To do or not to do a translation test

A translation test is a sample translation freelance translators do (or don’t do) for agencies or clients to show what they can do. It’s different from a standard translator’s portfolio in that the source text is usually provided by the agency/client, not prepared by the translator. There are a lot of good arguments on either side as to whether a freelancer should do a translation test or not. I lean on the side of “Yes, under some conditions” and I’ll explain why.

Firstly most debates circle around the issue of free tests, so we’ll take paid tests out of the equation. A paid test is a job like any other and you should definitely do them unless they’re in a language pair or field that you don’t handle. The rest of this post will deal with free tests.

You don’t need to do a translation test if:

  • You have several years of experience.
  • You have ATA, IoL, CIoL or other similarly rigorous certifications.
  • You have plenty of work in the pipeline.
  • You have an extensive portfolio of sample translations/published works.
  • You are very busy or not particularly looking for new clients.
  • You already work with that agency/client. They know what you’re capable of. If they want any extras they should pay for it.
  • The client is the one that contacts you.

You should consider doing a test if:

  • You are relatively new to the industry and want to prove your capabilities.
  • You don’t have a strong CV or experience in the field.
  • You live/come from a country where your language pair is not common. For example, I’m from Ghana, a wonderful country in many ways but not one known for its Japanese speakers. It’s usually faster to show agencies that I can walk the walk than to spend time talking myself up.
  • There is a concrete project waiting to be assigned and the test is to determine your fit.
  • If translation tests are common in your language pair market. For some reason Japanese agencies are very big on tests, U.S.-based agencies much less so.
  • The agency/client passes all your due diligence tests and your rates are a good match.

That last one is important so you don’t waste time passing tests only to discover the agency is offering $0.03 per Japanese character when you want four times that rate. Notice I didn’t add “If you have nothing better to do.” That’s one way to fill your time when you’re still starting out, but doing tests willy-nilly for just anybody is a pointless exercise. Due diligence first, make sure it’s a sound agency you really want to work with and then do a test if they require it.

The general guideline if you do take a test is 200-300 words for a free test. I’ve done tests a little longer than that because of the way Japanese works, no biggie, but up to 500 words is a good maximum. Something you can knock out in an hour, maybe two, without too much stress.

Do translation tests lead to paid work?

Indeed they do. But not always. In fact, not very often. A quick glance at my financial records show that the bulk of my earning come from agencies that either didn’t require a test or gave me a paid test. But I also work with a few I did tests for and they are no better or worse than the non-testers.

But, as I said, there’s no guarantee that a test will lead to work. There’s no guarantee you will even hear from the company after the test, even if you write in to ask what their decision was. Sometimes you get a cryptic “Failed, try again in three months,” sometimes you get “You passed, our rate is your rate divided by 10” (hence always check rates first, I learned it the hard way) and sometimes you get a gushingly positive response and some very good feedback on your test, but it still doesn’t lead to any work. Treat translation tests like you do resumes and don’t expect a very high response rate.

Real work masquerading as a translation test?

The bogeyman under the bed, the mythical creature, a real translation job split up into “tests” and handed out to unsuspecting translators! Does it really happen? I’d like to say no, but I strongly suspect it happened to me once. An urgent job from a poster on Proz, please take this 2000-word test and send it back as soon as possible, is it done yet? is it done yet? thanks, I’ll be in touch… and then nothing. It was only when I started reading up on translation tests that I realized I had most likely been scammed. The red flags:

  • Excessive length (over 500 words is a red flag, over 1000 is out of the question).
  • Tight deadlines – you should be doing free tests in your spare time, so the deadline should be fairly generous.
  • Pressure from the client to complete the test.
  • A source text that is a complete job on its own, e.g. a full press release.

These four steps should be enough to keep you out of trouble. If in doubt, just say not. It’s a free test, after all, you owe them nothing.


In summary: a successful translation test can lead to paid work, so if you need work, the agency checks out, the test isn’t too long or suspicious and you have a little time to spare, I say go for it. Just don’t expect too much.

Why I no longer accept editing/proofreading jobs

I edit and proofread my own work but I don’t edit or proofread anything I didn’t write or translate myself. Lots of translators do, but after being burned a few times I’ve decided it’s just not for me. And I’ll tell you why, but first an explanation of terms is in order.

Editing: Arranging, revising, and preparing a written, audio, or video material for final production, usually by a party (called an editor) other than the creator of the material. The objectives of editing include (1) detection and removal of factual, grammatical, and typographical errors, (2) clarification of obscure passages, (3) elimination of parts not suitable for the targeted audience, and (4) proper sequencing to achieve a smooth, unbroken flow of narrative. (Source: Business Dictionary)

Note: An essential part of the translation process. A second pair of eyes can be invaluable, especially for works intended for publication.

