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Ghost-writer or translator?
Thread poster: John Cutler

John Cutler  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 04:00
Spanish to English
+ ...
May 4, 2007

 I work alone and so don’t get much opportunity to compare notes with other translators. One thought that has occurred to me several times recently is that I feel that I often times have to ghost-write for some of the work I do. I’ve heard of the GIGO theory (Garbage in – Garbage out) but when I read a text that’s quite poorly written in the original language, I can’t bring myself to translate it as it was written. I’m not talking about literal vs. figurative translation. It’s more like the original author’s thoughts weren’t clearly expressed or were poorly worded. It seems to me that the translation ends up being as much of a re-write as of a translation. Is this something common? Am I over stepping the bounds of a translator’s work? I’d appreciate other people’s thoughts on the subject.

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Heidi C  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:00
English to Spanish
+ ...
It's common - more than what you would like!! May 4, 2007

When translating, there is a lot of Garbage In!!!

Badly written texts, including spelling not only syntax...

As a translator, you try to do the best you can. Just as you would not "translate" a spelling mistake, you cannot maintain evident errors in the translated text.

Of course, this does not mean that the translator adds to, interprets, explains or corrects the CONTENT of the text. It is rather a case of proofreading and editing, with the final result being written in another language.

The truth is that in a lot of cases, the translated text is much clearer and better written that the original...


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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 03:00
Dutch to English
+ ...
GIGO May 4, 2007

Hi John,

I know exactly what you mean, I see it the minute I move away from my heavy legal into more general business texts.

Not that all legal source texts are well written, many lawyers could do a lot to polish their drafting skills, but for the most part those I receive are well drafted.

i agree with what Heidi says, we tend to go one step further than many source authors because we proofread and/or edit, i.e. we are perhaps more fine-tuned to the need to deliver a polished product.

But there's also a fine line we can't cross, no matter how tempting - it's a very interesting point you've raised here. I'm looking forward to reading what others say.

Have a good weekend
Deborah

[Edited at 2007-05-04 14:00]


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xxxmediamatrix
Local time: 00:00
Spanish to English
+ ...
Like everything in this business, it all depends on context. May 4, 2007

When I worked as an in-house fre-eng translator, around half the texts published in my employer's prestigeous technical journal were originated in French - or something resembling French, written often by Spaniards, Italians, etc.

My job was to deliver English fit for publication, bearing in mind that the journal was read mostly by readers having English only as a second, third, ... nth language. We also published in French, so once the English had been translated to our editor's (and my) satisfaction, we (he, actually, as he was French) went back and adjusted the French to match the English.

We applied exactly the same process to materials originated by native French-speakers, and although a few complained that we had 'messed up' their perfectly good French, we usually managed to placate them with explanations of why and how their source text was inadequate for publication to a multi-lingual readership.

The key point here is that the 'context' was a collective desire on the part of authors and the organization to facilitate the understanding of the published articles by non-native readers - since they, not the authors, paid our salaries and the authors' fees in the form of subscriptions to the publication.

MediaMatrix


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CristinaPereira  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:00
Member (2005)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Same here May 4, 2007

It happens a lot, as the others said, and sometimes I have a lot of trouble trying to work out what the author meant in the source text to make it sound well in the target text. Because this type of mistakes are not always that evident. Once I even advised some corrections to the client (it was a bilingual brochure) and in the end he thanked me... So, what can you do?

But these things don't happen ALL the time, so let's just have hope!

A suggestion to Proz: a translation contest of badly written source text. Now, that would be a challenge! Translating properly the original mistakes into the target text Just kidding...

A nice weekend to everybody,

Cristina


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Alan R King
Local time: 04:00
Basque to English
+ ...
Traduttore, traditore? May 4, 2007

I often think to myself (I also work alone, so rarely have people around me to share such thoughts with) that it is precisely the other way round: the worst betrayal I could exercise on some translation clients would be to ACTUALLY translate what the texts they give me say as they stand!

So I agree with you and everyone else here. In fact, I think that in the approach I take to translating myself (rightly or wrongly; any comments?), it is virtually impossible for me to reflect many such flaws in the source text, because my process is to read the text, UNDERSTAND what it is INTENDING to EXPRESS, and do my best to EXPRESS the same thing as a native speaker of the target language would when INTENDING for a native-target-language-speaking audience to UNDERSTAND the same thing - while of course using the source text as a model for the actual formulation of the target text ONLY TO THE EXTENT THAT I CAN DO THAT WITHOUT COMPROMISING THE COMMUNICATIVE EFFICACY OF THE RESULT. Put more briefly, loyalty to the original (intended) idea comes first; faithfulness to the formal attributes of the source text, a far-off second. I suppose you could say I try to get "into the head (and heart?)" of the original author - not into her pen!

Is that the proper approach? Is it professional? Is it too risky? Is it what the customer wants and expects? Do you think most customers even KNOW what they want and expect? Rarely, I'd say. My answer is that I'm still waiting to see if any customer complains - none has. (There was one possible exception, many years ago, and it wasn't a real end-client but an employee of a translation agency I was trying to work for and had done one of those test translations for. He told me my translation wasn't literal enough. I never did any work for them - NOT a problem.)

I don't see an ethical problem in this. What I do see in it, at times, is undue exploitation of the translator. After all, on many occasions we're doing two jobs for the price of one, and the true value of our efforts and skills are very rarely fully appreciated, I feel. And that is unfair.

