How to Test a Translator

John Wycliffe, a translator subjected to very hard tests
John Wycliffe, a translator subjected to very hard tests (Image: Images)

Translation often represents an enormous investment, whether it be for personal needs (for example, for job application materials, or for information required to marry or pursue a legal case) or for corporate marketing materials, contracts, manuals and safety information. Although the risks of using cheap unqualified translators are patently obvious, it is not so obvious in most cases how to test a translator effectively to ensure that she is the right one for the job. The cheapest translator is usually not the best, but the most expensive often is not either. One procedure can help you separate the wheat from the chaff -- and to find a translator who knows what that English idiom means.

Things You'll Need

  • Good sample text representative of what you need
  • Good reviewers for the languages involved

Define your needs clearly. Do you need a translation for a single (large) document only, or do you need a large volume of work or regular translations? Does the translation all fall into one category, or are there different subjects or areas of expertise involved. (For example, a translator skilled in contracts and other legal work might be too "stiff" for good marketing translation -- though that depends on the individual, of course.)

Once you have categorized your needs, select a short text that is typical of the material to be translated. Two types of text samples may be useful: (1) a very short bit consisting of a few challenging sentences, preferably in the same context, perhaps 50 words or less; and (2) a longer text of 200 to 400 words (half a page to about a full page or a little more), which may be one continuous section or selections of paragraphs from different portions of the text, which will really reveal a translator's ability to understand the source material and deal with problems.

Create such samples for each category of text you want translated (legal, marketing, technical, etc.)

Use the resources available to you (recommendations, online directories for translators' associations, search engine research, etc.) to identify candidate translators for the language combinations you require. Some online job portals for translators allow short sample texts to be included for translators responding to a project notice. This is where the sample (1) from Step 2 is used. In many cases you can weed a lot of incompetents out right away with just a few sentences, and you can also see how well a candidate is able to follow basic instructions (like "please translate the following sentence(s) and submit the translation with your application"). You might be surprised how many fail to do this.

Once you have identified where the potential translators are, you have a choice to make. You can limit the pool of respondents to those you have prescreened by examining the information available on them (usually a wise thing to do) and contact them individually (or perhaps via an e-mail BCC so the addresses of the recipients are not revealed) and inquire whether they might be interested in doing the translation and taking a qualifying test first.

The other option is to post a public job notice. Be aware that you may get overwhelmed with responses in some language pairs (like Spanish-English) and quickly lose the overview. Public job notices can be placed on various translators' portals or association websites, some of which also allow job notifications to be sent to a restricted list of recipients.

Do Step 4 for each category. There may be some overlap with the candidates (in which case it is polite to combine your query for these), but usually the best person to do legal translation might not be the best one to handle the marketing stuff, or one may excel at presentations and lecture texts, while another is better at articles for publication.

When you request that the candidates do a larger test translation (the second sample type in Step 2), be prepared to pay for their effort. There are very good reasons for doing this: (1) The really good translators are probably booked out and don't have time for you. (2) If the really good translators have time for you, they are taking time that would most likely be dedicated to other paying work. The ones who can do the best work for you will not be sitting around watching TV waiting for you to call. They will be busy. Very, very busy. So asking for a freebie is actually asking them to take an unnecessary sacrifice and giving them the message that you are possibly a cheapskate or do not respect them as professionals. Do you ask your dentist for a free sample filling or your local chef for a free sample steak dinner? Probably not. (3) If you have prescreened your candidates properly, costs will be limited. You can screen one candidate at a time if you aren't in a rush or look and compare small groups. Asking for a freebie might also be interpreted by the translator that you haven't done your homework to find candidates who might really be qualified and that you aren't really serious or might have problems paying later. (4) Telling a translator that it is your "policy" not to pay for test translations sends a message that you may be an inflexible corporate twit. Many of the best translators have a strong individual streak, and they may tell you to take a long walk off a short pier directly or just even the score by charging you a higher rate later. (5) Even if the translator is willing to do a test for free, your willingness to pay is major good karma and may inspire extra effort and quality that will pay excellent dividends. Truly, you do reap what you sow.

Sample translations are useless if they cannot be evaluated properly, and comparisons are questionable unless there are carefully defined, uniform criteria for them. If you are not able to evaluate the translation quality yourself or do not have someone close to you who can assist in doing so, be prepared to hire and pay a reviewer. Ask for proper documentation of any "issues" in the test translation and clear statements about why some work is better than others. For some kinds of work, style is more important than terminology; others require perfect adherence to standard terminology with style being a very minor concern; others require both. Know your needs clearly.

It is a kindness to the translator and often useful to return the evaluated test translation with comments, whether or not the translator is awarded the contract. In some cases, you may not have the time or desire to deal with it, but depending on your needs, it may be worth considering. If you return "corrected" test translations to your top candidates, it is useful to see how each person reacts to the proposed changes in his or her work. This will give you early warning of unreasonable prima donnas and distinguish them from the real professionals who can rationally explain their choices and admit mistakes or better options when they are presented. This will also give you a hint of how well the relationship might work in an iterative editing cycle.

Most importantly, pay your translator promptly for both the test translation(s) and the larger job. Paying for the test ASAP will prove your seriousness and inspire the translator to take your project on with more enthusiasm. Some customers pay net 30 and others pay every time as soon as they get an invoice. Who do you think will get priority?

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