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How do I translate a poorly written source doc?
Thread poster: Anna Gates
Anna Gates
Spanish to English
+ ...
Jan 25, 2006

I am required to translate a long document that is very poorly written. Should I translate making corrections so at least the translated document makes sense or should I be true to the original?

Thanks for your insight


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Ford Prefect  Identity Verified
Burkina Faso
Local time: 14:42
German to English
+ ...
My take Jan 25, 2006

Your job is to enusure the document you write has the same effect (as far as possible) on its target audience as the original did on its target audience (assuming some similarity between the ST target audience and the TT target audience of course).

To this end, if the original is drivel, you should ensure that the target document is likewise drivel.

I would advise you to write a report for the client criticising the source document and indicating what is wrong with it - and point out that these problems have been copied professionally into the TT by yourself, thus both the TT and ST need amending. I have done just this many times myself.

Ultimately it isn't your responsibility to second guess what the client wants to say. If they have written drivel and are confident enough in their document to pay good money for a translation, you can safely assume they want drivel. Just make sure it is professionally produced drivel and that you can defend it against the ST.


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Todd Field  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 08:42
Member (2003)
Portuguese to English
Ask the customer Jan 25, 2006

That's probably the most practical route. You can't make a gourmet meal with Spam and Wonder Bread.

The probability of future misunderstandings is extremely high under these circumstances unless you communicate in advance with your customer. Explain the problem and ask them how they want you to proceed. That's the safest, most logical choice in my opinion.

Good luck!


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xxxBrandis
Local time: 16:42
English to German
+ ...
Pre-editing Jan 25, 2006

As Todd was saying, inform your client and offer initially pre-editing or re-writing. Best Brandis

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Cristóbal del Río Faura  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 16:42
English to Spanish
+ ...
Poorly written source Jan 25, 2006

I don’t think delivering an equally poorly written translation is an option for any translator. Rather that doing this, I would decline to do the job. Like Todd and Brandis, I think the best is to tell your client about the problem. And to ease things, I would perform a preliminary – and careful – reading to spot all those passages which could lead to misinterpretation, so that your client can ask clarification from the writer. Also, I would ask the client to take into account the extra work involved, which can be a lot in such cases.

Regards,
Cristóbal


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GoodWords  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 09:42
Spanish to English
+ ...
According to the purpose of the translation Jan 25, 2006

Clarify the purpose of the translation in consultation with the client. Then you can determine whether the client's needs require that the translation show the quality of the original, or that your services should include editing and rewriting (if you are prepared to offer them).

[Edited at 2006-01-26 17:21]


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 17:42
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
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How about email translations? Jan 26, 2006

That springs to mind when talking about badly written texts. I agree that one always should try to improve on the original, even when translating Shakespeare
but would you translate an email message which sounds rude when translated straight into a polite message according to the target culture?


Any ideas about that?

I agree, not typos even if the original is full of them.

Regards
Heinrich


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Ford Prefect  Identity Verified
Burkina Faso
Local time: 14:42
German to English
+ ...
Accuracte translation is true to the original Jan 26, 2006

What makes "improving on the original" a good translation?

"Improving" on the original is not good translation for several reasons, including:

(1) it countermands the client's desire for an accurate translation
(2) requires the translator to second-guess what the client really means rather than carrying out their instructions as faithfully as possible
(3) introduces an unnecessary level of discrepancy between source and target documents which could cause problems later
(4) introduces a real risk that you will make a material error in interpreting
(5) is indefensible in the event the client complains about the accuracy of the translation.

As translators we may well have a better feel for the use of language than clients, but this does not entitle us to rewrite the document according to what we think the client might like.

Accuracy and style are paramount - this includes accurately translating inaccuracies and writing poor style TT passages when the ST is in poor style.

Nonetheless I definitely recommend contacting the client as soon as possible if there are real problems in the document.


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Iza Szczypka  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 16:42
English to Polish
+ ...
Purpose is the essential Jan 26, 2006

I'd also check with the customer the purpose of the translation. If the customer needs to see the quality of the text, of course you translate it as is. If, however, the customer needs a well-written booklet/manual in the target language, just tell him this would involve editing (at extra charge).

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Jo Macdonald  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 16:42
Member (2005)
Italian to English
+ ...
An unreadable original is someone else’s work, a readable translation is mine. Jan 26, 2006

Hi Anna,
If there are parts of a doc I’m unsure about, I create a Control doc with the terms/phrases that are unclear. I’ll include my suggested translation, then ask the client for confirmation to make sure that particular translation is ok for that particular term/phrase, or explanations as to what the original means if my suggestions aren’t suitable.
This way you have your client’s ok for any parts open to interpretation now and in the future.

In this doc you can also point out what you think may be errors in the original, so the client has the chance to revise it. It takes no time at all and can easily get you more work in the future.

I really don’t agree that you can just translate drivel into drivel. If it’s a tech manual for example there’s a good chance someone could get very badly hurt if a manual in any language tells them to do the wrong thing, or it’s unclear what they should do. I really wouldn’t submit a translation that could lead to those sorts of incidents.

If the original reads like it was written on acid or makes no sense at all, I would definitely consider refusing to translate it, and/or working for an hourly rate because if you do wade through it, at the end of the day it could have easily taken you 2-3 times longer than with a good source.

