Illegible source documents
Thread poster: Jennifer Forbes

Jennifer Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:02
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Apr 7, 2016

In the last couple of weeks, agencies have been sending me source material much of which is illegible or semi-illegible - poorly photocopied PDF or JPG files, faint and scruffily handwritten answers to poorly photocopied standard forms, minuscule print, etc.
When I request legible source documents, the agency usually says the client can't provide better copies and urges me to "do your best with it". That's all very well, but it makes the work very slow. Also, if the translator inserts "illegible" too often, the result is pretty incoherent and I wonder how useful the "finished" translation will be.
Today, a PM rudely said he was perfectly able to read the 10 or so almost completely black JPG files he'd just sent me which looked as if they'd been inexpertly photographed on a student's wrinkled bedspread or tablecloth. He told me my computer must be faulty if I couldn't read them. Am I alone, or is this illegibility problem getting worse? Needless to say, I don't want to work for a PM who takes such an unhelpful attitude.
Rant ends.


Robert Forstag  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 10:02
Member (2003)
Spanish to English
+ ...
My take Apr 7, 2016

I would recommend that you make sure you carefully review each and every document you receive from this agency and on that basis determine if you want to take the work in question - and, if you do, under what terms.

I would personally charge some premium for any material that is difficult to read. In this regard, it is important to bear in mind that illegibility in and of itself is a disruptive factor that prolongs the translation process. (In other words, being able to mark text as "[illegible]" does not preserve the smooth flow of the translation process.)

And if the game isn't worth the candle, then I say the best choice would be to pass on these kinds of projects.

[Edited at 2016-04-07 16:43 GMT]


Jennifer Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:02
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Exactly, Robert Apr 7, 2016

Thank you, Robert. I have indeed "passed" on this job and I think that in future I'll propose an additional rate for any further illegible source material I'm offered, from this particular agency and from any others. The game certainly isn't worth the candle - or the two 100-watt bulbs focused closely on the printed pages!


TranslateThis  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:02
Spanish to English
+ ...
Eye strain Apr 7, 2016

Jenny Forbes wrote:
The game certainly isn't worth the candle - or the two 100-watt bulbs focused closely on the printed pages!

Not only do such files require more time, but straining your eyes might also be very costly in the long run. Last year I worked on a very long file of very poor quality (lots of scribbles and fading, difficult to decipher text), and I ended up having a terrible headache that lasted two days. My eyes were hurting, too. So, no it isn't worth it and if the documents are poorly photocopied or mostly illegible, I prefer to politely decline such offers.


Yasutomo Kanazawa  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:02
English to Japanese
+ ...
I simply decline those jobs Apr 7, 2016

I would never accept any jobs which are scanned PDFs with handwritings all over it.
About a week ago, I was asked to translate a marriage certificate, but I declined the job telling the PM that it is only half illegible (even the printed parts not to mention the handwritings).

The PM told me he would try to get a clearer copy, but that was the last time I heard from him.

I wouldn't charge extra for these kind of jobs. I simply decline them. It's not worht the hassle deciphering illegible handwritings and printed letters.

From my experience, birth and death certificates have the highest percentage of semi-illegible scanned PDF documents.


Anton Konashenok  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 16:02
English to Russian
+ ...
Charge in proportion to your time Apr 7, 2016

You can clearly explain to the PM that such work takes more time, so you have to charge propotionally more. You can either charge per hour (this way, it's guaranteed to be fair on you no matter how bad the original is) or impose a surcharge on your rate per word (makes negotiations with the PM more straightforward). I use the latter option, a 50% surcharge for handwritten originals, or proportionally less if only part of the document is handwritten.


The Misha
Local time: 10:02
Russian to English
+ ...
Rude PM? Apr 7, 2016

End of story for me. Right there and then. No other reason required.


Tina Vonhof
Local time: 08:02
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
+ ...
Sleep on it Apr 7, 2016

I do find that handwriting that I couln't read the first time sometimes becomes clear when I look at it again the next day or a couple of days later. It's as if my brain slowly becomes used to that handwriting. But in general, when (direct) clients approach me about a document, I tell them right away that I don't accept photographs or faxes but that I need legible PDFs or JPGs, and I give them some suggestions as to where they can get documents scanned.

