of cases.

From a humanitarian point of view, it might be less than advisable to force a scared but pliable person to abandon a safety device and make a leap of faith. The person may cave in this time but remember the painful experience and go elsewhere when you're no longer desperately needed. On the other hand, if you give in too easily more and more unreasonable requests may follow that such a person makes in order to feel safer.

As far as convenience goes, I sometimes make friends with PMs and secretaries while not having or desiring much contact with their boss, and it works out fine. Besides, simple favours between translators and PMs, translators and agencies, translators and the small people in big organizations, do work.

What else? Sometimes people are just counting their pennies without seriously meaning to make you work without getting paid — they just don't stop to think about it. Likewise, those suffering from egos too large for their suits don't always mean to snub you, Lazy or passive ones are not always hopeless cases when more serious things are concerned that a free test that takes half an hour to do but multiple hours to waive or get a budget approved for.

Finally, this may be a cultural thing, but it doesn't immediately occur to everybody that any sample or test during the negotiation phase before a transaction should be remunerable. Or that any test whatsoever should be remunerable — because it's a test. I'm not really convinced myself, for example. It can be seen as a sort of investment in negotiation leading to a potential deal, basically, or an extension of your application. Just like with all negotiation time and expense, the gain is uncertain here, and it's rather the chance of receiving gainful employment that serves as consideration (remuneration, compensation, payment etc.) for your efforts rather than any direct form of payment. From a different perspective, perhaps, in human terms, you could say it's just a client that needs more convincing, largely in accordance with the Show, don't tell principle. (Telling is speculative. People in business are more likely to have a practical, hands-on mind instead.)

Okay, one more thing (okay, more than one; this post will drag on for a while yet): A sample of good work is probably the best advertising ever made. It even beats word of mouth — again, Show, don't tell at play. And it's a better show when the sample is something the prospect can relate to more easily. And what could the prospect relate to more easily than whatever text he himself chose, took from you, saw, analysed and compared? Plus, it's cheaper than any sort of advertising ever, because it takes no more than you doing your own job for a short amount of time. No copywriter or agency is going to charge you as little as the bill for ~300 words of your translation. Getting a leaflet or a piece of website copy for some 30 dollars/euros/pounds (if)? Keep dreaming. It may be even cheaper than word of mouth, in the sense that it requires less effort. And you can always do a sample while you don't always have available or applicable word of mouth.

I'm a little pickier about free samples these days, largely due to having passed a rigorous and reputable examination that agencies' little tests can't light a candle to — and I don't feel like reinforcing them in that misimpression or allowing them to engage themselves and me in a pointless exercise or run a show for the benefit of their corporate ego at the expense of the sworn translator's traditional prestige — but some years ago I'd have planted them wherever I could.

Those free samples I did happily whenever asked were what got me jobs and the best rates agencies in Poland would pay despite the fact I'd had zero experience in translation. But those samples sufficed to put me on a level above people who had more experience, more relevant degrees, more or better referrals, but did not translate as well as I did. In so doing, the samples were an egalitarian device that levelled the playing field. If they took a sample from me before even negotiating the rates, then all the better because having had a bite and a sniff they knew what they'd be missing. They'd also know who to come to when a looming screw-up made the budget more flexible. I'm not sure I'm not making things up right now, but it's possible I'd even avoid talking about rates before getting the chance to land a sample.

If you're a young or new translator, I wholeheartedly recommend that you make use of this. Beat the competition (your colleagues to wit) where you can as opposed to playing their game on their own terms, where you can't beat them. But I mean genuine free tests here, not proper freebies with economic value.

Here's another idea:

  • If you know they're going to request it anyway, volunteer it. This will allow you to do it on your own terms, and you can choose a presentation method that will do the least damage to your profile or the entire profession's profile, or even raise it a bit. To avoid looking desperate or producing some other undesirable impression, you can offer a non-obvious alternative, e.g. indicate your readiness to accept the first one or two pages out of twenty as a separate small order without a minimum fee or for a minimum fee creditable against the price of the entire job if they confirm it after analysing the first small portion.
  • Knowing what emotions and needs are at play here, you can use your copy to wrap that free sample as something to show to your boss, a proof of your thrift for your CFO (when the first 1-2 pages are ordered and analysed separately before the whole job is confirmed), a limited guarantee of safety or satisfaction, a convenient 'solution' and more.

Just to be clear: I'm not making a sleazy suggestion that you should do free tests for opportunistic reasons and effectively lie about your true motivation in your copy; that would be wrong.

On the other hand, as you progress in age, years of experience, degrees and diplomas, accreditations and memberships, the need to test you in advance of giving you an assignment should diminish, especially the need to do so without paying you for your time. Still, you may want to consider the pros and cons of enabling or not enabling a short free sample using a text of the client's own choosing. It becomes important to ask who should be able to test you, for what reasons and purposes, and on what terms. And to look for alternative solutions, such as preemptively displaying your credentials, testimonials and existing samples for prospective clients to see and stop asking silly questions and making silly proposals.