If the client doesn’t care about the quality of the original or the translation, I would really not be interested in working with them.


[Edited at 2006-01-26 09:41]


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Ford Prefect  Identity Verified
Burkina Faso
Local time: 14:42
German to English
+ ...
Errors in technical documents Jan 26, 2006

Jo Macdonald wrote:
If it’s a tech manual for example there’s a good chance someone could get very badly hurt if a manual in any language tells them to do the wrong thing, or it’s unclear what they should do. I really wouldn’t submit a translation that could lead to those sorts of incidents.


I have come across this very problem in medical documents. My policy is to translate what is there, and submit a report which contains a description of the problem, an assessment of how important it is (this can vary between trivial and life/death situation), and if appropriate a proposed correction to both the ST and TT. What I cannot do for the client is decide that their original must definitely be wrong. If it is wrong, they have to change the original anyway, so it would we wrong of me to "correct" the translation and then say nothing about what I have done and why.


If someone injures themselves because I faithfully translated something that was wrong, their beef is with the original writer - not me, If they injure themselves and it can be shown there are big departures between the ST and TT (wherever they are) and I did not inform the client that I had "improved" the translation, I could be considered at fault.

A recent example was related to a medicines regulatory application. A letter had a passage where the author had clearly been editing and rewriting furiously, and forgotten to check through. Vital information was omitted (regarding the actual decision) - the whole paragraph was garbled. So, I wrote something with coresponding (non)sense, pointed out there was a huge problem and that nothing should be inferred from it beyond what was written. Had I been minded to "improve" the translation, making it (1) readable and (2) sensible, I would have had to put words in this person's mouth. I as translator do not have the authority to do this.


If the client doesn’t care about the quality of the original or the translation, I would really not be interested in working with them.


That sounds like a fair policy to me. In practice, most documents I get sent are pretty high quality. Where there are mistakes, (rather, what I consider to be mistakes), these always go back to the client in the report (and I write a report on almost every translation I undertake). Ultimately, the client needs to take responsibility for their document being accurate before it is sent for translation. I will not knowingly introduce a material discrepancy between the ST and TT.

[Edited at 2006-01-26 10:09]

[Edited at 2006-01-26 10:12]


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Ford Prefect  Identity Verified
Burkina Faso
Local time: 14:42
German to English
+ ...
I should add... Jan 26, 2006

Often as not, the client is not even the author of the document being translated - this was the case in my above example.

If someone bought a reciprocating sprocketulator in Germany and wants the German manual in English, there is no way I can discuss errors in the manual with the client and ask them to rewrite the original! All I can do is point out my reservations with the document.


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Cristóbal del Río Faura  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 16:42
English to Spanish
+ ...
Unusable translation? You better don't do it Jan 26, 2006

James Visanji DipTrans PhD wrote:

If someone bought a reciprocating sprocketulator in Germany and wants the German manual in English, there is no way I can discuss errors in the manual with the client and ask them to rewrite the original! All I can do is point out my reservations with the document.


So eventually, what does your client get? A reciprocating sprocketulator bought in Germany, a manual in German which he does not understand, a manual in English which he does not understand, and a report stating your reservations with the document.

Sincerely, I think we as translators should be able to do something else for the money we earn, once we accept such an assignment.

Regards,
Cristobal


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Ford Prefect  Identity Verified
Burkina Faso
Local time: 14:42
German to English
+ ...
What's your practical suggestion then? Jan 26, 2006

Not quite - the client will get a manual in English that they can understand as well as a German is able to understand the German version.

In practice though, what do you do when translating a document for a client who does not own the original document, and find a patch of nonsense buried deep in the document? Do you try to second-guess what was supposed to be there? Do you write something you think might fit? Do you leave it out altogether? Do you produce a strictly literal translation?

I wouldn't dare put new words in my client's mouth, or bluff through a passage of nonsense and pass it off as an acurate tanslation - it could expose me to all manner of liabilities as well as being fundamentally dishonest and misrepresentative of the ST.

The way I deal with it - to translate what is there and make sure the client knows there is a problem is both accurate and safe, and provides the best outcome for the client, unless you have a better suggestion.

Granted if it isn't their own document, they have a bigger headache than if it is - I'm sorry about that but I'm not going to cure their headache by cutting off their head (i.e. supplying an "augmented" translation and pretending nothing is wrong). If there is bad news about a translation I will tell it.

[Edited at 2006-01-26 12:31]


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Ana Cuesta  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 16:42
Member
English to Spanish
It doesn't have to be black or white Jan 26, 2006

I think we should differentiate various instances. Poor style I wouldn't reproduce unless I was required to keep as close to the source as possible (for example, for patents or generally texts with legal implications). I wouldn't be doing a service either to the client (who normally wants a pig's ear turned into a silk purse, poor style is becoming the norm rather than the exception these days) or to myself (writting poorly on purpose seems almost masochist to me, since it would be more time-consuming and less satisfying). As for factual errors/omissions, I normally bring them to the attention of the client in a list of queries so the ball is in their park (and so they can correct the source document too): if they give me permission, I correct the error in my translation; if not, up to them (but I make sure I keep proof that I warned them). And I can still envisage in-between cases where, say a word was ommited but no other word could go there, in which case I just add it with no remorse... We are professionals after all and should ideally be able (and allowed) to use our best judgement to see what level of action, if any, is needed/appropriate in each case.

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