As a freelance translator, I’ve not only done quite a few tests for agencies, but I’ve also worked as a freelance reviewer of translation tests, so I’ve been on both sides of the fence. There’s controversy about test translations, and some translators have strong opinions about testing. I’m going to begin by reviewing some of the psychological factors related to testing, then I’ll address the specific criteria many agencies use in evaluating tests, and I’ll give you some tips on taking tests that should help you to improve your results – as well as decrease some of the anxiety involved!
Psychological aspects of test-taking
Speaking of anxiety, let’s begin by considering some of the psychological issues surrounding tests. As a freelance translator who is also a medical doctor, I’m interested in the psychology of test taking. There’s no question that tests are anxiety-provoking, and some of the reasons are fairly obvious. A test compares your performance to either a certain set of standards, or the performance of your peers – or both. A test is used as an indication or gauge of your abilities, and of course, that’s why an agency gives them. But standards dealing with human intellectual performance are often interpreted by other humans arbitrarily, and judging any translator’s performance is necessarily inexact. Waiting to hear the results of some anonymous reviewer’s opinion of your work can be anxiety-provoking, especially when you’re relatively new to translating and haven’t had the chance to have done a number of translations that were accepted by appreciative agencies. Some of the reasons for anxiety are not so obvious, but nevertheless are present for most of us, and have to do with aspects of our psychological makeup – things like self-image, self-confidence, fear of rejection, etc. Like it or not, our egos are on the line when doing a test. Few among us are true philosophers who can deal with rejection with Zen-like calm. Of course, being human, we’re not perfect. Maybe there were significant problems with the test we sent in. Egregious errors on a test are just that - egregious. But I’m assuming in this article that you are a competent professional translator, someone who will avoid obvious errors, especially when taking a test.
In addition, we all know that there is no such thing as only one way to translate a document from one language into another. Styles differ between translators, words can be translated differently, and it’s relatively easy for one translation of a source text to differ from another, and yet for both to be valid. Freelancers are independent contractors, usually working alone, who must believe in their abilities in order to survive and prosper in the competitive world of freelance translating. Having a test rejected by an agency, especially when you’re starting off in the business, can be emotionally devastating. After all, it’s just not fair that someone else can’t see the obvious quality of my work! How could they not appreciate me?! I know, I’ve been there. Some of the possible reactions to rejection are anger, despair, denial, and refusal to take further tests. Some freelancers insist on charging for taking tests. On the other hand, if your test is accepted, well, that’s different, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? ;-)
In my opinion, it’s important to legitimize the emotional reactions we have to rejection by not denying them. It’s OK to yell (or cry) in front of your computer screen about that idiot agency that can’t recognize obvious talent! A basic principle in psychological work is that all losses must be grieved, and having a test rejected is certainly a loss – if nothing else, at least a lost opportunity to work for that agency. But please, don’t send an angry email in response. Nothing much is gained by negativity except reciprocal negativity; do consider sending an email asking for details about the evaluation of your test if you didn’t pass. Many agencies will give you some feedback. Even if you disagree, it can be a valuable learning experience.
Technical aspects of test-taking
Let’s move on to some of the practical aspects of translation test taking. Maybe the first question to be asked is “Should I take a test”? If you’re reading this article, I assume that you’re willing to be tested. But not all freelancers are. Some refuse to take tests; one of the reasons has to do with stories of unscrupulous outsourcers who assign consecutive pages of a client’s document to a number of different translators as a “test” in order to have the document translated for free. In my opinion, this is much less of an issue now than in the past, simply because there are much better sources of information on outsourcers these days. Internet sites for freelancers such as ProZ.com publish feedback on outsourcers – ProZ.com has the “Blueboard”, and it provides an invaluable service. If you are not yet a member, you should be – the membership fee is well worth having access to the Blueboard, among other benefits. Any agency that you are considering doing a test for (or working for) should be checked there first for feedback from other translators. As an example, I once turned down work from an agency that had very poor comments on the “Blueboard” about getting paid from freelancers, and I specified that in my email rejecting the job. The director of that agency phoned me within minutes after receiving my email, assuring me that there had been some “organizational” problems – and wired the fee for the translation to my bank account before I did the job. While a new agency won’t have much (if anything) in the way of feedback, it never hurts to check. If the agency you’re considering doing a test for has bad reviews, don’t do the test. Of course, you shouldn’t be sending letters looking for work in the first place to such agencies.
