Translating a text written by a non-native speaker
Thread poster: Yiftah Hellerman-Carmel

Yiftah Hellerman-Carmel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 06:37
Member (2005)
German to Hebrew
+ ...
Sep 12, 2013

I am Translating a large project, software, from English. The strings were, in my opinion, written/translated to English by a non/native speaker. English is not my mother tongue, but I can still say, with a high level of certainty, that the strings I am translating were translated into English/written in English by someone who speaks English as a foreign language. As a result, there are many unclear or oddly formulated strings. Moreover, the text is actually a large amount of strings extracted from a software, with little or no context at all. These two difficulties lead to me sending the agency many dozens of queries for them to forward to the client. I do not want the client to get an impression that I am not capable of translating this text, but what can I do if I get a huge bunch of strings (many thousands), with not enough context and containing linguistic errors that make the text difficult to understand? How do I clarify this to the customer without making a bed impression? I do not want to simply translate the strings literally, word for word, because this would be unprofessional. So far the agency has not complained about the many queries, and I think that neither did the client (otherwise the agency would have let me know), but who knows when they might start...

 

Dusan Miljkovic
Serbia
Local time: 06:37
English to Serbian
+ ...
Ask for advice Sep 12, 2013

Yiftah wrote:

I am Translating a large project, software, from English. The strings were, in my opinion, written/translated to English by a non/native speaker. English is not my mother tongue, but I can still say, with a high level of certainty, that the strings I am translating were translated into English/written in English by someone who speaks English as a foreign language. As a result, there are many unclear or oddly formulated strings. Moreover, the text is actually a large amount of strings extracted from a software, with little or no context at all. These two difficulties lead to me sending the agency many dozens of queries for them to forward to the client. I do not want the client to get an impression that I am not capable of translating this text, but what can I do if I get a huge bunch of strings (many thousands), with not enough context and containing linguistic errors that make the text difficult to understand? How do I clarify this to the customer without making a bed impression? I do not want to simply translate the strings literally, word for word, because this would be unprofessional. So far the agency has not complained about the many queries, and I think that neither did the client (otherwise the agency would have let me know), but who knows when they might start...


Write to the agency and explain the entire situation in detail. Tell them everything you wrote here and ask for advice.

If the source text is really that bad (and you didn't realize it before you accepted the job), it's better to say it as soon as you realize it than wait until the end.

Not sure what else you can do if you already accepted the project and started working on it.

[Edited at 2013-09-12 12:01 GMT]


 

Lori Cirefice  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 06:37
French to English
Group the queries together Sep 12, 2013

Try to send a single list of queries per day (or whatever interval seems appropriate considering the volume of the project), don't send multiple queries in separate emails as you go along. Make it as easy as possible for them to reply, consider the format of your queries, can the client easily figure out which string you are referring to?

Agencies should know that this type of project with strings out of context will generate a lot of questions for the customer, the agency should know best how to handle the customer and smooth things over. In my experience, end customers appreciate questions, it means the translator is doing a professional job. I have never had a customer complain because I asked for clarification!

You should of course inform the agency that the text was written by a non-native.


 

EvaVer  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:37
Member (2012)
Czech to English
+ ...
I faced something similar, Sep 12, 2013

only the badly written text was French, translated from Portugese. I learned a lot of Portugese in the process... Any software must be finalized by IT people anyway, as you cannot know (in most cases) how the strings come together. In my case, I warned the client about this and highlighted any strings that were incomprehensible and/or lacked context.

 

esperantisto  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:37
Member (2006)
English to Russian
+ ...
Just say it Sep 12, 2013

Yiftah wrote:
…what can I do if I get a huge bunch of strings (many thousands), with not enough context and containing linguistic errors that make the text difficult to understand? How do I clarify this to the customer without making a bed impression?…


I’m not sure what is a “bed impression”, but your situation is not unusual. In fact, most of the texts that I’ve ever translated from English were produced by non-native speakers. I believe, unprofessional would be muffling your doubts, so just speak up and tell your client what you find wrong about the text. However, if it’s a really huge bunch of strings, I’d rather decline the job (I always do when I see texts written by Chinese).


 

Giovanna Alessandra Meloni  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 06:37
Member (2012)
Spanish to Italian
+ ...
Speak with the agency Sep 12, 2013

I think you have to inform the agency, telling you think the text was written by a non-native speaker and so there are some strings are not clear or inconmprehensible.

I agree with Lori's suggestion

"Try to send a single list of queries per day (or whatever interval seems appropriate considering the volume of the project), don't send multiple queries in separate emails as you go along. Make it as easy as possible for them to reply, consider the format of your queries, can the client easily figure out which string you are referring to? "


 

Yiftah Hellerman-Carmel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 06:37
Member (2005)
German to Hebrew
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
I tried explaining Sep 12, 2013

[quote]esperantisto wrote:


I’m not sure what is a “bed impression”, but your situation is not unusual. In fact, most of the texts that I’ve ever translated from English were produced by non-native speakers. I believe, unprofessional would be muffling your doubts, so just speak up and tell your client what you find wrong about the text. However, if it’s a really huge bunch of strings, I’d rather decline the job (I always do when I see texts written by Chinese).


