Sunday, December 03, 2006

Translators’ Responsibilities: When the Source Text Has Issues

The definition of a translator is someone who translates a text from one language to another, carefully considering the cultures involved, the style of the text, the purpose of the text and of the translation, and the potential audience. That’s all challenging enough, and there’s much to consider in that about what the translator’s responsibilities are and what s/he should prioritize, but in this post, I’d like to look at an aspect of the job that is rarely mentioned: what should a translator do when faced with a source text that is, to be perfectly frank, not well written?

Some source texts themselves are poorly done translations while others simply have been authored by people who either didn’t put much effort into the document or don’t have good writing skills, or both. A sloppy text might have misspellings, grammar mistakes, factual errors, unclear meanings, or other problems. What options does a translator have when working on such a text? And, more to the point, what is the translator’s responsibility in this case?

Some translators believe that their job is simply to translate whatever is on the page, without questioning it. So they’d generally correct misspellings and bad grammar (that is, they wouldn’t create equivalent misspellings or incorrect grammar in the translation), but they wouldn’t rewrite awkward sentences, mention factual errors to their client and/or the author of the text (that’s not always the same person, obviously), or ask what was intended by a certain phrase.

Others will ask the client to clarify confusing passages or to re-check facts. Still other translators would go even further and give the customer feedback on the text, pointing out some, or even all, of the problems.

There are translators who offer to rewrite and/or edit the source document for an additional fee, and there are some who refuse to translate poorly written documents until they have been reworked, whether by themselves or by the author and/or customer.

All of these different responses show the various ways translators view their job and their translatorial responsibilities.

I have tried a variety of these methods myself, but most often what I do is ask about anything that seems unclear or especially awkward plus point out mistakes I find in the source text. If I can’t understand what is meant by a phrase or a paragraph, then I won’t be able to translate properly, so I do feel it is my responsibility to make sure everything is clear to me (and, I should note, if something is seemingly incomprehensible, it may, of course, be attributed to my own lack of understanding or knowledge, and not just because the writer is not proficient as his or her craft). As for the reason why I mention mistakes to the client, I feel it is a courtesy to them, and it also shows that I am observant and take my work seriously. A client who later finds mistakes in the source text but remembers that I didn’t bring them up might wonder whether I even noticed them and whether, if I didn’t notice them, I paid as close attention to the document as I should have.

There have been occasions when I have received a document of low quality that has had such a number of careless errors and sloppy phrasings that I didn’t feel I should have to spend the time necessary to edit the whole text, especially as I wasn’t getting paid for that, so I instead just gave the client a general summary of issues I noticed in the text, with a few specific examples. Once, I had a text so riddled with problems that I found it very difficult to translate, and I suggested that I or someone else be hired to fix the document, but the company I was working for made it clear that they didn’t care enough about having correct and well-written language to spend additional sums on the document, so I could only do my best with the text as it was.

So I suppose where I stand on this issue is somewhere in the middle: I believe translators have a responsibility to thoroughly understand the documents they work on, and that they must ask questions or do research if a certain text doesn’t make sense to them in some way. I also believe that translators should fix problems such as misspellings or incorrect usage as they translate (unless such things are part of the style of the text, as in some fiction or in reproductions of dialect), and I think it is respectful to the customer to mention whatever issues come up in the text, even if in a general way, without necessarily sending back a completely marked-up source text. But I don’t think translators should have to rewrite source documents (unless they get an extra fee for that) or that they should feel the need to give the client detailed feedback on them.

What do other translators think? And what about those of you who employ translators?


Anonymous said...

In general I refuse to translate poorly written source texts. They're more work to translate and in my experience clients with poorly written texts tend (bizarrely) to be nitpickier about the translation. And not nitpicky in a good way. I've had clients argue that I made English words up because they didn't happen to know the English word. Or argue that my English translation is wrong and try to get me to change it to something ungrammatical. I've found that texts that aren't ready for translation lead to added hassle. It is a better use of my time to turn those jobs down so that I'm available to say yes to more appealing jobs.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment!
What do you do with a client who argues about words (don't they own dictionaries?)? How do you deal with customers who think they know more than you?
I think this is another aspect of 'educating the customer,' a topic that interests me, but isn't discussed enough, unfortunately.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

If a client argues about words or grammar I do one of two things:
1) gracefully acknowledge my mistake if I goofed
2) argue back at full force using all the data necessary to convince them to eat crow if they've goofed (dictionary references or often Google references to prove that something is indeed a word) or alternatively I have my linguist friend help me use fancy terms (like "subjunctive" or "extended participial modifier") to explain why my grammar is better than the client's erroneous suggestion (duh, I'm like totally a native speaker of English, dude, of course my English grammar is better than yours!)

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment. Yes, sometimes you have to get out the references materials to prove you actually know what you're doing. I suppose that happens to people in all fields though -- there's always someone who questions whether you can do what you claim to be able to.
There are also some clients who are genuinely interested to know why the translator chose a certain word or why this grammatical structure was used, but there aren't too many of those.

Best wishes,