Translators and references – a sticky wicket?


Though I have seen the topic surface in various places in the past, for some reason, it seems to be catching my eye more and more lately, on forums, social media group pages and the like. I was even asked for them last week when an agency contacted me, asking if they could include me in their database (that experience could fill an entire blog post, so I will leave it at that). I’m talking about references, presumably from other translation agencies you work for, direct clients, and so forth – should you comply with these requests and send them, or not?

When you look at it logically, it almost makes sense, and many would argue it’s common practice in business, and often mandatory in applying for a job. When it comes to services for consumers, if I want to hire a painter, I would certainly want to if know he or she is reliable, does a good job, and is trustworthy. I would even ask friends of mine who have recently hired a painter if they would recommend that person. This is all innocent of course, as a good reference or recommendation is obviously a win-win situation for everyone. Then again, there are no guarantees in life. Your friend might have had a fantastic experience with that painter while you wish you had never heard his name.

Does this apply to translators and translation customers though? On the face of it, one might be tempted to think, ‘Sure, why not? The agency or client just wants to know that the translator they are considering hiring is reliable, does a good job, and is trustworthy.’

This is of course assuming everyone’s motives are pure (as opposed to the ulterior kind), that they’re on the level. What if the buyer has other reasons for asking for references? Maybe what they’re really after is the names of your other customers, for example, to ultimately poach these companies’ customers. Some might ask for references to make sure you’re not working for a serious competitor of theirs in the local or international market. It might also be a surreptitious way of estimating the rates you are charging others (knowing what the other company pays their freelancers, for example), and are therefore willing to accept during the negotiations on price that might follow.

Supposing you are able (and willing) to provide references, how credible are these? How does this potential new customer even know that your referee has spoken the truth? Or that it has even come from that particular company? (After all, these days, forgery, fraud, assumed identities and the like are just too easy.) What do we really know about what goes on behind the scenes with these references? Are there ‘quid pro quo’ motives involved? Perhaps the translator has offered something in exchange for a rave review? A discount, a free translation, their first-born (though some of us might like to sometimes)?

Another very important aspect to consider (and investigate, if it applies to your customers) is that of confidentiality – have you signed an NDA (or non-compete document) with the customers you are considering approaching for a reference, and does this prevent you from using them as a reference? Are you even allowed to just mention their name, if the potential customer is asking for a list? It’s important to find out before you are forthcoming with this type of information.

Speaking of secrecy, why would you want to give this new potential customer, assuming it’s an agency, the names of any direct clients you have? Do you really want to serve them these names up on a platter, and make it that much easier for them to seduce them away from you?

One way around providing references, assuming the vows of confidentiality do apply to you, and if the thought of bothering your customers with a request to provide one unnerves you, is to point those requesting them to testimonials on your website, which are obviously more credible when they’re signed (and aren’t credited with ‘a major player in the IT industry’, for example). In spite of their possibly questionable credibility, some people refer these companies asking for references to their ratings on LinkedIn and ProZ (the WWA ratings). This however begs the question: how valid or credible are these?

Opinions vary on the endorsements offered on LinkedIn – the whole ‘endorse me and I’ll endorse you’ culture that can often prevail there. How reliable ARE these endorsements? I would argue that the same could apply to references. At the risk of repeating myself, what is motivating the referee to provide them? Does he or she have a vested interest in doing so? The same could be said of testimonials on websites. A website developer who shall remain unnamed, and whom I used for my first website, posted my name and logo (without my permission) on his website as one of his ‘satisfied customers’. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth, and I asked him to remove my name and logo once we parted ways, as I no longer wished to be associated with him, his unauthorized use of my name and logo being the proverbial final nail in the coffin of our relationship. Just one example of the kinds of doubts which can arise and which can throw the entire reference process, and its legitimacy, into question. Sometimes references aren’t worth much more than the ‘paper’ they’re written on.

Some professional (translation and other) organizations require references for candidates applying for membership. To me, this is only logical: in order to qualify for membership, you have to prove you are a professional by providing references from companies you have worked for (and presumably, to their satisfaction). These types of references are usually sent directly from the referee to the organization, thus lending credence to their legitimacy since the subject of the reference doesn’t see them. Many translators just point out that they are members of a certain organization, and that they needed references to be admitted, using this as a justification for not providing references.

Some claim that references are being asked for (and required) with increasing frequency as part of quality assurance processes and certification procedures (for LSPs and others). The same problem arises here: how credible IS the reference and perhaps even more importantly, how can we, as translators, be sure these are being used for their alleged purpose, and handled in an ethical manner?

Agencies and large LSPs cull references (and CVs) in submitting bids for tenders for large EU and other projects. Many translators protest these practices, claiming that these packages of references include those written for excellent translators whose services the agency or LSP ultimately doesn’t even use for the project, as the translation buyers are often not willing (or able due to budgetary constraints) to pay the rates these translators (rightfully) demand.4-stack-of-letters


Another matter to consider is how the company being asked for the reference feels about participating in this process. The last thing many busy agencies and other companies need or want is to have to write references or answer phone calls from other, often competing, companies. Many perceive having to give references as an intrusive and frankly, annoying, activity. Do you really want to have someone you’ve never worked for bother someone you have worked for, with pleasure, for years? This is something to consider if and when you go to identify potential referees. Some companies have a policy about not providing references for freelancers, limiting this to their in-house staff only. Also important to bear in mind is the kind of message you are sending this agency or LSP; essentially you are telling them you’re actively seeking out new customers, looking to work for companies which might actually have no intention of sending you work (see ulterior motives above), and are on a fact-finding mission instead of genuinely interested in your services? Where will that leave you when the regular customer decides you’re going to be too busy to work for them anymore and stops sending you work?

Putting the proverbial shoe on the other foot, how many translators ask translation agencies, LSPs or direct clients for their references? Do we have a way of finding out if they are a pleasure to work with? Whether or not they pay fair rates? If they pay on time (at all)? Do they provide support and feedback? Are their deadlines reasonable?

Actually, freelancers have it a lot easier in this respect. They can seek out (and find) this information via various groups and forums online, or even ask colleagues about their experiences with a certain customer. Translators can get ‘references’ on agencies by posting in groups, asking colleagues about their experiences with these companies and so on. Like references on translators, these too should be taken with a grain of salt, since not everyone has the same experience with a certain agency or LSP. Nonetheless, it is much easier for translators to ‘get the skinny’ on agencies or customers than it is for agencies to get reliable information on translators.

So what’s the solution? To send or not to send references? Are there alternatives to providing references that will achieve the goals of both sides? Sample or test translations have become dirty words in our industry, particularly when they are preceded by an even dirtier word, ‘ free’. It may not hurt to offer to translate a text for this company, to show them you are the translator they’re looking for (or not). Doing it for free is another matter entirely, and I will refrain from commenting on that issue here. This is a personal choice, yet one that bears contemplation and a careful strategy. Working with new people is always a leap of faith, for all parties involved. Doing business involves risks, for everyone. Providing references doesn’t necessarily remove these risks for the companies that ask for them, for the reasons mentioned above and more.

Whether or not you decide to comply with a request for references all depends on the situation of course, and your relationship with the party asking for the reference (if you even have one yet), what your gut tells you their intention is with the references if you decide to provide them, how badly you want to work for this company, but even more importantly, your relationship with any company you are thinking of asking for a reference, particularly if you’re interested in continuing it.


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