I do not know how the client might interpret the many queries, maybe they'll think they are dealing with someone who does not know his way around such texts. This is what I mean by bed impression.

I have tried to explain the issue. But I mentioned only the lack of context, not the linguistic issue, since I did not want to be stepping on the end client's toes (the agency did not reply to this issue, but just forwarded my queries to the client). But it seems that I won't have another choice.


 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 06:37
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
This attitude would not give a bad impression Sep 12, 2013

I think you can explain just as you have to us, perhaps adding an example or two, or more, to show that it's the text that's bad not you. There should be at least one person in the agency who speaks English well enough to be able to appreciate that surely?

Speaking as a former PM, if I were your PM on this project I might feel put out at being hassled when the project should just be on my back burner, but then I would look at the questions. I would see how bad the source is and be impressed with how thorough and conscientious you are, even if dealing with your questions entails more work for me.

And yes, try to ask batches of questions, either once a day or per batch if the text is split into batches of manageable size.
Make sure the person who has to answer the questions can find the problematic bits easily. There's nothing more frustrating than not being able to see the offending phrase in context.

In case you don't get an answer, it might be a good idea to say what you will do if you don't get one: e.g.: "if I don't hear from you, I shall assume that xxxy is a typo and should read xxxz"

All this is time-consuming, you might want to mention this fact to the agency. Your productivity is obviously being affected so you should be entitled to more money for your extra efforts. You're also making more work for the PM as I mentioned before, so the agency should be doing likewise with their client.


 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 06:37
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
diplomacy! Sep 12, 2013

Yiftah wrote:

I have tried to explain the issue. But I mentioned only the lack of context, not the linguistic issue, since I did not want to be stepping on the end client's toes (the agency did not reply to this issue, but just forwarded my queries to the client). But it seems that I won't have another choice.

Ouch!!!

Bear in mind whose problem is whose. The fact that the English is bad is your problem because you can't translate it easily. It is also the agency's problem, and also the client's problem, because they both have vested interests in you translating it well.

However the problem of how to explain to the client that the client's English is poor is the agency's problem, not yours!

You might want to first call the agency to explain, and perhaps extract a promise that they won't simply forward your mail when you send examples of how bad the English is?


 

Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 22:37
English to Spanish
+ ...
Avoid Sep 12, 2013

It is probably best to avoid such jobs, since no matter what they will make you look bad when you're not at fault. Just turn them down, they're thankless, and the same goes for back-translations.

 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:37
French to English
+ ...
Screenshots? Sep 12, 2013

If you're translating UI strings for software, it's quite reasonable to ask for screenshots from the actual program/web pages etc if it's not obvious how they're being used.


[Edited at 2013-09-12 15:14 GMT]


 

Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 06:37
English to Polish
+ ...
Let's not blame non-native speakers per se Sep 12, 2013

I sympathise with your situation, Yiftah, and am always annoyed when a professional translation agency sends me something that was obviously written by someone who could be described as an intermediate speaker without giving me any sort of fair warning about that, but I need to make an important point here: The problem is not that whether those guys are native but whether their writing is good enough. If it isn't, then that's something they share with many, many native speakers, including a bunch of Arts graduates. And I'm not just talking about English, anyway.

[Edited at 2013-09-12 18:04 GMT]


 

Yiftah Hellerman-Carmel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 06:37
Member (2005)
German to Hebrew
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
It is not about blaming somebody Sep 12, 2013

Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz wrote:

I sympathise with your situation, Yiftah, but I need to make an important point here: The problem is not that those guys aren't native to the language (if), but that their command of it isn't up to the task. And that would be a quality shared with many, many native speakers.


Łukasz, I was not blaming non-native translators/writers in general, I apologize if it sounded that way, I was not even trying to blame the agency or the source client. I was merely trying to portray the awkward situation in which I find myself: I am translating a text that 1) is not clearly written (because of many linguistic errors) and 2) lacks context. Therefore I have to ask the agency to forward many questions to the client, and I fear this might seem to them that it is my fault that I do not understand the text and not that the text is very problematic due to the two reasons I have just mentioned.

Reading the replies here and thinking about my situation, I do not believe that I can do much now. As my first remark to the agency regarding this was ignored, I guess that I can not try and say it again. I suppose that I will have to keep sending my queries, finish the translation and add a note to my delivery.


 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 06:37
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
Don't give up! Sep 12, 2013

If they ignore you once, you can always telephone them, that way you know they have heard you. Then if anything was actually agreed or promised in the phone call, you follow it up immediately with an e-mail confirming what was said, before either of you have time to forget.

You're on a nightmare project and there's a chance that you'll need extra time or that despite your efforts, you misunderstand something, or that one of your educated guesses was wrong. Nothing is your fault given the state of the source text, but if you haven't put it in writing you won't have a leg to stand on if there are problems later on. So call and write, and request a reply in writing, so that you know your message has got through to the agency.

I wish you luck!


 

Steve Kerry  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:37
German to English
And the moral of the story is... Sep 12, 2013

Henry Hinds wrote:

It is probably best to avoid such jobs, since no matter what they will make you look bad when you're not at fault. Just turn them down, they're thankless, and the same goes for back-translations.


Always insist on taking a good look at the job first, before you accept it! If it looks like a pile of gobbledegook then turn it down, politely but firmly.

Steve K.


 


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