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What do you consider a mistake in a translation?
Thread poster: Niraja Nanjundan
Niraja Nanjundan  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:13
German to English
Mar 4, 2009

I find that clients often wrongly use the word "mistakes" when they would like the translator to make some changes in a translation, or they don't entirely agree with the way the source text has been translated. In such cases they often say something like "We found some mistakes in your translation."

To me, mistakes in translations are

- typos
- serious spelling and grammar mistakes
- serious mistranslations
- wrong understanding of the source text

No two translators will translate a text in exactly the same way, and translation is therefore quite subjective. Clients hire translators because of their expertise in the field and should be careful about calling something a mistake when it could just be a difference of opinion.

What would you call a mistake in a translation? What are your experiences with clients in this area?

Thanks in advance for any comments.

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Tomás Cano Binder, CT  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:43
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
People who yell "Mistake!" are rarely linguists... Mar 4, 2009

...that's a fact I have learnt in my work.

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Suyash Suprabh  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:13
English to Hindi
+ ...
Mistakes need to be redefined Mar 4, 2009

"No two translators will translate a text in exactly the same way, and translation is therefore quite subjective."

I cannot agree with you more on this point.

Some agencies point out mistakes just to negotiate further on rates. And, many have a false notion that they always suggest better translations.

I do not deny the fact that some suggestions are valid. Sometimes translators fail to understand the source text. However, agencies should learn to differentiate between "mistakes" and "translation options".

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Maxim Manzhosin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 06:43
Member (2008)
English to Russian
There are mistakes and mistakes Mar 4, 2009

Niraja, try to google up some information on translation quality metrics. There are complex tables ranging translation errors by severity: from critical ("mistake is so severe that whole translation is rendered useless") to zero ("preferential and style changes").

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Stephen Rifkind  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:43
Member (2004)
French to English
+ ...
The critics of our world Mar 4, 2009

I have to admit that the one aspect of this business that still drives me crazy is the issue of editing. I wish to make clear that, although one other person checks my work before I send it, I want the agency/client to check the work, especially on longer jobs.

However, the manner in which this editing is done drives me crazy. When I am asked to edit, I look for mistakes, see the first answer for the definition of that. If I make one or accidently omit something, I apologize and accept the criticism. What happens is that aside from the occasional error, the editor feels it necessary (to justify his/her pay, maybe) to make a mass of style changes that makes the translation appear unprofessional. An example, on a certificate, I wrote the date "January 20, 2007"; the editior found it necessary to write "20th January 2007."

I really wish editors were given strict instructions and used the charts suggested by Maxim.

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Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:43
Flemish to English
+ ...
Narcissists Mar 4, 2009

"Contresense": giving the opposite meaning of the source text.
"Bad understanding" of source text"
Translation of "Faux Amis"
Use of the same syntax/thought-pattern in the target-language is another typical mistake.
Use of the wrong prepositions.

To ask on a forum full of narcissists if they are faillible? Don't expect detailed answers.
Nobody will admit that they make mistakes, let alone being able to sum up translation errors. I posted the same question two years ago summing up all the translation errors I knew. I only got a few irrelevant answers let alone a summing up of the possible types of translation errors.

[Edited at 2009-03-04 13:44 GMT]

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English to Russian
+ ...
mistake - mistook - mistaken Mar 4, 2009

Hello Niraja.

I think that the very definition has little to do with searching the Internet for the correct answer. Because it depends on every employer's definition and liability.
They should have some policy/regulations and when they consider something to be a mistake, a bias, an err[or], a fallacy, a fault or whatever then they should be able to explain their demands and the Art. you break.

Usually 'good' (=experienced) employers send such rules in advance (if any) or just inform translators. Indeed it doesn't refer to obvious blunts and neglect style.

If the translation is rather ambiguous then I send a preview of the translation to have some comments and remarks. For it's much easier to correct and amend the document during translation than afterwards, IMO.


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Robin Salmon  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:43
German to English
+ ...
Officious editors Mar 4, 2009

It is important to remember that officious proofreaders are bad proofreaders and that you should not allow yourself to be intimidated by them.

