Freelance Translators Beware

The business of translation is difficult enough. The process of translation requires concentration, mental capacity and competence. The business of freelance translation is even more taxing – the constant quest for that perfect contract. Most freelance translators agree that the job is not easy and there is much more to being a freelance translator than simply being a ‘good’ translator. One needs to be well-versed in the intricacies of running a business, have the ability to advertise oneself and one’s company, and finally, one needs to be able to find contracts, nurture contracts and build upon them. The freelance translator is a multi-tasker in every sense of the word.

The growth of computer technology in the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century has had a huge impact on the working life of the freelance translator. Not only do they now have access to a wide range of computational tools and resources but, through the internet, they also have access to more contacts and clients. The internet truly has opened up a world of possibilities for freelance translators, however, it has also set a large number of traps for those less experienced colleagues who are new to the freelance market.

Unfortunately, many so-called translation companies and agencies use the internet in order to take advantage of those new to the translation market. There are many companies who perpetually send out offers of work either directly or through third parties in the hope that translators will reply. And reply they do. With the first hurdle overcome, these pseudo-agencies then ask the translator to undertake a ‘sample’ translation so that they can ‘test’ the translator’s skills. Once the translator sends their sample, communication, strangely enough, ceases. The agency fails to acknowledge receipt of the translation, gives no feedback, and to all intents and purposes, the agency disappears.

Third party websites that help to bring together people in the translation community are often victims of such deception, unable to filter the chaff from the corn. These bogus companies are aware of this fact and continue to function and take advantage of young or inexperienced freelance translators wanting to take their first steps in the world of translation. So what advice can be given to freelance translators? Several simple steps can sometimes help:

  • Always run a background check on the company;
  • Exchange emails in order to learn more about the agency;
  • Ask for specific information about the company;
  • Ensure that any cooperation is contract-bound;
  • Enquire as to whether feedback about the sample will be given;
  • Ensure that samples are not excessively long.

What else can be done to make life easier for the freelance translator? What can we do to stop these companies taking advantage?


29 thoughts on “Freelance Translators Beware

  1. It’s definitely a good idea to practice due diligence with new clients (agencies included), but how common is this ploy of asking for a free trial, then turning around and delivering that to the end client?

    I’ve been a freelance translator for over a decade, and I’ve only seen this practice first-hand once. (Fortunately, it wasn’t my trial that was used; rather, an unscrupulous agency salesman confided to me that he had done this. Incidentally, he was fired shortly after this for other shady dealings.)

  2. I once had the feeling an agency was misusing my “test translation” this way, but I never really found out. However, I definitely know one instance when the PM of a regular customer desperately needed the translation of one or two lines and couldn’t reach me. So she posted a pseudo job on ProZ and asked for “test translations” of these lines. I found this pretty appalling and told her so. She said she didn’t know what else to do… I’d say that this is the last thing that would occur to me in such a situation.

  3. I have also fortunately not had any such experiences, but I also always investigate companies and never complete a test translation over a paragraph long. If a client wants to make sure I’m a suitable provider, I have plenty of references and samples that I can provide.
    I did, however, have an unpleaseant experience with the client of a client. My client sub-contracted the work to me and their client provided us with a complete glossary they required be adhered to for an 18,000+ word file. I complied fully and also did further investigations as several translated publishings already existed on the same subject matter for the same end client.
    After completion, the client wrote stating they “rejected” the job and would not pay as the translation was, according to them, “grossly inaccurate” and sent us back the file with their corrections. Every single change they made was to terms that they had provided in their glossary. We couldn’t believe their gall!

    1. Sometimes companies don’t give the glossary because they think that it’s translator’s job to know the words, even those ones used only by the company. My sister once asked for a glossary and they told her “you are a translator and you don’t know?” she said she didn’t work for them and never had an opportunity to know. they couldn’t understand it.

  4. This type of low down, dirty business practice does occur in two forms:
    1. “Agencies” directly selling the test translation.
    2. “Agencies” collecting test translations to build up translation memories.

    Either way, it demonstrates a profound weakness on the part of the offending “agency”. They will not be around for long, and there are several effective ways to deal with it. The points listed by transubstantiation sum up the best practices for an individual translator. Acting like a victim is the best way to become one.

    Participate in public forums that can give feedback regarding an unknown agencies credibility. Seek out relationships with other translators, especially in your own language pair or industry expertise. Anytime an agency that I have not developed a relationship with contacts me, said agency is brought up in private newsgroups. I have sought out and maintained relationships with veteran translators, many of whom have 20+ years experience. Many times just asking them puts an issue to rest.

    Refusing to do free tests is also a valid approach, but at the very least you should limit the size of any so-called “tests”. Most reliable translation service companies respect a nominal fee for translation tests. If you are really hungry for work, then you should not be wasting your time with high risk projects anyway. Do not be afraid to seperate the wheat from the chaff. Experience has shown me that there is a direct negative correlation between the number of hoops an agency requires me to jump through and the amount of work they actually deliver. Project managers with real projects generally do not have time to play silly games.

    While this cannot possibly apply to every situtation, I still think that it is important to note that my best clients call me to discuss what they need. That personal touch goes a long way.

    1. Great advice but I fear these agencies WILL still be around in years to come. Translators as a group are simply far too weak and not cohesive enough a group.

  5. Thanks for the advice. I’m a freelance translator who is also quite new to the whole translation business although I already have a contract with four agencies (three of which I have worked with very often and the cooperation I have had were very satisfying).

