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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Learning to Work Better

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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Learning to Work Better

Learning to Work Better


Dear Business Smarts:

 Dear Business Smarts:
What is your advice about providing free samples to translation agencies? I have just been contacted by an agency that wants me to translate two texts of 400 words each so they can evaluate “my style.” I would like to work with more agency clients and accommodate their needs. How common are requests for free sample translations?
— Sampled in Georgia

Dear Sampled:

The practice of soliciting sample translations from new freelancers is quite common. A serious agency should immediately forward your translation samples to their in-house editors or to established translators, who will evaluate your understanding of the source language, familiarity with a specific field, and writing style. This preliminary translator review is particularly important for larger projects.

In less-than-ideal cases, however, samples disappear into databases and computer hard drives without ever actually leading to paid work. You are also well advised to check the reputation of the requesting company through appropriate channels before doing work for free.

The purpose and specific handling of your sample translations should therefore be clearly defined before you begin. It may be useful to establish an overall "sample policy" for your business that you can implement consistently. First, determine whether you are, in principle, willing to supply free samples. If so, set firm limits regarding the length of such texts, turnaround time, and other circumstances (such as your availability) and politely communicate this policy to the requester. Think about the time you are willing to invest in what is essentially a job application process. Translation samples are typically quite short — generally no longer than 200-300 words — and should take no longer than 30 minutes to an hour to complete.

If you are willing as a general rule to provide sample translations, agree to a deadline and delivery terms for each instance and stick to them, since your professional handling of the work will also make a positive impression. To be considered for paid assignments, it is particularly important to follow all instructions very carefully, for example with regard to file names. In return, the requester should give you the courtesy of several days' lead time and a detailed description of the way in which your work will be analyzed. If you have not heard from the requester within a few days, get in touch and ask about the results of your evaluation. While a negative assessment of your work may sting at first, it is also a great opportunity to learn from your own mistakes.

Some translators have a policy of not providing unpaid samples, and instead offer to provide excerpts of past translations they have done for other clients. They prepare a "portfolio" document that contains short, representative paragraphs of their work (in both the source and target language) and send this document to requesters for evaluation. Of course, all confidential and identifying information must be carefully removed from such texts. The advantage of this approach is that the document is ready to send out immediately, leaving you with more time to dedicate to your paid work. If you are relatively new to the field and do not have an extensive track record, you can also construct a portfolio by translating short news items or similar text.


Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: April 2007, p 50