[Edited at 2016-04-07 19:18 GMT]


United Kingdom
Local time: 15:02
Serbian to English
+ ...
try different screen settings Apr 7, 2016

"...perfectly able to read the 10 or so almost completely black JPG files"

there MIGHT be a grain of truth in it; try improving contrast / brightness / gamma correction of your screen and/or the lightning in the room - it might help;
also, with some photo-editing software you can manage to make legible something that looks like a black blob, BUT is it really something a translator should be wasting its time on?

otherwise I would agree with other colleagues' suggestions.


Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:02
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Ask the PM to read the text for you Apr 7, 2016

If the PM was rude, it is probably a hopeless case.

If you have to spend time fiddling with settings on your computer and your lighting, it is quite reasonable to charge for it, but agencies probably won't pay.

I don't have special software for that kind of thing, and it is NOT part of the normal service IMHO.

There are other methods. I once did a series of jobs for a client with difficult handwriting, but he was a distinguished designer, and he got away with not using a typewriter or computer. However, the agency charged his firm for my time as I called him and asked him to read the text aloud to me. Then I noted down the illegible sections and asked about terminology or anything else that was not clear.

Then I could translate fairly comfortably.

I do the same with marriage certificates, medical records or other source material - if I can't read it, I can't translate it, end of story.


Frank Zou  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:02
Member (2016)
Chinese to English
+ ...
Careful with your eyesight Apr 8, 2016

Your eyesight would be deteriorated if you did a lot of translation invovled in such kind of material. I'm telling this from my own experience. I don't know how many of you have the same eye problems as I do. Apart from myopia, I also suffer from what they call "floaters", as if some black mosquitos dancing in front of my eyes. Part of the cause I assume is that I spent too much time and eyesight on trying to tell all of those twisted characters and words. Ive decided to spend only necessary time in front of computer and never do any illegibles again.


Inga Petkelyte  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:02
Lithuanian to Portuguese
+ ...
Combined rate Apr 8, 2016

Last year, I did a similar job but I think it was in better conditions.
It was forms, in faded PDF, printed in Calibri 5 oor 6 to the best. I had to zoom to 200 to have something close to Calibri 10. Not all pages were like that, some were in Calibri 9.
With 9, I strained my eyes but sonehow managed to work with printed originals.
With those with size 5, there was no a way to manage to see anything when printed.
So I proposed to the PM: a usual page rate on the legible pages and an hourly rate for those illegible, since I had to swith all the time from the PDF on screen to the screen with my working document. And that is time consuming, of course. The PM agreed and we did so.
I heard that some of you work with two screens in such cases: is that really feasible?


Maxi Schwarz
Local time: 09:02
German to English
+ ...
Thoughts Apr 8, 2016

Yes to the question about whether the problem is on an increase. The answer is simple: People now have phones that can take pictures and they're used to hastily taking a snapshot. Usually it is less clear (more blurry) than a properly scanned document. A lot of people hold their camera at an angle so that you get a "study in perspective" - the near end is large, wider and clear, and the far end gets smaller and blurry. They will photograph a piece of paper that has creases or doesn't like flat, and you get distortions worthy of Salvador Dali. Or the lighting is uneven and strange.

With an end client I will ask them to provide a better quality copy and explain the reasons why. With an agency I will ask them to get the client to provide a better quality (and am surprised that this even needs to be explained). Most of the time the end client complies, and the agency has no problem with it. If the client says he can't, then I may refuse to do the translation, or warn the agency that there may be sections marked [illegible] and/or the client will be asked to check illegible words - an additional fee for difficulty / extra time spent, may apply.

My eyesight is important.

Clients often just don't think. An end client provided me with a better copy this week, explaining that he had been in a hurry, and had not thought about legibility. It happens. Until we walk in someone's shoes there are things we don't think about.


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