I think it’s safe to say that there are two general objectives that all translators adhere to when translating. The first objective is to remain faithful to the original source document; the temptation to “improve” on the original should be avoided, as well as the temptation to guess at the source meaning. The second objective is to have the translation “flow”; ideally, a native speaker of the target language shouldn’t be able to guess that it’s a translation. The problem of course is that these two objectives often conflict – too strong an effort to remain faithful to the original may leave the translation sounding awkward, while too strong an effort to make it “flow” may stray too far from the original. It’s a question of finding the right distance between being too close to the source, and being too far away.
How large should the test be, word-wise? I think a word count around 400 – 500 words is enough to demonstrate your abilities. A test much larger than that is unnecessary, in my opinion.
So what are the specific criteria that reviewers look at? I think they can be grouped into 5 general categories:
Accuracy – Does the target language accurately reflect the meaning of the source text? This is probably the single most important factor, and also the most difficult to assess, because of the nuances, connotations and multiple meanings that characterize many words. It’s not surprising that this aspect is the source of a good deal of arbitrariness in the test review. Be careful about “false friends” – are you sure about the particular meaning of the source word? The translation should be clear and un-ambiguous; it should sound natural. And don’t “hedge” by putting things in brackets or footnotes. It’s difficult sometimes to make a decision about specific terminology – but that’s what a professional translator is paid to do, so make a decision and stick with it. Make sure you’ve translated everything in the source text, and that nothing has been left untranslated – and don’t add things either that aren’t in the source. Resist the temptation to “clarify” unless absolutely necessary.
Language – I’m referring here to the rules of the target language, what you might call the “nuts and bolts” of language – spelling, hyphenation, spacing rules, typos, punctuation, as well as grammar and syntax. Sometimes a minor change can make a major difference. At first glance, a phrase such as “the brain’s imaging techniques” may look fine. But wait – the brain doesn’t have imaging techniques! It should be “brain imaging techniques” of course; no definite article, and certainly no apostrophe. Use the spellchecker – but remember, it isn’t always write! ;-) Ideally, you should have a spellchecker that’s specific to your particular field as well.
Terminology - Avoid deviations from generally accepted terminology in the field you work in. Make sure that terms or expressions are translated consistently throughout the text. Consistency and approved terminology are very important to clients, and often a company has invested a good deal of time in considering and approving terminology that is specific for them. Glossaries are generally specific for different specialties and the different businesses that operate within those specialties. They are an important part of translating. You should be developing and adding constantly to your own glossary, and it goes without saying that if a glossary is supplied with the test, you must adhere to it. Pitfalls abound. As an example, the French word “crayon” usually refers to a pencil in English. But in the French nuclear industry, a “crayon” refers to a fuel rod assembly. And of course, it’s also a false friend as well – it doesn’t mean crayon in English unless it’s a “crayon de couleur.” Ouch!
Style – This is the register, or “voice”. Usually this aspect is more of a challenge for translators working in many different fields, as opposed to translators like me, who work primarily in one field. As an example, if it’s a medical text, then it’s perspiration, not sweat, and saliva, not spit. But if it’s a translation of a short story about cowboys, it’s the opposite. So be sure that the style you use is matched to the style used in the source.
Functional – These are technical errors, non-language-related, such as formatting errors, fonts, incorrect styles, bulleted and numbered lists, etc. These include errors caused by improperly followed technical procedures, such as errors with tables of contents, bookmarks, index, and incorrect versions. Pay particular attention to things like bookmarks, as they can be tricky to work with. But generally, a test shouldn’t include difficult formatting challenges, and I would refuse to do one that involved a lot of formatting.