Proofreading: Comparing the latest stage of text with the preceding stage, marking discrepancies in text, and, when appropriate, checking for problems in page makeup, layout, color separation, or type. (Source: Editorial Freelancers Association)

Note: Also extremely important. You skip or skimp on this final step at your own peril.

However, when translation agencies ask for “editing,” what they usually want is “revision and correction,” i.e. editing + proofreading + translation checking, which means checking the source text against the target text to make sure the text has been fully and accurately translated. Three very important jobs in one that any agency worth its salt must ensure get done. Just… not by me. For the past few years I have routinely turned down all “editing” jobs for five main reasons.

Reason one – I prefer translation: Exactly what it says on the tin. As important as these tasks may be, they’re no substitute for my true passion, translating texts from Japanese to English. I love the puzzle-solving and mental gymnastics involved and the sense of creating something instead of polishing what already exists. There are only so many hours in a working day. I’d rather spend that time on what I truly enjoy.

Reason two – It doesn’t pay very well: Somehow or the other, many translation agencies have came to believe that the standard rate for editing jobs is a third of a translator’s rate for normal translation. Three jobs in one for 1/3rd the pay? How could I possibly resist? Very easily, that’s how.

Always insist on an hourly fee for “editing” jobs and peg it high enough that you would make the same if you were translating. In my case that works out to around $65 an hour. I haven’t found an agency willing to pay that much yet, but if you’re out there, give me a call.

Reason three – It encourages agencies to use cheaper, less skilled translators: Or even Google Translate. Of course this only applies to some less scrupulous agencies, but they exist. See this Proz thread, or this one for example. It makes bizarre economic sense to hire a less experienced translator to produce a first draft at $0.03 a word (or Google Translate at $0.00) then get a better translator to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear for a third of their normal rate. Profit!

Or at least that’s the impression I got from the texts that crossed my desk. My thought process went, “I can’t believe someone got paid their full rate to translate this” -> “I can’t believe I’m getting only a third of my rate to clean it up” -> No Más (I quit).

Reason four – It affects me negatively: “Do not be deceived. Bad company corrupts good morals.” (1 Corinthians 15:33) And Bad English corrupts Good English just as surely. Stare at a bad translation long enough and that will be the first thing that comes to mind next time you see that word in the source text. Even though you know it’s wrong it’s still going to pop up. There’s probably a scientific term for that phenomenon but I don’t know what it is. What I do know is I don’t need that excess mental baggage.

Reason five – You get saddled with all the responsibility: You’re considered an expert in the language and you’re usually the last pair of eyes to see the translation and you were hired to fix it in the first place. If anything goes wrong or the end client is unhappy for any reason, the blame lands squarely on your shapely shoulders. It doesn’t matter how poor the source text was or how badly the original translator messed up, once you agree to fix it, you’re responsible for the results. Which is as it should be, but it’s also all the more reason to stay away. 君子危うきに近寄らず(A wise man keeps away from danger), as they say in Japan.

There you have my reasons for turning down proofreading, editing and revision jobs. I’m sure someone else could come up with five good reasons to always accept such jobs but I’ll leave it to the “someones” of the world and stick with what works for me. Good luck out there!

Five common mistakes new freelance translators make

This post was inspired by a thread on the forums with the title “My “client” doesn’t want to pay half of the work-translation and reviewing/editing differences?” Reading it threw up so many blatant red flags that I just had to write something about it. The summary of the thread is

  1. New translator finds client on online platform
    2. New translator slaves for client for several hours for peanuts
    3. Client refuses to pay said peanuts to said translator
    4. Much sadness ensues.

The point of this post isn’t to blame the victim for what happened but rather to point out some of the errors she made along the way so you can avoid making them yourself.

Mistake 1: Working for far less than market rates
The proposed fee for this job was a pitifully low €75 for a 15,000 word job or €0.005 a word. Ridiculous. Unacceptable The (imperfect but still helpful) Proz rate calculator gives the standard English to Italian rate as €0.09 a word, 18 times what the translator worked for. She offered to do a €1350 job for a €75 measly.

Why was this a mistake? Firstly because offering/accepting a joke rate marks you out as a joke translator – ignorant, unserious, gullible, or extremely desperate. Serious clients will head for the door and only the scammers and abusers will remain.

Secondly you will get “anchored” to that low rate and find it much harder to raise your rates in the future. Certainly not with clients who are accustomed to dirt-cheap rates. Best case scenario you’ll end up ditching all those initial clients anyway, so why not seek out well-paying clients to begin with?

