Source text is terrible - what a translator shall do?
Thread poster: MariusV

MariusV  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:17
English to Lithuanian
+ ...
Apr 18, 2008

Hi folks,

I got into quite a bizzare situation. I confirmed a job from an "old good client" without analyzing the text first (I only took a glance, and from the first glance it appeared more or less OK).

However, the real things turn out when one starts the real work. And it turned out that the source text was translated into English by a non-native speaker from some other language text prepared by a non-linguist. Fairly speaking, it reminds me the well-known internet joke "How to bake a turkey" "Take 4 whisks of drinky; Turk the bastey; Whiskey another bottle of get; Stick a turkey in the thermometer" and similar.

I do not know what to do as the text in some places is even not possible to understand, let alone some logical nonsenses, and other things, which, if translated into the target language on the "as is" basis, would sound, to put it mildly, really bizzare (if the target readers of the target language read the target text, they might really think "this translator overworked and gone crazy or was totally drunk"). Well, I understand, you might say "best of all, my dearest colleague, is to take a good look into the source before confirming/accepting the job". OK, my mistake. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But this is a "post factum" situation already. And I wonder what shall I do. The volume of the job is ca. 10 000 words. It goes killing slow as I have to read the source text at least several times to TRY to understand (in most cases there is no luck for that at all) as to be able to relay all that into the target language. Could say "Hey, my dear client, I want to cancel this job as the source text is a complete nonsense" (once I translated a user manual of, probably, a kebab machine, but that machine was able to bake kebab from chocolate eggs). But the job is confirmed...Shall one "behave formally" on the principle "nonsense in - nonsense out"? From the formal side, one translates what he/she gets and no "unethical criticism" to the source text? Seems to be more or less a practical solution. But, fairly speaking, I do not like this option. What else? Ask the client MANY MANY questions and then he will have to ask his END CLIENT same many many questions with a possible response "Do whatever you think is the best"? Or to make a followup file after completion of the translation (having in mind that the volume of this "followup" file can be even bigger than the source text)? Any suggestions?

[Edited at 2008-04-18 00:54]


Marina Soldati  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:17
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Similar situation Apr 18, 2008

Hi Marius,

Does you client understand English? If she/he does, send her/him the file explaining the situation and ask her/him to read 500 words more or less. If she/he´s used to reading good English she/he´ll understand the problem and will ask his/her client to correct the source before translation.
It happened to me once. The source text was so badly written that I couldn´t understand even whole sentences. I told the PM, she told the client and the source text was re-written.



Katalin Horváth McClure  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 08:17
Member (2002)
English to Hungarian
+ ...
The same topic was discussed recently Apr 18, 2008

Take a look:


Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 06:17
English to Spanish
+ ...
Be honest Apr 18, 2008

Just be totally honest and tell your client that the source text stinks. As an ethical translator, your judgment is that it cannot be properly translated by you or by anyone because it cannot be properly understood, so you must reject the job.

If the client understands, fine. If not, you do not need them as a client.


Ken Cox  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:17
German to English
+ ...
with Henry Apr 18, 2008

I essentially agree with Henry here. Tell the client, as soon as possible, that you made a mistake and the quality of the text is so poor that you cannot reasonably be expected to produce a translation faithful to the original text (the source of the translation) and/or suitable for the intended use. If it's an 'old good client', they should understand.
As Marina suggested, sending the client a sample with comments on the major problems would be useful (and by the way, you might want to ask yourself whether your client looked at the text before accepting the job or sending it out...).
Of course, they may still want a translation, but in the end it should be clear to both parties (and to the end client) that the translation will be GIGO unless the end client provides a better source text.


Silvestro De Falco  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:17
Italian to English
+ ...
Warn the client and be prepared for the worst Apr 18, 2008

Recently I had to translate an English text written by a Japanese on the Japanese banking system.
I could not make head or tail of it because verbs were used at random and I did not know whether the institutions still existed or whether they were still operating under the original charter. That seriously undermined my ability to understand exactly who did what to whom, how, where, when and why.
The client - a banking organization that publishes a scholarly journal - was and is a very good one and saying no was out of the question. I told my contact - the official that manages operations - that the article was awful - and I told him before, during and after the translation. He sympathized.
It turned out that whan the article was sent to the economist and professor who acts as editor of the journal he kicked up a fuss and wouldn't hear any excuse: I should have known what was what.
I took the heat and moved on. I am still on excellent terms with the client.


John Cutler  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:17
Spanish to English
+ ...
3 easy steps Apr 18, 2008

This situation reminds me of one of those typical American situation comedies.

