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Should the translator improve the original text?
Thread poster: Maria Arruti

Maria Arruti  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 07:10
Member (2012)
French to Spanish
+ ...
Jun 4, 2012

I would like to share with you a recent experience of mine. While translating a text I came across two juxtaposed sentences that were semantically related. Unlike in the original text, I decided to insert a conjunction between them, just to make the text more legible to the reader. When I received the feedback of the proofreader, he said that the translator must not improve the original.

Do you agree with him?

When the original text is purposely written in a poor style it is evident that the translator must keep that style, but this is not the case (I am translating a book about statistics that is aimed at university students).

Any opinion will be welcome!

Maria


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Paula Hernández
United Kingdom
Local time: 06:10
English to Spanish
+ ...
Not the original Jun 4, 2012

Unless you are asked to do it and then you should charge this work accordingly. But if you are only given a translation job, you should focus on your translation, of course, making it sound natural in your language. In the end, the client might face a better written text in the translation than in the original!

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David Wright  Identity Verified
Austria
Local time: 07:10
German to English
+ ...
I do this all the time Jun 4, 2012

There are almost bound to be errors in the original text, no one's perfect, and I always make sure the English is correct (and notify the client if there seems to be a need - not always, since the original is often never used as such apart from serving as the basis for a translation).

Nor is it necessarily the case that the original text is badly written - it's often that the style rules vary between languages. In particular, it seems perfectly acceptable to write long series of very short sentences in German that just sound childish in English (and are often without the conjunctions that are needed in English to make the text coherent). I always put these into good English. I've never had a customer complain.


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 13:10
Chinese to English
Completely erroneous understanding of what translation is Jun 4, 2012

As David says, in the course of translating from one language to another, you often have to add or take away conjunctions, shift words and phrases.

[Actually, I'm not a fan of this Darbelnet-style talk of "shifts", because it implies that you "start from" a translation in which the words correspond one-to-one with the source text. You don't. You write directly in your target language.]

If your proofreader thinks that the addition or subtraction of a single conjunction is a "change", then your client is an idiot.

On the other hand, sometimes a single conjunction can be very important; they can carry a lot of meaning. If you change the meaning of a text by changing the conjunctions, then you need to be sure that the client will accept it. Often clients do - they know their writing isn't perfect, and they are happy to receive a well-written translation. But they may have reasons for wanting a very literal translation.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 07:10
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Theory and practice Jun 4, 2012

Maria Arruti wrote:
While translating a text I came across two juxtaposed sentences that were semantically related. Unlike in the original text, I decided to insert a conjunction between them, just to make the text more legible to the reader. When I received the feedback of the proofreader, he said that the translator must not improve the original.


On theory and practice

In theory, the translator should never improve the original unless the translator regards himself as a partner in the authoring process and not simply an adapter of the original. However, this theory applies mostly to literary texts that have already been published, in which the translator can be certain that the original author had already made the best text possible, and that anything that seems imperfect is actually intended as such.

In practice, however, many texts we translate are not 100% perfect, and even if they are regarded as such by the authors, we tend to see things that the author and his editor may have missed, because of the fact that we read the text more analytically. The translator is in an ideal position to make small improvements to the text without altering the meaning. These improvements should really not alter the meaning at all, though. Combining or splitting sentences, splitting or joining paragraphs, adding extra breaks in dialogue, etc all improve the text without actually altering the meaning or the way that the text will be interpreted by the reader. You don't *have* to make those changes but it is your right to do so.

On merging and splitting of sentences

In your case, you changed two sentences into a single sencence, and that may something that is related to the usual writing style of the source versus the target language. My source language tends to have long sentences strung together with "and", and my target language tends to have short sentences, so when I translate I often break up these long sentences into shorter ones. That is not called "altering" or "improving" the text, but simply "translating" it from the common source text style to the common target text style.

In fact, my source language has a certain logic that does not exist in my target language, so in some cases I not only split a sentence but also alter the sequence of premises in a logical argument, to suit the target language. The translation *means* the same thing, though. In fact, had I not made those changes it could be argued that the translation fails to mean what the source text author intended it to mean.

The proofreader's superstition

There may be a valid reason for the proofreader to ask that sentences should not be merged or split (e.g. if CAT is involved in some or other way, or if the text needs to remain compatible with some other format e.g. Excel), but your proofreader's comment about "improving the text" makes me wonder if this is a proofreader who believes the superstition that you can't merge and split sentences. You'll find such people in the most unexpected places -- one of ones I unearthed was the examiner of a translation accreditation test who "failed" my tranlsation primarily becaue I turned three source sentences into two target sentences (thereby causing a "missed" sentence).




[Edited at 2012-06-04 12:53 GMT]


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Maya Fourioti  Identity Verified
Greece
Local time: 08:10
Member (2010)
English to Greek
+ ...
In practice Jun 4, 2012

What I usually do is ask the client first.I spot the problem on the source text, give the alternative and wait for them to decide. I had to face this problem quite recently with a bilingual guidebook I was asked to translate .The publishing house agreed to this.Therefore I was asked to edit the source text, they accepted the changes and then I translated.It took me twice as much but they were nice with extra payment and a bonus!
I must admit they showed much understanding and support and, what's more, expressed their gratitude for my suggestions and 'valuable" contribution to the improvement of the book.


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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 06:10
French to English
+ ...
Decide if their premise is actually true, and highlight? Jun 4, 2012

Maria Arruti wrote:
When I received the feedback of the proofreader, he said that the translator must not improve the original.

Do you agree with him?


