Are translators supposed to rewrite a bad original text to a new better text when translating?
Thread poster: Maximera

Maximera  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:47
English to Swedish
+ ...
May 12, 2003

Dear collegues,

I\'m wondering, is a translator supposed to rewrite a bad original text when translating it? I have always worked with the principal that if the original text is of poor quality it is not my job to rewrite the material and make it good, i.e. changing content, writing style etc. If they want a rewrite I can act as an editor if they want me to cut, add or change the text. Am I wrong to assume that editing is not the translator\'s job? Don\'t get me wrong, I always try to improve an original text, but only to an extent. I try not to alter vocabulary-choices, content, writing-style etc. I agree with a previous poster on a similar posting that a text should should look and sound as if the original author had written it in the target language. A text should not \"sound/ read as if it is translated\" but how far should, or could, a translator go when translating?

P.s. a client of mine made significant rewriting of my finished translation and then complained about my work. He made significant changes to content, style, etc. The text I translated was from Swedish to English.

How much do you change or add when you translate?

Thanks for any feedback.


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GoodWords  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:47
Spanish to English
+ ...
Customer service May 12, 2003

Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to provide customer service. If the customer is served by an improvement in the text, then go right ahead.

There are circumstances where the client is not served by an improvement in the literary quality of the text. Some examples include:

1) when speed and low price are more important to the client than a polished text. This sometimes happens, for example, if the translation is for information only.

2) When the badness of the text is essential information that needs to be conveyed to the reader of the translation. This sometimes happens, for example, if the purpose of the translation includes evaluating the writing ability of the author of the source text.

How do you know? By asking about the purpose of the translation.

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Pamela Peralta  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:47
English to Spanish
+ ...
You know... May 12, 2003

I remember that back in translating school I was taught to polish the text (when needed) before translating it, but back then I didn\'t think I was going to be translating pages and pages of poorly written technical reports (written by engineers).

Then I start thinking, what about the people who’s going to read this document, don’t they deserve to know the writing skills of the person who wrote that particular report? But if I left it like that they would probably blame it on the translator.

To polish each report is a whole different job that takes time, I know. What I do now is read the whole sentence, fix it in my head and start IS a pain but it has to be done.


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xxxMarc P  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:47
German to English
+ ...
Content and message May 12, 2003

It depends largely upon the type of text you are translating.

In some types of text, you can give priority to the message at the expense of content. An advertising text, for example, is supposed to sell a product. It is not likely to be much use if you preserve country-specific content.

At the other end of the extreme, in legal texts for example, the content is all-important. The content must be preserved such that the text itself presents the message, and not you, the translator. At least, that\'s how I perceive it, but personally I find this immensely diffucult to do, which is why I generally give legal texts a wide berth.

It is seldom the case, though, that bad style must be preserved. If a legal text is ambiguous, even unintentionally so, then arguably you should preserve that ambiguity. But in the majority of cases, the more clearly you can communicate what your author intended - which is not necessarily what might be understood by what he wrote - the better.

Regardless of the kind of text you are translating, I don\'t see how you can possibly translate without changing the style and the vocabulary. That\'s what a different language is about. Bruce Willis doesn\'t get paid for sounding like Steven Spielberg.

Generally, the better the style of my final text, the happier I am. I can\'t envisage deliberately preserving bad style, except in very contrived examples.

The content is more difficult. I often find that content, particularly country-specific content, is meaningless as it stands; it either requires further elaboration, or should be omitted. The solution is simple: inform the customer of the alternatives (or make a decision, and inform him of what you have done).

As to a customer changing your work, consider yourself as a consultant, and the customer as the one who is paying for your advice. Whether he follows it is up to him.


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Rafa Lombardino
United States
Local time: 08:47
Member (2005)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
As a journalist... May 12, 2003

... I can\'t help myself when I\'m trapped in a situation like this. So I always end up \"polishing\" the text a little bit.

But, if the text is way out there, with grammar errors and wrong constructions, if it\'s going to be a pain-in-the-neck kind of trouble, I let the client know that it needs some editing.

Of course you may be at great risk if you tell your client that the writing style is bad, specially if your client is the author ;o) . But it\'s always good to offer your services as an editor (if you\'re used to it) or let the client know you\'ll add your proofreading charges to the bill.

What you have to avoid is presenting the final literal translation with term misuses or complicated/confusing sentence constructions (even if true to the original poor text) and see your client hiring an editor/proofreader afterwards to trash your hard work.

Good luck!

[ This Message was edited by: Rafamach on 2003-05-12 20:31]

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Maximera  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:47
English to Swedish
+ ...
Thank you all I would love to get more responses! May 12, 2003

Thank you for your feedback.

From what I gather, a translator has more of an artistic license than I previously thought when it comes to translating a text and its content. All translators aim to write good translations, of course, but how do you know when you are stepping over the line when \'improving\' on a text?