To be honest, I can say that it is tempting to show off a bit when you are asked to proofread or edit. You are in a powerful position, being able to criticise another translator's work. It is necessary to put the brakes on and remember that different ways of saying things come naturally to different people.

Having said that, I have just come across an example of a proofreader who was overdoing it. The translation was from a German agency but was from French into English. He criticised me for not translating the word "französisch" (French). This was the name of the file, given by the German agency. I replied, of course, that it would be wrong to change the name of the file and that the translation was from French to English, in any case. Obviously, the proofreader knew my other language was German but what if that have not been the case?

The editor was obviously looking for an opportunity to show who was boss and thought he had found one right away!

I personally think that this tendency towards officiousness can stem from low self-esteem and/or a home or family situation in which the proofreader is dominated by others.

"You don't need to take it out on me, mate!"

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Silvia Barra  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:43
English to Italian
+ ...
Same feeling Mar 4, 2009

rifkind wrote:
What happens is that aside from the occasional error, the editor feels it necessary (to justify his/her pay, maybe) to make a mass of style changes that makes the translation appear unprofessional. An example, on a certificate, I wrote the date "January 20, 2007"; the editior found it necessary to write "20th January 2007."

I really wish editors were given strict instructions and used the charts suggested by Maxim.

I think the same. I surely apologise if I make errors which I didn't notice (and we all make errors everyday, we are human being). But often I think that the "mistakes" found by editor are only a way to justify the editor's pay. What about synonimes, different phrase constructions and the like?
I think that charts and instructions would be of big help both for editors and for translators (they could better understand the nature of theri "mistakes").
As for the kind of translation mistakes, I agree with you Naraja.


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Niraja Nanjundan  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:13
German to English
Using style guides Mar 4, 2009

Thanks for all the replies so far.

Silvia Barra wrote:
I think that charts and instructions would be of big help both for editors and for translators

Using a style guide, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the Oxford Style Manual can be helpful sometimes. I know that publishers often have their own style sheets that editors have to follow, and I've heard that some translation agencies have them as well.

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Local time: 05:43
English to Serbian
+ ...
A useful typology Mar 4, 2009

Occasionally I get the task to assist with hiring a new translator or evaluate test translations for an agency.
For the last year or so, I have been using MelLANGE translation error typology and I think it is quite useful.

So mistakes in translation could include the following:
Content Transfer

Source Language Intrusion
Untranslated translatable
Too literal
Units of weight/measurement, dates and numbers

Target Language Intrusion
Translated DNT (Do-Not-Translate)
Too free

Wrong preposition

Inflection and Agreement

Terminology and Lexis
False sense
False cognate
Term translated by non-term
Inconsistent with glossary
Inconsistent with target text

Accents and diacritics
Incorrect case

Inconsistent with source text
Inappropriate for translated text type
Inconsistent within target text



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Laureana Pavon  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:43
Member (2007)
English to Spanish
+ ...

I wonder... Mar 4, 2009

...if those who criticize zealous editors do any editing/proofreading themselves.

If so, I'm curious to know whether you have you ever come across a translation you feel needs only "minor" changes, "minor" meaning merely correcting the occasional typo without making any changes that might not be considered absolutely necessary.

Thanks for your replies!

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Katalin Horváth McClure  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:43
Member (2002)
English to Hungarian
+ ...
The role of the editor - there are multiple points of view to consider Mar 4, 2009

I agree, there are overly zealous editors, and it is a pity if the agency does not have a way of curbing that behavior.

On the other hand, we need to look at things from the other side. Often times, the editor is the person ultimately responsible for the content passed on to the end client. This is true to agencies that do not pass back the editor's comments/changes to the translator to approve/reject, but instead, consider the editor's version final. We can debate whether this is a good method, but nonetheless, there are many agencies where this workflow is standard.

To be honest, I can say that it is tempting to show off a bit when you are asked to proofread or edit. You are in a powerful position, being able to criticise another translator's work.