I would broadly agree that on the whole, *major* stylistic improvements should probably be seen as additional editing beyond the task of translation. However:
- things are obviously not so well defined-- part of what a client may be paying you for in some cases is that they like your particular style of writing and so a "translation" job is inherently also something of an editing job (that doesn't sound like the *proofreader's* perception here, but maybe it's the client's?);
- I haven't yet come across a case of a poor text where, when the poor quality of the original is highlighted to the client, they've said "yes, actually I want a crap text, so please don't improve it" rather than "oh OK, thanks for pointing this out, please can you do what you can to improve it and let me know how much extra it'll be".

But it sounds to me as though in this case, the proofreader's premise that you are "improving" the translation in the first place may be questionable from the outset.

There are obviously differences between languages and countries in terms of stylistic expectations for a given genre. And there are other syntactic reasons that can mean that sentence boundaries don't always coincide between two languages. So, without knowing the exact details, it's possible in principle that you are making a change that is stylistically necessary and does actually "translate" a cultural norm: it's possible that a conjunction in the source language may be considered "verbose" given the expectations of a reader in that language, whereas it might be considered a sign of "expected clarity" given average reader expectations in the target language.

I would highlight the issue to the publisher/agency. If they for some reason have unconditional trust in their proofreader then you may end up just accepting the latter's decision. But at least you can't be accused of hiding or not raising the problem.


[Edited at 2012-06-04 14:03 GMT]


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 07:10
Italian to English
Improvement is in the eye of the beholder Jun 4, 2012

Maria Arruti wrote:

When the original text is purposely written in a poor style it is evident that the translator must keep that style, but this is not the case (I am translating a book about statistics that is aimed at university students).



As Phil says, a translator identifies notions and reformulates them directly in the target language - often many times before finding the most satisfactory solution - rather than merely transposing their original expression, unless there is some cogent reason to do so. You can argue until the cows come home about what is "better" in absolute terms. Like any other value judgement, the answer is bound to be at least in part subjective.

Meanwhile back in real life, it helps to consider what value your translation is adding to the text in question (after all, this is what you are charging for). Broadly speaking, a university textbook is more likely to be read and adopted for courses if it is clearly written. If you deliver a readable translation, it will help to generate sales and pay for your undoubtedly lavish fee.

Your next problem is persuading your customer that this is the case. Proofreaders as a category tend not to be all that market-oriented


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neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 07:10
Spanish to English
+ ...
Horses for courses Jun 4, 2012

In general, Spanish tends to favour longer sentences - a frequently heard complaint when translating into English - so without further information I would tend to suppose that as a native speaker you did the right thing from a Spanish viewpoint.

I have very little time for prescriptive "proofers" in any case and in private rarely refer to them without at least one pithy expletive...


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Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 07:10
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
I am forever Jun 4, 2012

cutting up sentences in French that would come across as verbose and long-winded in English. It's not improvement, it's making the text read naturally.

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Rolf Kern  Identity Verified
Switzerland
Local time: 07:10
English to German
+ ...
Depends Jun 4, 2012

When the translator understands, what the author wanted to say, but did in badly, he/she should improve it. If not, he/she should submit a litteral translation

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Kaiya J. Diannen  Identity Verified
Australia
Member (2008)
German to English
Type of text Jun 5, 2012

Hi Maria,

I absolutely agree with my colleagues that it is our job to render the text correctly in the target language for the target audience - and that does occasionally mean changing the syntax, amending the grammar, modifying sentence structure, and even exchanging synonyms to improve flow and style.

This holds true in some contexts more than others: Any text meant for PR or marketing purposes, text obviously written to make someone "look good" (applications, resumes), text used in magazines, newspaper articles, and other popular journals where the intended style is obvious, business reports meant for shareholders, etc. I personally would think that books fall into this category.

The major exception to this rule would be, in some cases, legal texts - especially transcripts or testimony, because the purpose of those texts is to convey what the evidence shows/what someone said in the source language as precisely as possible (foibles included) in the target language.

If it is not a situation where the exact wording used involves quotes or is being used as a reference for citation purposes, it is difficult for me to imagine where small "improvements" required to make the translation read as if it were originally written in the target language would or should be frowned on.

The caveat being, as someone here stated, that you must be 100% sure that the meaning of the source text has been understood completely and that the "improvement" does not actually change the meaning reproduced in the target text.

If this is simply about a conjunction or two, I would say that you have a good case to make. If you find yourself working on a text where you feel you need to make constant "improvements", then as someone pointed out, you would probably want to discuss this as you go with the project manager, to be sure h/she understands why you are recommending the changes and to ensure that h/she is on board.
- - - -
*Edited due to silly author error - of course you mention the type of text, I just needed to read better!

[Edited at 2012-06-05 05:12 GMT]


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Maria Arruti  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 07:10
Member (2012)
French to Spanish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks! Jun 5, 2012

Thank you all for your valuable inputs.

Cheers!


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Peng Liu
Australia
Local time: 15:10
Chinese to English
+ ...
It all depends on the nature of the translation job Jul 10, 2012

hi, in your case, I would agree with what you did, because this is a book translation. As another translator said, you should write in your language.
The code of ethics of Australia Institute of Interpreters and Translators require the translator to "translate as is", which means no alteration at all. But my understanding is that this should only strictly apply to sworn translation (legal certified translation). For literature, art and other non-legal matters, after mutual consultation with client, the final translation could be fine tuned, instead of copy the awkward original text.
Again, translator should first seek the client's opinion. There is nothing absolutely right or wrong.

[修改时间: 2012-07-10 12:51 GMT]


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:10
Russian to English
+ ...
The optimal solution Jul 10, 2012

The optimal solution to the problem of really bad quality original texts would be editing of the original texts by a monolingual editor, and only then the texts should be sent for translation.

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