Translator Recruitment: Matchmaking in the Translation Industry

Anyone in the industry is familiar with the process: a translation company writes on its website or posts in a translation forum a message announcing they are seeking freelance translators in general or for a particular project and asking interested translators to send their CVs and rates. Next, the company goes over the candidates’ CVs and asks them to sign an NDA and take a translation test. This test usually requires each candidate to translate 250 to 500 words. Once they receive the test back, the companies email it to their in-house or freelance reviewer. In the vast majority of cases, the decision to either recruit the translator or not will depend on the reviewer’s feedback. Those who pass the test can try to negotiate their rate and may need to fill out a taxation form. They are then added to the company’s pool of translators, which does not necessarily guarantee they will receive any work. This process is time consuming and many companies employ recruiters for this particular task, who can be seen as their matchmakers; both the translator and the recruiter spend some time “getting to know each other” before the recruiter determines if the translator can start a relationship with their employer that would hopefully be long-lasting and fruitful (except that their employer is an advocate of multiple relationships…) 

This process is far from being perfect, mostly because companies only learn about the true quality of the translators’ work once they start sending them work. But companies are aware of this and spend time and money on arbitration procedures and penalties for poor translations or late deliveries. As a freelance translator and reviewer, I have been asked hundreds of times to fill out LQA forms or be an arbitrator. Companies do make a genuine effort to evaluate the translators’ background and knowledge during the recruitment process by requesting that they name a few professional references and describe past projects. But what would you say if you heard of a matchmaker who asks potential matches to name their ex-partners and contacts them to learn about past relationships? Would you trust their judgement with your son or daughter? Hardly. True, translator recruitment is not exactly matchmaking and is definitely simpler and far less emotional, but there are certain similarities. The main challenge companies face is to truly know if someone is the right person for them through the Internet, which has some resemblance to dating websites. 

One of the reasons the recruitment process is not effective is the attempt to evaluate multiple aspects by merely asking the candidate to translate a paragraph or two. Be it long or short, the test cannot fully and sufficiently reflect the real qualities and capabilities of the linguist on the other side of the globe. Companies have no way of knowing who the translator consulted as they took the test and whether they really completed it on their own. The test also does not reflect how the translator approaches different texts, or whether they can explain their grammatical and syntactic choices.  

Another problem with the recruitment process is that it mostly relies on the reviewer’s judgement, which has the potential of screening out good candidates. The sad truth is that companies have no way of knowing the true quality of test pieces in languages their recruiters don’t know. This becomes a greater problem when the reviewer regards translation as intuitive or fails to base their feedback on syntactic and grammatical knowledge. How many of you have heard the phrase “the translation isn’t elegant enough” or “this doesn’t sound natural” or “this isn’t fluent enough”? Many companies do attempt to overcome this issue by having reviewers use specific categories in their evaluation, but many times both the reviewer and the translator fall short of using the right terminology in their explanations. This is the difference between “not fluent enough” and “the translator used a preposition instead of a compound noun, which negatively affects the text’s readability” (for example, “the tray of the system” vs. “the system tray”). 

As a freelance translator, it is important to me to share with translation companies in general and recruiters in particular a test format that in my opinion may resolve the above issues, but before I introduce it, let’s get back to matchmaking. Here are a few steps that may be helpful in deciding whether a person is the right match:

Ask them how they would react in certain situations and what the differences between their reactions would be (1), then ask them for their opinion about someone else’s reaction in another situation and what they should have done differently (2). This will give you an idea of what their past relationships have taught them. Next, you can do a couple of simulations of two real-life situations [(3) and (4)] that would teach you about the tools the potential match has in their repertoire.  

In the translation industry you do not have to actually talk with your candidate; an email account would suffice. The recruiter can simply email the candidate a test that includes all of the above questions and simulations. Here is how: 

  1. Ask the candidate to describe in [the recruiter's language of choice] how they would approach and translate different documents.  

  2. Have them review another short translation (not more than 4 lines) and write down their impressions in [the recruiter's language of choice]. In particular, ask them if the translation fulfills its purpose. 

  3. Have them describe with as many details as possible what they see in a picture in the target language.  

  4. Have them translate a short text (not more than 4 lines) and explain their choices in [the recruiter's language of choice]

Parts 1 and 2 focus on the candidate’s experience and the thought they put into their work even before they start. You want to know this candidate will not just translate the text to get this over with, but would take the time to examine each individual task and make informed decisions. These decisions will be reflected by their translation choices and would make it easier to respond to the client’s queries later on, which ultimately allows for a more professional discourse. 

Parts 3 and 4 demonstrate the candidate’s actual craft. This is their opportunity to explain their choices and your opportunity to see if they work “intuitively” or not. These two parts do not have to be long and hopefully, the candidate will spend just as much time explaining as they did translating. 

This test is not supposed to be more than a page long, and most of it can be examined by the recruiter, which allows them greater independence. The reviewer’s task is just as important, and they should be encouraged to integrate back translations in their feedback. This is in a nutshell of course; the recruiter’s and the reviewer’s background experiences are very important as well as the specific guidelines they should follow to screen candidates. Also, the test is just one part of the recruitment process and thought should also be given to what the candidates write in their CV, in particular their education, training, and professional memberships. Another major question that applies to the first stages of the recruitment process is whether linguists should only translate into their native tongue... what do you think? 

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