Katja Virtanen

Katja Virtanen

Test translations: good and bad

customer experience, translator and translating

When arranging competitive tendering for translation agencies, many customers are faced with a dilemma. There are usually only small differences in pricing, service portfolios differ slightly, and the technology used by all translation agencies is more or less the same. So, how do you know in advance which translation agency produces the best quality?

In my opinion, the worst approach to competitive tendering for translation services is to assess the quality of a translation agency solely on the basis of individual translators. In that case, the factors considered are the years of experience the appointed translators have and the number of pages they have translated in the field in question. I think I can say, without being ageist, that it should always be possible to choose the best expert for the task at hand, regardless of how many years of experience they have. Sometimes the most experienced translator is the best, but not necessarily always.

Another thing that I find hard to understand is how the number of pages translated can yield points for quality. Reporting an enormous number of pages in the tender is no indicator of how good or bad the translations have been.

When quality assessment is this difficult, many customers have decided to have candidate agencies do a test translation.

One advantage of a test translation might be that it enables the customer to, at least to some extent, assess the translation agency’s service process and the quality of a single translation provided by the agency. A test translation is indicative of whether the translation agency understands the customer’s field of operations and whether it is capable of assigning the translation to the best possible expert, provided that there are no strict requirements, like the ones described above, set for the experience of translators. If, in a competitive situation, the translation agency cannot deliver an adequate test translation that adheres to the instructions given, it probably won’t be able to do so in other cases either.

However, an excellent test translation does not guarantee that equivalent quality can be provided in the future. There may have been an exceptionally large team involved in the test translation or it may be the case that the translator who did the test translation won’t be able to handle all required translation assignments after all. The translator may, for instance, be otherwise occupied or fall ill.

If you nevertheless decide to have candidates do a test translation, keep in mind the following:


1. Choose a source text with a clear context. Explain the context in the assignment. The purpose of a test translation is not to test who can guess which topic the text is related to. In a real translation situation, a professional translation agency works in close cooperation with the customer to ensure that the translator has understood the context correctly and the translation meets the customer’s needs.

2. Do not choose a text that has already been translated as the digital footprint of a translation may be long-lasting. If a previous service provider is also taking part in your competitive tendering, do not give them an unfair advantage by using a source text containing terms and phrases that can be found in texts that have been translated by them before.

3. Make sure that your text is not full of special terminology that cannot reasonably be known or worked out. In a real translation situation, the terms are worked out before the assignment begins and the translation agency can usually refer to a term bank built for the customer. Instead, you should test the translator’s ability to search for information with terms that are relatively easy to find and focus more to the translator’s attention to detail and the fluency of the translation.

4. Never let participants know in advance when you are going to send out the test translation and provide an appropriately short time for translating. In this way, you can assess the outcome and the translation agency’s delivery performance in a real translation situation.

5. Ensure that test translations are assessed fairly and professionally. Even if you have a bilingual colleague who could check the test translation, it is preferable to turn to a professional. Only a language expert can assess a test translation in a linguistically reliable manner.


When used appropriately, a test translation is a tool good enough for quality assessment. In this, too, my earlier statement holds true: When you know what you want, you usually get what you are willing to pay for.

However, in my experience the best guarantee of quality is a recommendation from a satisfied customer.


Read also: Hinta vai laatu? (available only in Finnish)