Alan


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John Cutler  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 04:00
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
The line May 4, 2007

Lawyer-Linguist wrote:

But there's also a fine line we can't cross, no matter how tempting -


That's one of the things I'd like to know: where is the line and how do you know if you've crossed it or not?

I suppose what I'm thinking is that if I don't "improve" the original text it will reflect on me. Someone who only sees my translation and not the original could think, "Wow, what a lousy translator this guy is. Look at how badly written the text is." I don't want to be an accomplice after the fact.


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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 03:00
Dutch to English
+ ...
No clear cut answer ... May 4, 2007

But to try and nail it down to one (bearing in mind I'm not a theorist, this is just my rule of thumb):

If by improving the original text - even if your target language is faultless - you no longer convey, lose any of or add to the original message in that process, you've crossed the line.

If you retain all of the original message but have produced a far more readable text in the process because you just happen to have superior writing skills, I'd say you haven't crossed the line, you've in fact done a excellent job.

I know exactly where the "line" is in legal because I'm a lawyer, but it's not always as easy with other texts, especially if the source text is overly pretentious for the sake of it. That can be a problem sometimes in Portuguese, for example, which tends to be a bit flowery, whilst Dutch is far more direct, economical and sometimes quite abstract by comparison. You have to see beyond all that to reach something that works in English (just using my language pairs as an example)

But it all still boils down to the same thing - the message and, as mediamatrix says, context

Hope this makes sense, I'm at the end of a sleep-deprived week and my ability to express myself has gone for a loop right now
Debs



[Edited at 2007-05-04 16:31]


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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 03:00
Dutch to English
+ ...
Nice one Alan! May 4, 2007

Alan R King wrote:

I often think to myself (I also work alone, so rarely have people around me to share such thoughts with) that it is precisely the other way round: the worst betrayal I could exercise on some translation clients would be to ACTUALLY translate what the texts they give me say as they stand!


This one put a wry smile on my tired face


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Patricia Rosas  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:00
Spanish to English
+ ...
same experience ... glad to know I have company! May 4, 2007

Lawyer-Linguist wrote:

If by improving the original text - even if your target language is faultless - you no longer convey, lose any of or add to the original message in that process, you've crossed the line.

If you retain all of the original message but have produced a far more readable text in the process because you just happen to have superior writing skills, I'd say you haven't crossed the line, you've in fact done a excellent job.

Debs



[Edited at 2007-05-04 16:31]


I just want to add my "ditto" to what everyone has said--especially this good rule of thumb (above) from Lawyer-Linguist. Whenever possible, I try to communicate with the author. That way, if I have a good idea ("let's add this!" "let's cut that!"), I can get formal permission to make the change.

But it all takes so much longer than it does when working with a well written text. Sometimes I feel abused...


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Parrot  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 04:00
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Ditto May 4, 2007

Alan R King wrote:

I often think to myself (I also work alone, so rarely have people around me to share such thoughts with) that it is precisely the other way round: the worst betrayal I could exercise on some translation clients would be to ACTUALLY translate what the texts they give me say as they stand!
....

Is that the proper approach? Is it professional? Is it too risky? Is it what the customer wants and expects? Do you think most customers even KNOW what they want and expect? Rarely, I'd say. My answer is that I'm still waiting to see if any customer complains - none has.


If, in a day's work, a good interpreter actually makes a speaker look better than he was, and a good editorial board cut up a transcript to be more coherent than it actually sounded, I don't see why the garbage can't be recycled...

2 cents.


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Stephen Rifkind  Identity Verified
Israel
Local time: 05:00
Member (2004)
French to English
+ ...
Sometimes they expect it! May 5, 2007

I just completed translating a mass of short documents on diving from French to English that is intended to be part of a a website. Usually, I do legal translation. I applied the same "philosophy" and did an accurate translation. The client was very upset. Unknown to me, he expected me to turn the original into a marketing document, which it was not.

What have I learned from this experience: Talk with the customer thoroughly before taking on projects. Don't assume that that they just want a translation.

Stephen Rifkind


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Iza Szczypka  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 04:00
English to Polish
+ ...
On the other hand ... May 5, 2007

Even though I agree with what was said above, I remember two exceptions to the general practice.
One was translation of a letter from a home-made inventor to an industry giant, proposing cooperation. Polishing it would be IMHO a misrepresentation of the author, so I refrained - just to be honest to the reader.
Another case was a consecutive interpreting job. The parties were the town mayor and some representatives of a company invited to act as the Project Engineer in a huge municipal investment project, so long-term contacts were in view. The mayor was an elegant lady with a sound background in economics, who however was renowned for her 'very straightforward' manner of speaking. After a quarter or so of attempting to interpret her statements into the standard business language, she asked the other party for a break and used it to preach the two interpreters present with an aside like "I can see that you're not interpreting accurately as they have not moved a hair so far. It's not what I'm paying you for! I want to stir and you're preventing it! Either you start doing your job correctly or ..." Needless to say, we complied ... which made the job twice harder as the discussion grew iron-hot - which in itself was quite an accomplishment with the other party including cold-blooded Scandinavian accountants and legal advisors And they did cooperate successfully, after all ...


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lingomania
Local time: 13:00
Italian to English
It happens quite often May 6, 2007

I'm in a position where I can fairly choose the work I have to translate so this means that any poorly written or expressed text will be promptly refused by me. It's the best way to avoid ghost-writing or tedious tampering with the original text. I mean, we ARE translators and not WRITERS. To each his own.

Rob


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