Am I right to assume that it is only the final product that counts, and that if all translations are done correctly there would be no bad texts out there, only texts transformed into good ones with the help of translation? I\'m just trying to understand how far I should stretch when it comes to improving a text. I agree with the examples given by the first poster on when one should keep bad text in the translation, but are those really the only times? Does everyone rewrite/ edit their source material?

And also: How often does anyone contact the author/agency before translating and recommend they improve the text?

Thanks again!

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Steffen Pollex  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:47
English to German
+ ...
I wouldn't do it May 12, 2003

Your responsibility is to translate what you are provided with by your customer. When you get involved with the original too much you may miss the deadline.

I always try to act in a way that I tell the client where the original would need improvement. But I don\'t think we are entitled to change the originals we receive. It\'s simply not our job, unless it\'s proofreading.

I think that, once the client expects a decent translation, he should take care of proividing a decent original. Educate your clients, otherwise you may soon end up with double work for half the amount, in case the client will then expect you to polish the original and to translate all at once for the price of translation only.

And remember that you may also misinterpret certain things when changing the original at your discretion. This may cause even more misunderstandings, the more, if the original is a poor one.

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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 09:47
English to Spanish
+ ...
All good suggestions and more May 12, 2003

All the opinions expressed are good ones and need to be taken into account. With all this you will be in fine shape.

My practice is that when I am doing a document that is being GENERATED by my client, then I ask for license to polish my translations and adjust them so the reader so that the reader is getting the best possible product that best serves my client\'s intentions.

Once I ask for that license it is gratefully granted. Accomplishing the above is then just part of the translation process and it takes me no longer to do than a faithful but deficient rendering of a deficient original.

If I find material errors I mention them and consult, but I only make adjustments (such as figures) etc. with clearance from the client.

If you are in a situation with an agency in the middle, then this process is not always so simple. Sometimes you just have to do it as it is because there is no communication.

With documents that are already generated, your only choice is to do them as is, and point out material errors or inconsistencies by using notes, plus perhaps an overall note to explain poor writing, bad grammar, omissions, etc. that are the original writer\'s fault so they do not blame it on you, the translator.

The best of all worlds is to have a close relationship of trust with your client. If not, you are a limited in what you can do.

But do not be afraid to assert yourself as needed.

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Russian to German
+ ...
I agree with Henry Hinds. May 13, 2003

I usually inform the client about low quality of the original and ask for his/her permission to rewrite. In most cases then, the client (agencies would aks their clients) would give permission to rewrite it at a certain extra fee.

All the best,


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Jane Lamb-Ruiz  Identity Verified
French to English
+ ...
Depends, depends, depends May 13, 2003

Bad original/good target

Information theory, at its simplest, posits a SENDER, a RECIPIENT, a CHANNEL and a MESSAGE. Depending on the context, you clean up a text. FOR EXAMPLE, IF it\'s a business doing marketing, obviously you want to correct the mistakes and make a pretty text.

BUT, if the message is aimed at a courtroom, and the original is POOR, you wouldn\'t want to make it pretty. SEE what I mean?

The ethics of this are not so simple as they appear to be. It depends on whom the target audience is and FOR WHOM you are doing the translation. Many permutations are possible.



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Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:47
German to English
Sometimes you have to add a note May 13, 2003

There have been a number times when I\'ve come across text that makes no sense at all, for example where the original author (or editor) has used only part of boilerplate text (in German), leaving out the verb or the separable prefix, thus leaving the meaning of the text in doubt. Recently I saw a list of worksteps, then a final instruction which says \"Under no circumstances perform the above\" There\'s obviously something missing. In such instances I add a translator\'s note indicating that the original text is defective, and there\'s no way I can guess at the author\'s intention.


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sylver  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:47
English to French
Some thoughts Jun 11, 2003

I would consider there is three kinds of defective originals:
1. Originals whose meaning is clear and grammar/spelling poor
2. Original whose meaning is not clear.
3. Both of the above.

For 1 above, no problem. Perform the translation at your best level, and if the original is meant to be used too (if it has not yet been to press, ...) hint the customer that he may want to have the doc checked. Fixing the source is not your job. Pointing out a few mistakes is fine as a courtesy. Over 5 severe mistakes per 1000 words, I would assume that all one should do would be to list some, and explain to the customer that there are to many mistakes for you to list. Up to him if he wants the text to be proofread, but that's a different job.

For 2, if it is ambiguous, then by definition, you are not *sure* what the autor means and it would be dangerous to try to patch it up without knowing what the text means. If the text is technical, that could mean *accidents* for which you may be liable. A definite NO, NO! Make a detailled report on each instance and ask for clarification. If that represent too much work, contact your customer and inform him that either the document must be rewritten by a competent writer. This YOU can not do alone, because you do not have the elements needed to do it. Same for 3.

Bottom line is that these jobs will always take too much time and you will seldom be paid for it, so try to avoid them. Beside, you are never fully satisfied with it.

Recently, I spent 10 hours trying to make my way through 600 words of nonsense and I felt for shit afterward.

It's not worth it, even at 0.14! I rather have a decent original at 0.08 anytime.

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