Taking the test
There are different methods used to take tests. The ATA (American Translators Association), for example, does not allow any use of electronic media – they give the test the old-fashioned way, with a notebook and pencil in a monitored classroom setting. You’re allowed to bring dictionaries (non-electronic), but that’s all. For me, the thought of working in my specialty, medical translation, without having access to my online and onscreen dictionaries, no access to Google (both the main search page and the “Language Tools” page), machine translation tools to generate ideas, my CAT program, etc., is unthinkable. I can’t imagine doing that, and my hat’s off to the hardy souls who’ve braved that ordeal and passed.
A different approach is discussed in an article on the Net written by a translator who, after doing a test, has it proofread sequentially by two other translators before sending it in. I have some mixed feelings about that. I think, given the fact that the test is meant to be a test of your abilities, it seems not entirely correct to use a method for the test that you wouldn’t use when doing an actual translation. It’s not a bad idea at all in terms of boosting your chances of passing the test. But in general, I think it’s best to avoid strategies for passing the test that you wouldn’t use when actually translating.
Another strategy, which also has some interest from a psychological perspective, is to put the entire test through a machine translation, then spend your time correcting it. The possible psychological advantage comes from the fact that, rather than being completely in the role of the “student taking a test”, you’ve changed roles somewhat – now you’re in the position of the “teacher correcting the results.” You also save time, in that you don’t have to type every word, and machine translation can be good for suggestions. Sure, some of those ideas are laughably wrong – but even that can be helpful psychologically, by giving you something to chuckle about during what is otherwise usually not much of a fun time. I think there may be some real benefits to that approach, given the “role reversal” that correcting the machine translation’s version provides. It seems ethical to me too, because most of us regularly use machine translation when working to help generate ideas. And of course, the end result is what counts, and only you can spot those errors which abound in machine translation, and correct them.
Print the test once you’re satisfied that you’re done. Holding the paper in your hand can result in looking at the translation in a different way, and you may well see something that you might have missed on the screen. When I do a translation, unless the document is very long, I print it out as part of the final proofread. And if at all possible, put the test aside for a day or so before sending it off. It’s surprising how taking a break from looking at the text can sometimes reveal significant mistakes that you didn’t notice the first time around.
Finally, it’s a fact that many agencies don’t give you feedback from your test – many don’t even notify you if you passed or not. The better ones do, and some will even provide you with details of the evaluation. Not hearing from the agency doesn’t necessarily mean you flunked the test. I’ve done tests for agencies who didn’t respond for many months, only to contact me with a translation offer long after I’d forgotten them. Remember – no news is good news! Another thing to keep in mind is that the failure rate for translation tests is high. I’ve taken a number of them over the years, and I expect to fail approximately 30%. That may sound high, but be aware that the translation test given for certification by the ATA, according to their own website, has a failure rate greater than 80%. In other words, less than 20% pass, and those are people who’ve spent a lot of time (not to mention the $300 fee) preparing for it! I feel that there is too much arbitrariness involved in judging tests, and that most reviewers are not properly trained to evaluate tests. Of course it’s nice to pass the test, but it’s more important to have your translations accepted and appreciated by the thousands of agencies willing to pay for them. Not only does that pay the bills, it also builds the confidence in your abilities that helps you withstand the assault on your ego that failing a test can trigger. Not all agencies require testing before they give you work – their proofreaders will look your initial efforts over pretty thoroughly, so keep contacting agencies until you’ve got all the work necessary to meet your objectives. Remember, the way to ultimately succeed as a freelance translator is to keep trying, no matter what. Don’t get too discouraged over a failed test. If you’ve been given the reviewer’s evaluation, and you disagree, formulate your reasons clearly in a letter, and then send it to the contact person at the agency you’ve dealt with. A polite, well-reasoned letter disagreeing with the evaluation can lead to another reviewer taking a second look at the test you’ve done. That will not only give you another shot at passing the test, but writing the letter will help you collect your thoughts – and boost your chances of passing the next test. Good luck!