Common Mistakes of the Beginner Translator
October 15, 2017

When I first started translating, people would deceive me, withhold pay, use my knowledge to get a job but not give it to me. Now I can say “no” to offers that are clearly not right for me. I want to share what I’ve learned with you.


This is a trap beginner translators often fall into. Naturally, a lot of translation agencies and direct clients request that you perform a standard test. Although this isn’t always the case for direct clients. The customer wants to know if the translator can really do the job. One thing that should be understood here is that agencies sometimes send texts under the guise of a test translation. These texts are then submitted to the end client as a translation. So, before you perform the test, pay attention to a few key points.

  1. Is this a standard test? If the test task doesn’t seem like a standard text, it’s most likely a real order. A standard text most often has only a couple of paragraphs on one or two topics (usually related to the specialization you specified in your resume). It’s very easy to check if the text isn’t an order. Just look at the file’s creation date. Typically, a standard test’s creation date is really old. If you suspect the agency might use your translation for a client, ask for payment for the test text or replace it with a standard test. DON’T send the translated file if you have even the slightest doubt.
  2. When is the test due? The deadline for a test translation is usually very flexible. If you’re given a limited time for this translation, it’s most likely a real order that you should be paid for. My advice, however, is to find out from the client why the deadline has been shortened. Sometimes the project requires urgently hiring translators.
  3. Will you be paid? If you want to get paid for a test translation, ask for it. The agency isn’t just testing you. You’re also testing them. How professional is the agency, what’s the editing process like, how does the payment process work? A translation agency that pays for a test translation very likely deserves your full confidence. Yes, these kinds of clients exist.
  4. How big is a test translation? A test assignment of 200-400 words is a good-sized test. There is a rumour that literary translators have a test assignment of up to 1000 words, but this isn’t my field, so I really can’t say anything. More than 200 words? Ask for payment.
  5. Can you complete the test assignment? Don’t burn your bridges right away. Never take on translations you don’t understand or work with languages you don’t know. The agency has probably already paid an editor to review your text. There’s no reason for them to give you a second chance. Take the opportunity to give up a job you can’t do. That way, you leave a good impression of yourself. A test translation is your chance to show a potential client how good you are. It’s not a way to prove to yourself that you can do a particular translation.


It’s useless to make a numbered (or unnumbered) list of all possible directories where a lot of translators are encouraged to register. Most of them are absolutely useless because they don’t protect the interests of translators, as claimed. On the contrary, they turn the market into an arena where translators compete for assignments at the lowest possible rate for a professional translation.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that most of these directories offer premium services and annual subscriptions to be displayed on the first pages of these directories. It should be treated as paid search engine optimization, nothing more.

If you still want to spend a certain amount of money, I suggest using it to enter a professional organization and to launch your own website. Membership in the organization will bring you new customers and give you access to new opportunities.


Many beginner translators are content with small rates. When I started working, I was getting paid $1.50–$2 for 1800 characters (no spaces, mind you, which reduces the total amount by 10-15%). I accepted that kind of rate because I didn’t know that a translated word is actually worth more. Of course, later on, I realized that my work was worth more.

  1. Sometimes translators refuse to talk about their rates. Especially with unknown fellow translators or beginners. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single college class where active translators talk about the situation as it is. Teachers often CAN’T talk about these things only because they translate part-time to time. For them, it’s only extra income.

    Me: How to register as a sole proprietor? How to fill out a tax return? College: Fuhgeddaboudit! Ferdinand de Saussure was born in Switzerland in 1857. © Mockingbirds Translation

  2. Translation agencies take advantage of translators’ ignorance.Everything points to this fact. Oh, how many reasons have I heard during my time working why I can’t be paid the amount I ask for. “Unfortunately, we can’t pay a translator from Belarus more”, “I hope you understand that the economy’s tough”, “The market rate for these languages is no more than X dollars per page” and my favorite… “We can’t raise your rate because all our developers are using Agile when developing apps. That’s why localization costs are being cut.” (Ok, but what does that have to do with me?) Very often, I hear the argument, “This is a good rate for such a simple job.” Who’s decide that the translation is simple? A good translation isn’t simple. A good translation is always a little bigger than the original text. A good translation takes time and energy. A good translation doesn’t come cheap. If your clients don’t want to pay you, it’s worth thinking about advertising your own small business. I suggest Marta Stelmaszak’s Business School For Translators courses.
  3. Beginner translators often accept market research as the ultimate truth. If a marketing study says that translators in this or that language pair earn X Euros per word for their work, beginners often view this data as the truth. You should accept as much for your work as you see fit.
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