Mistake 2: Not adhering to the rules of the platform
If you meet someone on a work platform and they immediately want to give you work away from that platform, run a mile. Most online work sites like oDesk, Upwork and Fiverr issue strong warnings against doing that for a good reason. If anything goes wrong – and 99% of the time it will – you won’t be able to seek redress through the official channels of that platform. And the client knows it.

Don’t buy any excuses from about how they “can’t attach files” or “don’t want to waste money on middlemen” or any other reason why they can only work with you outside that platform. Report them to the site and cut off all contact ASAP.

Personally I would caution against even looking for work on such freelance sites in the first place, but that’s another post for another day.

Mistake 3: Assuming that any experience is better than no experience

The translator claims s/he took the poor rates because the only alternative was volunteer translation. No, the other alternative was to spend more time looking for freelance translation work instead of accepting the first thing that comes along. The ideal scenario is to have a regular job (online or offline) or have several months’ worth of savings stashed away before starting any self-employment venture. That buffer takes out the desperation factor and leaves you free to screen clients and projects carefully and say no thanks to anything you don’t feel comfortable doing.

Someone might argue “Yeah, but €75 is still better than €0, right?” Hardly. In this case the translator got €0 anyway for doing €1350 worth of work. And that’s what often happens when you approach translation with the “anything is better than nothing” mentality. Take your time, study the situation and run from anything that looks fishy. You’ll be much better off in the long run.

Mistake 4: Not being clear on the scope of work

After doing the translation, the translator in the thread spent several hours a day on Skype going over their work line by line with the client. This was all unpaid work, which simply should not be. This is where a purchase order (PO) or similar work agreement comes in handy. It pays to spend a little time at the beginning of every job clarifying what exactly you’re expected to do.

XXX words at $YY a word, due by MM/DD/YY at ABC pm is the bare minimum you need to agree upon in writing. I can’t stress the “in writing” part enough. Agencies will usually have their processes for editing and correcting your work, which you should clarify before you start working with them. For direct clients you must agree on how many revisions you will do for how long, how much you will charge and what will qualify the job as “complete and fit for the purpose.” Unlimited free revisions are out of the question. That way lies madness.

As a freelance translator, you will have to juggle several clients and projects at all time. Your time is valuable. Charge for it.

Mistake 5: Not immediately disengaging from a clearly abusive client

“You teach people how to treat you,” as the saying goes. The translator reports Skype sessions that involved the client literally laughing at her translation. Then there were the repeated angry phone calls from the client. The shouting, the screaming, the blame game. Trouble and more trouble. Red flag, red flag, red flag.

You’re a human being, not a door mat. Respect yourself and insist on being respected. “I do not like your tone of voice.” “That was rude and uncalled for and I will not be spoken to that way.” You’re well within your rights to say all that and more. Stand your ground, keep records of all conversations and be prepared to invoice for work completed and walk away if the client’s behavior does not improve.

Freelance translation is a fun and rewarding careeer, and one of the best things about it is the fairly low barrier to entry. However a low barrier to entry also means there’s no shortage of bright-eyed newbie translators for scammers and abusive clients to take advantage of. I hope this cautionary tale can help spare a few people from the costly consequences of making these common errors. Thanks for reading and stop by anytime.

Why I became a Japanese-to-English translator

 A short explanation of my background: I first started learning Japanese on my own in high school, when I found a “Teach yourself Japanese” book in the school library.

At Yale University I majored in History (the research methods and writing skills I picked up along the way have proved invaluable as a translator) while also studying Japanese from my sophomore to senior years. I also studied Japanese abroad at Nanzan University in 2005.

After graduation I returned to Ghana and worked for an ad agency as a copywriter, a brief but formative experience that taught me a lot about writing clearly and concisely for various audiences. From 2007-2010 I worked at the Embassy of Japan in Accra. My work involved dealing with a lot of documents in Japanese and frequently paraphrasing or summarizing them in English. As I worked, I increasingly began to think “I love this kind of work. I could do this all day.”

That thought grew stronger and stronger and eventually I decided to just go for it. I enrolled in a Masters in Translation Studies at Aston University (Birmingham, UK) in 2010 and started my freelance career that same year. I began with video game and manga translation and realized I enjoyed working on consumer-focused texts, which is why I gradually moved towards marketing, general business, IT (mainly guides and manuals), etc.

English is my native language and although I haven’t lived in Japan in years I am conscientious about keeping up with the latest news, trends and slang from Japan. I am still learning a lot about the translation industry even after 5 years in it and I hope to be translating for a long time to come. If you need a translation, you can contact me at kuochoe @ japan-translate . com