Test Translations—To Do or Not to Do? Marketing Your Translation Services translation jobs
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Test Translations—To Do or Not to Do?


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From the moment my first translation was published in the popular Soviet literary magazine Znamya (The Banner), my desire to become a professional translator has dominated my life. The year was 1981 and I was a recent graduate from Moscow State University. However, due to Russia's ideological and economic climate, it was only in 1989, after having received my Ph.D., that I had a chance to become a full-time, freelance literary translator. And I did not miss this chance.

A test translation tells nothing about the actual translator's qualifications because any rookie can hire a seasoned ace to do or edit the test translation.

In nine years, I translated 56 books—works of Irwin Shaw, William Styron, John Irving, Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susann and many others. The total print run, due to numerous reprints, exceeded 10 million copies. I enjoyed my work and creative freedom. The pay was also good—by Russian standards, of course.

The notorious economic crisis of 1998 in Russia, provoked by Russian financial tycoons, put an end to this happy period. The book market suffered a dramatic decline. Even now, a book is considered successful in Russia if its print run exceeds 5000 copies. The best literary translators are paid a ridiculous rate of US$ 1.00 per page—at a time when there are more Mercedes 600s in Moscow than in any other capital of the world.

But these low rates were not the main reason that made me flee the Russian literary/publishing scene. At the beginning of my translation career, I could choose the best American books for translation, and all the books I translated were commercially successful. However, by the late nineties, the Russian market became interested only in so-called "novels for maids"—pulp fiction of the lowest quality. I believe a literary translator should translate only works he admires and reject those he despises.

So, by the beginning of 1999, I decided to focus my attention on technical and advertising translation for foreign companies. This was an obvious choice, since I have a Ph.D. in technical sciences and nine years of engineering experience. Besides, I found that advertising translation has a lot in common with literary translation.

Why foreign companies, you may ask. I soon found that most potential clients in Russia are not interested in high-quality translations at all. In many cases, they prefer to hire a college student eager to translate at the rate of US$ 0.01 per word or even less. In other companies, translations are done by secretaries—long-legged girls hired by so-called "New Russians" as "maids for all duties," possibly with a diploma from a three-month-long English course.

After several weeks of Internet searching, I found and bought three databases of foreign translation agencies.

Since literary translation for Russian publishers (my previous experience) is not the same as translating for western corporations and translation agencies, I did my best to adjust my qualifications, software and hardware to the new requirements. I completed courses in MS Office 97 (all applications), courses in DTP (QuarkXpress, PageMaker), installed these applications plus the most popular Translation Memory tools, bought a Macintosh in addition to my Intel Celeron 466, acquired the most modern means of telecommunications (everything but a satellite phone), added up-to-date specialized dictionaries and encyclopaedias and ensured round-the-clock connection to the Internet from the best Russian ISP.

Only after that did I prepare my resume/CV, attach letters of recommendation from top Russian publishers and launch my self-marketing campaign. Soon, I began receiving numerous forms, questionnaires, and links to on-line registration forms. I completed all of them in good faith. Some companies sent test translations. On the whole, I did about 20 free tests, the lengths of which varied from several lines to several pages. At that time, I was eager to conquer a completely new market at any cost, although I was not familiar with the actual rules of the game.

The list of companies that sent me the tests included the Xerox company (UK), Softitler, Lionbridge and many others. It's a pity I do not remember all the names. Some of them obviously did not bother to read my resume since they offered me tests in accounting, pharmaceuticals, geology and other areas which have nothing to do with the areas of knowledge clearly specified in my resume. A Russian translation agency sent me a test with typos and grammatical mistakes (in English!) which I revised (free of charge) and returned to the sender untranslated. They thanked me profusely.

In general, my approach to doing these tests was as follows: I did the tests only in my fields of knowledge (electronics, IT, automotive, advertising, marketing, PR). After having translated a text, I proofread it three times. After that, I sent the test translation to a Russian expert in the respective area who I knew had a good knowledge of English—mainly to check special Russian terminology. After that, I sent the translation to my friend, a translator with over 20 years of experience, for final proofreading. In most cases the revisions suggested by my editors were minimal, but I took all this trouble just to be sure that my test translations were perfect.

The results were as follows: only one company, Softitler, informed me that I had passed their test and that they had included me in their database of translators. I am still waiting for the first job from this company. I received no feedback regarding my tests from other companies. When I asked about the results—after waiting for about 6 months in each case—they politely answered that I had passed their test, but they had no jobs in my language pair (English-Russian). In response, I asked why they had sent their tests. Their reply: Sending a test translation is their standard response to any application.

I thought a lot about this situation and the use of test translations as a tool to assess the professional level of a new applicant. Obviously, an agency or client needs to evaluate an applicant's qualifications somehow. However, in my humble opinion, this approach—I mean test translations—is intrinsically wrong for a number of reasons:

1) The word count of some test translations exceeds a reasonable figure, so such tests sometimes look like a lame attempt to get a free translation.

2) No reference material normally provided to ensure consistency of terminology is sent. A client considers the translation to be good when the translator uses terminology this client is used to. This is especially important when the target language is Russian since various companies/clients in this country use different terminology.

3) There is no context. When translating a highly technical document, in many cases it is impossible to ensure meaning-based translation when only a short excerpt, detached from a complete document, is available.

4) The translator is not told to what audience the text is addressed. This is a serious disadvantage since many technical terms are translated differently depending on who the end user is. A service technician in car shop uses special terminology different from the terminology used by a reporter of an automotive magazine or by a car owner. This difference should be taken into account by the translator, who should always know for whom the translation is intended.

5) A test translation tells nothing about the translator's actual qualifications because any rookie can hire a seasoned ace to do or edit the test translation.

6) And the most important reason is an ethical problem—I would call it "who are the judges"? Usually the evaluation is done by the unsuspecting applicant's direct competitor! This situation undoubtedly affects the evaluation process at a conscious or subconscious level.

Despite this, my marketing campaign proved to be very successful on the whole. Dozens of agencies reported that they included me in their translator databases and promised to contact me should the need arise. About 20 agencies started sending jobs in my direction. Later, I received positive feedback and words of appreciation. My total workload in the year 2000 amounted to more than 350,000 words—and this is only my first year of being engaged in the translation business on an international scale.

Having analyzed the results of my marketing campaign, I have drawn the following conclusion—agencies send you either forms and tests or jobs. When they send you tests, it means that either they never have jobs in your specialty, or they do not need new translators in your specialty, since they have enough of them in their database. In most cases, forms and tests are a formal response meant to bounce off the applicant whose services are not needed.

So the bottom line is: the agencies send you either forms and tests or jobs. Of course this is only my limited experience covering only 2000 (two thousand) translation agencies. I would be glad to hear of agencies whose practices disprove my conclusion.

As for potential direct clients in Russia, here the situation was much better. I passed the short tests sent to me by the Moscow office of Volvo Cars International and Protek Flagship, a Moscow-based UK software company, and they became my steady clients.

I hope that my experience may be of use to translators from other countries marketing their services around the world. When an agency sends you a test translation, you spend your valuable time at your own peril. It's up to you to decide whether to do the test or to ignore it. Only a very small percentage of tests will give you an actual workload.









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