From that point of view, I do not think being an editor is a "powerful position", it is in fact a heavy one, as the responsibility rests on the editor's shoulders. Responsibility for making choices when there are multiple ways of translating the same thing, responsibility for terminology, consistency, style, etc. etc. The weight of such decisions gets heavier if the client is not cooperating, for example does not provide reference material, glossaries, etc. - and, on top of everything, does not answer questions. (There is an article about such problems in the ATA Chronicle's latest issue- the title is "Pet Peeves of a technical translator" or something similar.)
In addition, translations can be high-risk material, such as medical or electrical/mechanical texts where safety is of utmost importance and lives are at stake. In such cases the client may REQUIRE the editor to be nitpicky and comment on every little thing that may cause misunderstanding. These are of course, special cases, but we should not forget about these if we are talking about editing/editors in general.

The ideal setup IMHO is where the translator and the editor work together, with an open line of communication, so differences of opinion can be discussed. I am happy to say that I have a few clients that recognize this and things go very well with them. Some agencies do not allow this, they prefer to have a Chinese wall between the people involved in the different steps of the translation process. If the PM's are competent and experienced, and there are predefined evaluation standards, this method can work, too.

Just my two cents...

PS. I forgot to answer to Laureana: Yes, I have seen translations that only needed minor changes. In fact, I think I have seen translations that were OK as they were, and I did not change anything. (This latter is true so far in the case of one translator that I have been working with for several years now.)

[Edited at 2009-03-04 15:18 GMT]

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Local time: 23:43
Member (2002)
French to English
+ ...

Beautiful translations Mar 4, 2009

I have a regular relationship, through an agency, with a translator whose work rarely requires more than a missing s or punctuation mark. Most times, my comment to the agency is: Not a change to make, be sure to keep this translator!


PS I don't understand proofreaders and editors who feel they are justifying their jobs by marking up a text. The job I describe above is justified, is it not? The agency can rest assured that a second pair of eyes found no errors. What's wrong with that?

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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:43
English to French
+ ...
Reviewing is tricky business Mar 4, 2009

In my opinion, reviewing is often misused in the translation industry. Most agencies send the translation to the reviewer, who gets the last word, and no further checking is performed after that. This is wrong, in my opinion. The translatpr should have the last word.

When I review other translators' work, I always consider that many of the issues I highlight are simply suggestions or triggers to get the translator to think over some of the choices they made during translation. In many cases, only about 20% of my highlights were genuine mistakes, and the other 80% were meant to help the translator to double-check whether the sentence blended in well with the context, was using the correct terminology and the correct style. This means that the page looks like there are ten mistakes on it, whereas there are only two mistakes in reality, the other eight corrections being only good-to-know information. These are NOT mistakes. Often, these highlights are only meant to teach the translator something that could help them become better at what they do. However, in order for this to work, the agency would need to send the reviewer's comments and corrections to the translator so that the translator can finalize it. Unfortunately, this is seldom what agencies do.

I have worked with a few agencies who always let the translator have the last word. I have worked both as translator and as reviewer with such agencies. These were great learning experiences and I have thanked several of the people who reviewed my work for teaching me new stuff. This method allows for translators and reviewers to work together instead of working against each other. This, in turn, triggers an exchange of knowledge that improves overall quality. Usually, such agencies are well aware that a copy that is full of red doesn't mean that the translation is mediocre.

In any case, where only the style is being corrected, I hardly ever consider that a mistake is in fact present.

Edit: When reviewing a translation that was produced using a CAT tool, I always like to use ApSic Comparator, because it creates a report of corrections (only the corrected segments are included and content that is fine is skipped altogether). I can then add codes (T for typo, G for grammar, S for style, etc.) to each correction, which allows both the client and the translator to see what portion of the corrections are genuine mistakes. This helps them to work faster and to assess the translator better - I wouldn't want to make a good translator seem bad! Then, the translator can use that information to target only genuine mistakes. I have used Comparator with several clients and most of these clients and their translators/reviewers found this was very efficient and gave a more accurate idea of how good the translator was. Some even told me they don't know how they managed without it.

[Edited at 2009-03-04 16:11 GMT]

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