References for translators

When they are looking for translation services, it is common practice for some LSPs and direct clients to ask for references (i.e. a translator’s previous clients’ personal data such as name, surname, email address, telephone number and position held) to inquire about their experience with that translator and somehow understand whether they are choosing the right professional for their translation needs. Someone even goes one step further requesting samples of previous translations on the same topic or in the same field.

But what issues does asking for references raise?

Whenever I am personally asked for references or read job postings where translators are required to provide references, the following questions come to my mind:

  • Does this practice really help my potential clients understand if I am the right fit for them?
  •  Is this practice respectful of my previous clients’ personal data?

But first of all, how can clients establish if their translation is good, to later be able to tell others?

How can translation clients evaluate the quality of a translation?

By definition, a “translation client” is anyone who needs to hire a translator for personal or business translations. They may need someone who translates their website, personal documents, business documents, products/services descriptions, etc. Some other times, they need a linguist to check their work, specifically to proofread or edit an existing translation. In any case, they look for a professional who can do the job!

It is worth highlighting a basic concept: as a general rule, if someone is hiring a translator this means that that person doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of the target language or adequate translation skills. After all, everyone must be good at their job!

If I needed some architectural work to be done at my house, I would undoubtedly call an architect because I don’t know anything about architecture. And, after the work is done, I could never judge or criticize the work of my architect unless there is a) some visible flaw that prevents me from properly enjoying my spaces or b) something that is substantially different from what we had agreed.

Long story short, clients can usually express only their positive or negative experience with translators as professionals and, only partially, their opinion on the final product, the translation. Unless, of course, they are somehow competent or work in the language industry (e.g. as translation project managers, senior translators, reviewers, etc.), in which case they can give a professional opinion on the quality of the target text.

How can clients trust a translator then?

At this point, it is clear that it may not be worth it to ask for a translator’s previous client references. Rather, it would be way more useful to:

  • check if the translator has relevant education, training and experience, and
  • request the completion of a translation test (usually no more than 300 words, paid) consisting of a part of the text that needs to be translated or a text of a similar nature.

By doing so, a client can roughly assess the translator’s ability to:

  • be responsive
  • deal with that specific kind of text
  • prove his/her translation skills
  • meet deadlines

This is the reason why a translation test should be preferred as a valuable tool to understand whether a translator is the right fit for that specific client and translation job.

What about privacy issues?

For translators, providing references implies disclosing their previous clients’ personal and contact details. Not to mention the content of their clients’ texts, in case they are asked to provide translation samples.

You might think: “What if you ask your client permission to do so?”.

Well, that depends on your personal policy.

As a matter of principle, I would never ask my clients to disclose their personal and contact details, let alone their texts, to complete strangers who might call or write them at any time, keep their details without any authorisation and use them also for different purposes.

What I can do is ask my clients if they are willing to leave a testimonial on my website regarding their general experience with me. My clients may or may not agree on leaving me their feedback and making their name public, but in no case I would disclose their personal information when I could simply be asked to perform a translation test.

So, definitely less references, more translation tests!

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