In the opening scene, a lie is told, for whatever reason, and that unleashes a series of events (usually telling more lies to try to cover up the first one) until the final scene in which the teller of the lie breaks down and tells the truth (usually saying something like, “I only told that lie in the first place to protect you”. The main characters hug and the screen fades to black as the end credits appear.

What does this have to do with your situation? I’m obviously not saying anyone has told any lies (that was just an analogy). If I were you, I’d skip to the final scene and come right out and be sincere with the agency. Be cooperative and sincere and tell them:

1. It’s your fault for not looking at the text carefully. (A simple apology shows respect for the other person and smoothes later dealings.)

2. Inform them that, in your opinion, the text as it is, is impossible to translate well.

3. Ask them for their opinion and tell them you’re willing to do the job but
only after receiving confirmation as to the client’s opinion about the text
and whether they believe you should continue working on it.

Never, ever, ever follow the GIGO method. Our end readers have absolutely no idea what the source text was like, but if they read the crappy translation resulting from a crappy source text, their only conclusion will be. “What a crappy translation. The translator stinks; don’t hire him again.” No one’s going to feel sorry for you in the end. You’re going to be the one who gets all the blame (justified or not).

Working with good “raw material” should be part of every translators own Quality Control methods. If you’re given sub-standard material to work with, it’s in your own and your end client’s interest to be pro-active and do something about it. Send it back the way any company would send back materials that don’t meet their standards. As I mentioned above, do it with a professional, cooperative attitude. Whether you have to take the heat or not, you'll save your own professional dignity and build a reputation for producing a quality product.


Cristiana Coblis  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:17
English to Romanian
+ ...
you should warn the client Apr 18, 2008

I had a similar experience last year with a technical translation consisting of a long series of strings. This was translated into English from German and then the client wanted to translate it from English to about 15 other languages.

I warned the client that the source text contained spelling errors and inconsistencies. Upon checking (as, apparently, the translation had not been revised), it turned out the errors were more serious and more extensive. The client had to revise the text, while the translations moved on, and then I received the new source text after revision - about 40% of the text was "new". Needless to say this was entirely a different job, an additional project and the client paid for the update separately. In the process, I can say that while I caught some of the errors in the source, many others escaped me for good reasons. It's not your job to correct, even mentally, errors in the source. This is a completely different type of service.

I would recommend to warn the client as soon as possible. Otherwise instead on doing the "corrections" on their expense, you will be doing them on your expense.

Best of luck.

[Editat la 2008-04-18 11:49]


Joan Berglund  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 08:17
Member (2008)
French to English
I know you don't want to make a good client unhappy Apr 18, 2008

Cristiana Coblis wrote:
I would recommend to warn the client as soon as possible. Otherwise instead on doing the "corrections" on their expense, you will be doing them on your expense.

Best of luck.

[Editat la 2008-04-18 11:49]

But although they will be unhappy if you tell them right now that the source text is too poor to work with, they will be even more unhappy if you struggle through it and submit an invoice for work that isn't usable. You on the other hand will work twice as hard as usual, and be left feeling that your usual rates are not even enough. Definately a lose-lose situation. I know it would have been better if you had seen the problem right away, although if is easy to understand how you could miss it if your clients are like mine. I have had clients call/email twice in the apparently outrageously self-indulgent 5-10 minutes I took to read over a 10,000 word document to see if I could meet their deadline, which does make it a little hard to concentrate!


liz askew  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:17
Member (2007)
French to English
+ ...
I agree with Henry Apr 18, 2008

Enough said.

You want to stay sane don't you?

Liz Askew


Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:17
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
There is an assumption Apr 20, 2008

MariusV wrote:
I got into quite a bizzare situation. I confirmed a job from an "old good client" without analyzing the text first (I only took a glance, and from the first glance it appeared more or less OK).

It is reasonable for a translator to assume (or to expect) that the text he gets from a client is print-ready in the source language. After all, a translator can't guess what the original author wanted to say (if he does guess, he might guess incorrectly, and that won't be the translator's fault).

So I think you have a duty to inform the client as soon as possible that the text is very badly written and that there is a real risk that the translation will be incorrect because you'd be forced to guess what the text says.

If the client says "go ahead and do your best" then you're covered -- just create a translation that reads nicely (accuracy irrelevant).


Maria Ramon  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 07:17
Dutch to English
+ ...
Get it in writing!.. Apr 21, 2008

Whatever you do, and especially if your client says to "just go ahead and do the best you can", get that in writing!

That is very important, so no one can say afterwards that they did not say so.

Good luck!


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Source text is terrible - what a translator shall do?

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