Problems with Translation Competency Tests…

…As I see them.

Okay, some of you may know that I am a polyglot, and as a result, I find myself being an occasional translator. Mostly, I deal with Russian (Русский), Dutch (Nederland), and English. Now, I am a member of some freelance translation sites and I love it. However, sometimes translation agencies from abroad find me.

These agencies send me requests to join their teams as a translator, be it RUS/ENG or NDL/ENG. Which is fine! I love getting these requests because it allows me access to even more jobs and that’s more people I get to meet and help in whatever small or large way that I can.

Sometimes though these agencies require, what’s known as, a competency exam. In other words, it’s a small translation that they want you to do (for free mind you) so they can judge whether or not you are qualified to work in your language pair.

I have two problems with these types of exams…

1.) I’m not getting paid. That $0.08/word or $27.00/hour is money that I need. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to put in a new faucet for free to see if they are able to re-plumb your house, now would you? No. Of course not. And to be honest, most plumbers would be like, ‘Sorry crazy lady…I’ve got other you know PAYING jobs to get to.’

Yeah, these translation exams take (most of the time) an hour away from you, when that’s an hour that you could be working on a paying assignment for a super good client that you love.

2.) What are the chances that these competency exams are really translations that the agency is getting paid for, but they don’t have a ready translator to do the job? I hate to be that way, but people, I’ve seen it happen and I’ve heard through translation discussion boards’ grapevines that it’s happened to other people. I’ll go back to the plumber I mentioned before – he wants HIS money for the JOB HE DID. And since, they passed it off as a competency exam – who gets to keep that money the client paid for? Bet you can figure that one out.

I want to clarify that in the instances I’ve had to deal with this type stuff in number 2 – further research on my part has revealed that the said ‘agency’ wasn’t a credible agency. Most likely they were/are scamming everyone involved.

Sadly, the tricky part is – how do you tell? Usually you can tell by the competency exam itself, but by that time, you’ve already been suckered into it.

You know, actually, I have 3 things…

3.) When you do find a credible agency that requires a competency exam – why in the name of all things holy do they not give you exam texts that are in your area of specialization?

Yep, translators are like most other professions – we specialize. For me those specializations are LITERATURE and TOURISM. But, everyone is different. If the industry is there – you can specialize in it as a translator; medical, legal, marketing, finance, insurance, real estate, and etc…

So, I just gave you my specializations, and now – drum roll please – the last competency exam I took was in engineering and tech. Now, some words are entirely interchangeable, but the problems arise when choosing the best word to use to substitute for the target language from the source language. Some words it’s easy, because they’re cognates or so similar to basic English words there are no problems – but then, they start talking about motherboards and giving you acronyms for things you’ve never heard of before IN YOUR NATIVE TONGUE, much less the source language. That slows your translation WAYYYYY DDDOOWWWNNNNN. And remember the majority of these competency exams are timed. Essentially, you have an hour or so to teach yourself vocabulary in both the source language, and then your native language too. Not easy to do…and it’s positively not fast.

That being said, it’s like they set you up for failure on the exam. Not as a translator. You ARE NOT A FAILURE AS A TRANSLATOR IF YOU FAIL SOME COMPETENCY EXAM! I think most translators, if they are being completely honest, will admit that they have failed a competency exam at some point in their careers. I have.

That engineering and tech one I mentioned. I bombed it. I didn’t get finished by the time limit. They didn’t mark anything inaccurate or wrong on the parts I did get finished, they failed me simply because I didn’t get finished. Well, if they’d given me 500 words in tourism or literature, I’d’ve been done with time to spare, but with the samples they sent me not being in my area of expertise…nope!

So, what did I do? I accepted a job from somewhere else translating a children’s picture book. You just keep going.

These three reasons are why I do not support the use of competency exams. I might be persuaded to change my tune about it if agencies made a few changes in their exams. For instance, they could either disregard the time limit or give you say 24 hours if they insist on testing you on some topic that’s not within your specialization. Or, they could give you an exam within the spectrum of your specialization. There many different ways they could go about them. If only they would…



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