Test TranslationsTo 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
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 booksworks 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 goodby 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 pageat 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 secretarieslong-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
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
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
Englishmainly 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 resultsafter waiting for about 6 months
in each casethey 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
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
approachI mean test translationsis intrinsically wrong for a number of
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 problemI 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
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 wordsand 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 conclusionagencies 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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