    There is a portal that warns of the same problem as you have issued above. The portal lists a number of translators (freelance and agencies) so they can contact one another, and it actually publishes a book where they blacklist the unreliable agencies (but it’s not free), based on feedback from the freelance translators. I would tell you the website address but I wouldn’t want to come off as ‘spamming’, so email me if you’d like me to add it. 🙂

  6. The freelance translator is at the end of a line. There’s no one else s/he can throw the ball to.
    People are naturally predators and some agencies more than others. The translator should be keen to avoid becoming prey.
    Being paid 60 days after invoicing is bad enough, after having delivered a test and agreed to what the agency considers a “best rate”.
    I’ll never become rich as a freelance translator, but I have managed to survive with good clients – direct and agencies.
    My advice is: refuse to be prey and deliver your best!

  7. Hello
    Thanks for a very interesting article.
    I have been translating for awhile but recently I became more active in seeking more business.
    Someone asked me to complete a test translation of 1500 words, and quoted a price to me of .08 cents per word, if I received assignments.
    I completed and returned the assignment immediately (within 2 hours), even changing the format from .docx to .doc. I heard nothing.
    When I wrote back I was told I was “too late”, and asking for too much money. I did a web search and found the information was from a Canadian web site , and available in both languages, so he wasn’t really using my work for nothing, but I considered myself abused because he had guaranteed a price , asked for a change of format, received a 1500 word translation, and then said I was too late and too expensive.
    My mistake: I did not follow several of the suggestions you make in your article.
    Thanks for the advice.
    Jessie Nelson RN French/English medical translator

  8. Hello
    I am a translator and technical writer for over 9 years.
    People, we should fight the abuse, otherwise there’s no end to victimizing our own heads. Mind that I’ve used a substitute word in the end of former sentence. I happened to do such “test”, and found myself confronted by a jerk plainly shouting at me “you may be a Nobel winner but still not suitable for our kind of work”. This is a double abuse, for the volume of the test work was about 100 US$, and the jerk was also clearly feeding up his self-esteem over my head (this is the substitute word).
    Do you think this is only about translators?
    Some of my friends and I tried to apply for a copywriter position in the same advertising agency in Tel-Aviv. We all did sample development, none of which was presented to the client, and some of those ideas were later spotted online in different ads. None of us got the position.
    What I mean, if we always REFUSE to do such tests, this practice will die. Also we should publish the names of people and companies who allow themselves such behavior throughout our social networks.
    Always get the name of a potential employer at the early stage.
    Tell them you are happy to show your previous work.
    Never agree to a test exceeding two paragraphs. This volume is enough to understand your skills.
    If abused – make it public knowledge. Sooner or later the information will hit the abuser right on the head ().

  9. I was asked to do a test through Pro-Z. The company was based in India. I did a few medical texts for them, then they disappeared. We should simply STOP doing these kinds of tests…

  10. Friends,

    I cannot agree more to all of You.
    They are typically, asking for samples, urgent delivery (within 1-2 days, rush enquiry, and of course cannot be contacted anymore. I agreed samples needs not more than 2 paragraphs however previous work should be appropriate. Long time ago I sent samples about 2 pages and they disappeared, recently, never respond such enquiry. Pls check background and use your ‘gut feeling’ as well.


  11. Thank you very much for this article.

    I’ve once heard about such a shady business but couldn’t really believe it’s true. A friend of mine told me that some agencies send samples to many translators and then without feedback to them, and what’s worst without paying them, the agency uses all the samples to provide a full translation!!!

    I find the tips you’ve provided very usefull 🙂

  12. Hi,

    I found the article very interesting. Honestly, I had no idea that such things happen to translators. I believe you are all right but, what bothers me, is that most of you can afford not doing “samples” since you have already got some experience. But what about the inexperienced translators who cannot provide any references? What should they do when asked for “samples”? As one of them I guess I would do the free test :/


    1. Renata,
      First of all you should realize that agencies/clients are human organizations and that humans are predators. They will try to get the most for the least, or for nothing, if they can get away with it.
      Use your good sense and avoid becoming prey to them.
      My suggestion is to accept doing “test” translations in very special cases, depending on your interest and not on your hunger. We catch hungry fish using bait…
      As a beginner, you probably will spend more time trying to get clients/jobs than doing translation. Don’t regret this. It’s normal. Your success will come with persistence, creativity and time.
      Wish you well. ;0)

  13. Thanks for the advice. I think it is of great importance, especially for those who begin (meaning, are inexperienced and desperately need work). If they are able to take it, they will succeed, sooner or later.
    I agree that translators (even freelancers) should create a kind of community to share their experience (particularly if they had learned their lesson the hard way) with others and by means of Internet it is quite possible. But at the same time I think translators are just people, that is they are various and different: sharp-witted and intelligent, having a flair for doing business and looking after their interests, and just the opposite: mediocre and inadequate. If a translator is skilled, intelligent and learns fast from her experience, she will survive. If not… well, that happens everywhere. Among translators there are also predators and preys; being aware that freelance translators are exposed to many traps mentioned in the article, I think, however, we should not divide the world into prey-like translators and Others the Predators. Instead, hone your skills and stay vigilant, whatever you do.

      1. I intended no harm. Just said what I really think. I understand and share your standpoint and all the traps freelance translators are prone to. But sometimes one got trapped and many factors may be responsible for that fact; my personal reaction would be as I said: to hone my skills and to be more vigilant in order not to be deceived again. Best regards.

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