You can also include test translation as an explicit position in your rate sheet, which will make it more difficult for at least some people to ask for it, or even 'require' it, free of charge.

Or you can refuse any tests altogether and have a canned response prepared for the occasion, for example to the effect that there is enough evidence available to prove your track record, that there already are samples available to get a hands-on feel of it (just not on a text of one's own choosing), and that you don't need to resort to providing free samples in order to find work, so they are of no benefit to you. No discussions, no follow-ups, just ending the conversation politely there and then.

Okay, one last point: A free sample of your translation for them is a free sample of their QA/QC process, communication style and efficiency and overall competence for you. And that is some really valuable business intelligence that you'd never get for the nominal price of 200-500 words of your translation. Another factor for you to consider in your decision.


  1. Nigdy nie postrzegałam próbek jako zamachu na moje ego, ani nie myślałam o nich w kontekście jak-oni-śmią-mnie-sprawdzać. Najzwyczajniej w świecie nie chce mi się ich robić. Rozumiem jednak biura, że mają taką potrzebę. Zazwyczaj też da się wyczuć, czy tekst jest rzeczywiście próbką, czy próbą uzyskania tłumaczenia za darmo (co się zdarza niestety - ciekawe czy to zjawisko znane na całym świecie). Zapadła mi w pamięć zwłaszcza jedna próbka. Miałam się umówić z biurem na konkretny dzień i konkretną porę, a oni przesłać mi tekst i dać bodajże 30 minut na wykonanie. Chodziło chyba o to, żeby nie mieć czasu się konsultować, ani szlifować tekstu w nieskończoność. Przyznaję, że miało to sens. Tekst krótki, treściwy, napakowany rzeczami, na których można się potknąć. A później korekta, z której można się było czegoś dowiedzieć. Próbki są ok, bardziej denerwuje mnie konieczność uzupełniania długaśnych formularzy osobowych. Dlatego czasami cenię sobie współpracę z tzw. (pogardliwie) biurami forwardowania maili. Nie dają nic od siebie, ale też nie zasypują papierologią.

  2. W przypadku polskich biur raczej nie spodziewałbym się na szeroką skalę systematycznego dążenia do zaniżania samooceny tłumaczy, czy tam forsowania określonej wizji wzajemnej równowagi w relacjach, ale już w przypadku wielkich międzynarodowych i ogólnie zagranicznych agencji wcale by mnie to nie zdziwiło. Tam „ustawianie” tłumaczy przez agencje przybiera bardziej niż u nas drastyczne formy.

    Raczej ewentualnie chodziło o własne ego biura albo chęć pokazania tłumaczom, że przysięgły/DipTrans/Tepis/FIT swoją drogą, ale test u nich na dzień dobry trzeba przejść. W wydaniu polskim to byłaby jednak sytuacja raczej nieszkodliwa.

    Bywa jednak czasami coś upokarzającego w darmowych testach — przede wszystkim wtedy, kiedy niekoniecznie wspaniały recenzent ma oceniać nasze tłumaczenie niekoniecznie wspaniale opracowanej (a nawet poprawnie sporządzonej) próbki z dziedziny, w której mamy szczególne kwalifikacje, wykształcenie kierunkowe itd. Na przykład biuro tłumaczeń nie jest normalnie w stanie ocenić jakości tłumaczenia wykonanego przez prawnika z porządnymi kwalifikacjami tłumaczeniowymi, bo po prostu nie ma za dużo takich osób w Polsce. Kojarzę ze trzy od angielskiego i trzy od niemieckiego, z czego jedna się powtarza. Zapewne podobnie przedstawia się medycyna, a niewiele lepiej jest w poważnej technice.

    Formularzy owszem też nie lubię, bo skoro prosili już wcześniej o CV, to mogą sami sobie przepisać — szczególnie jeżeli to oni zaczepiają tłumacza, bo jeżeli to tłumacz czegoś od nich chce, to wtedy sprawa przedstawia się trochę inaczej.

    Co do próbki ograniczonej czasowo, to też spotkałem się z czymś takim. Rzecz dotyczyła znanego polskiego biura cieszącego się chyba dobrą reputacją. Jakość korekty w PL-EN to była jednak jakaś porażka. Weryfikator wprowadził błąd rzeczowy/poważny błąd rejestru, a w nim literówkę. Całą próbkę zaś oblał bez wprowadzania zmian choćby preferencyjnych (no może na jedną-dwie się wysilił), gdzie jedynym punktem zaczepienia było moje tłumaczenie „miejsca składowania odpadów” w sposób bardziej dokładny niż luźne „landfill”, które on tam wstawił. Rekruterka z agencji stwierdziła, że mimo wszystko ma do tej osoby zaufanie.


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