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Why You Should Never Ask a Translator to Work for Free

Erica Huttner

I sincerely hope that you read the title of this post and said to yourself, "Why would anyone ever ask a translator to work for free? Surely they deserve to be paid a fair wage for their work just like any other professional!". However, the sad fact is that many people don't treat translators, as well as many other types of creative professionals, as if their skills are valuable.

My inspiration for today's post was the following video by an advertising agency called Zulu Alpha Kilo, which perfectly demonstrates how ridiculous and unfair it is to ask a creative professional for free work.

If you don't work in translation, design, copywriting, or any of the many other creative fields, then you might not be aware of how frequently this happens. As someone who is relatively new to the translation industry, I encounter this issue frequently. In the past, prospective clients have asked me for everything from free sample translations to providing them with discounted rates in exchange for the promise of them sending me "lots of work".

It's usually pretty easy to tell from the prospective client's language whether they're trying to take advantage of you. If you're contacted by a client whose job posting simply says "Translate 1500 words Spanish to English" without any other details, then it's definitely a good idea to be wary. If they don't even care enough to tell you what type of text you're translating, then they probably aren't willing to pay much.

However, when you're first starting out as a translator and don't have much in terms of a portfolio to demonstrate your skills, it can sometimes be beneficial to do a short free sample. In my first few months as a freelance translator, a few of my biggest jobs came from clients who originally asked me to translate a small excerpt of their documents for free. That said, you should set up your own strict set of rules for what types of samples you are willing to do. I generally don't mind translating a short paragraph for prospective clients with technical texts, but if they ask for anything that will take more than a few minutes of my time, I carefully consider it before saying yes.

For example, one of my first clients needed to have a technical document translated, and wanted to be sure that I could provide them with an accurate translation. Since I hadn't done any related work in the past that I could submit to demonstrate my skills, I translated the 200-word excerpt for them for free, and ended up being hired for the project (as well as later projects). Obviously there was no guarantee that they would hire me, but I felt it was worth my time to do the sample since the full document contained 4,800 words. Since they did hire me, I was also eventually paid for the sample since it was included in the word count of the project.

That said, there is a big difference between translating a short excerpt for a project that requires special skills or technical knowledge and doing an entire translation for free. Luckily, this has been asked of me less often as of late, but occasionally I do still get requests to do a first translation for free with the promise of more work in the future. I obviously always say no.

Translators are also often asked to provide discounted rates for the promise of long-term work relationships, which is almost as bad as asking someone to work for free. You wouldn't ask your doctor for a discount because you've been going to them for years, so why would you ask a translator for a discount when they'll be putting in the same amount of effort and providing you with the same services as always?

Sometimes it's hard to say no to prospective clients, especially for freelancers that are just starting out in creative industries, but we have to remember that our skills do have value. I usually take the time to explain to clients in search of free work that I need to make a living just like everyone else, and that my professional skills do have a value. It may not always get me the job, but I do hope that it at least makes them stop and think about what they're really asking of me.