As a general rule I never had too much of an issue with doing test translations for new clients or agencies back when I was a translator. Some really good agencies even paid translators for these tests. The logic behind test translations is pretty sound because it doesn’t matter what you have on your CV, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the only way to gauge how good you are as a translator is to see a sample of your work. The same thing applies to designers or video producers: your portfolio or show reel says a lot more about you than what school you went to.
A translation agency once made contact with me and, after the usual introductions, asked if I would like to work with them on technical translation projects. After much to-ing and fro-ing we were both satisfied that we could work together. I outlined my experience and specialisations, they described the type of projects they get and we both agreed that there was great potential for future work. Hell, we might even get matching tattoos. Rates and terms were agreed without so much as a whimper. Everything was going well until the issue of test translations cropped up.
This agency had a pretty weird approach to test translations. Instead of a test translation at the start of our working relationship, which is the customary thing to do, they announced that they ask translators to complete short test translations for each project. The translator who produces the best test translation is then awarded the particular project. I read and re-read the email several times to make sure I understood what they were proposing, hoping that I had misunderstood. But no, when they received a job from a client, rather than contacting a translator who they had already screened, tested and knew was suitable, they would start a mini screening process before work could even start on the translation. I can imagine this being pitched to customers as a way of ensuring that “only the best translators are used” for their projects, and it’s probably well intentioned, but does anyone seriously think this is good practice?
Aside from the startling inefficiency of this Rube Goldberg approach to operations management, which disadvantages both customers and translators alike, things became even more interesting when I queried whether translators would be paid for producing numerous test translations over an extended period of time. The hitherto brisk and prompt exchange of emails suddenly ground to a halt. I never received a response and can only assume that it confirms my worst suspicions. It just goes to show that sometimes we can sabotage even our best intentions by overthinking and over-engineering things.