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How do you deal with poorly written source texts?
Thread poster: elm0505

elm0505
Spain
Local time: 09:07
French to Spanish
+ ...
Nov 15, 2013

Hi everyone

I'm fuming right now and I came here to vent off a little bit before I keep on working on one of the worst written texts I've ever come across. It is a Spanish text supposedly written by Spanish people, and upon a first glance I assume that it was composed copying and pasteing fragments from too many different texts. It is really a nightmare to translate as too many sentences don't make any sense at all and I have to rack my brains to come to a logical conclusion, even though sometimes there isn't any at all.
This is very time-consuming so I'm seriously considering translating every sentence by itself, not paying attention to the whole of the text.

I surely am going to have a word or two with the client when I deliver this "thing", specially as this text is supposed to be posted on their website. They really need to get their act together or at least hire a decent writer if they want to keep doing business.

How do you deal when in a similar situation?


 

Janet Ross Snyder  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 04:07
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
garbage in-garbage out Nov 15, 2013

I've come across a few of these myself, and although the temptation is there to throw up my hands in frustration, a better strategy might be to try to work with the original author to edit the source text before going ahead with the translation. This, of course, would require a great deal of tact and a very good working relationship with the client. It's not pleasant to be told that your document is unreadable.

 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:07
French to English
+ ...
Ask for clarification on parts that don't make sense Nov 15, 2013

There are different opinions on this. I would tend to take the view that, even if the source text is poorly written, part of what the client is paying you for is that you are a professional writer and so your aim should still be to turn in a well-written text-- or at least to do the best you can in the circumstances. (And of course, this extra work isn't free: you need to establish a rate that takes into account the extra work created as a result of the poor quality of the source text.)

Now, having to put extra work in to untangle a poorly written text is one thing. But if there are parts of the text that are actually inconsistent or incomprehensible, then you need to go back to the client and get them to clarify.


 

Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:07
German to English
Big problem with multinationals Nov 15, 2013

This has been a problem for some time. For example, German-based multinational corporations have a number of engineers and other professionals whose native language isn't German. Consequently many of the documents emanating from these companies use German words, but the syntax is based on Romance, Slavic or another language group. Late last century I translated a large IT project that was obviously authored by several different people, only one of whom was apparently a native speaker of German, judging by the grammatical and syntactical errors.

Native speakers aren't blameless, either. A few weeks ago I translated a document written by a German physician who had absolutely no concept of intelligible style or sentence organization. I ran a couple of passages past an educated native speaker of German who had a difficult time with the linguistic spaghetti.

I'm sure the same thing is true for documents written in "English", likewise causing headaches for translators working into other languages.


 

EvaVer  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:07
Member (2012)
Czech to English
+ ...
What I do? I swear! Nov 15, 2013

I mostly refuse such work, but if already accepted, I ask questions and warn the client that the source is garbage - but with the horrible knowledge that it will be my fault anyway...

 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:07
Russian to English
+ ...
Yes -- this is a real problem, especially in some languages. Nov 15, 2013

Many texts are really badly written, especially texts in the humanities, including academic papers and thesis. Sometimes they resemble pure "fluff"-- just mumbling -- a sequence of redundant, meaningless phrases for hundreds of pages.

Unfortunately, I often reject such texts, since there is nothing that can be done about them. You cannot ask someone to rewrite their Master's Thesis.


 

artsipoppa
Russian to English
+ ...
Tell them Nov 15, 2013

Let the agency/client know.

 

elm0505
Spain
Local time: 09:07
French to Spanish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Are there limits to fidelity? Nov 15, 2013

Neil Coffey wrote:

There are different opinions on this. I would tend to take the view that, even if the source text is poorly written, part of what the client is paying you for is that you are a professional writer and so your aim should still be to turn in a well-written text-- or at least to do the best you can in the circumstances.


I've always had this dilemma regarding "bad" source texts. Am I, as you suggest, supposed to write a decent text even if the original one is badly written? Or do I have to keep accuracy to a maximum and produce an ugly target text from an ugly source text
Well, I guess this is another different matter that could be well discussed in another thread...


 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 09:07
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
GIGO unless they clarify Nov 15, 2013

I would make a list of the most glaring whoppers and ask for clarification.

As I-don't-remember-who-sorry suggested here, you might want to state that if they don't reply by X time (leaving you time to finish up properly and proofread the whole in light of their answers) you will assume it means "this" and will translate accordingly.

If you really have no idea, then "this" will simply be a nonsensical sentence and the GIGO principle will apply.

In my early days I would spend ages stretching and twisting the text this way and that, trying desperately to make it fit something, anything, then finally admit defeat and call the client, who would then laugh and say "Of course that's total nonsense, what can I have been thinking? let me rewrite that sentence for you"


 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 09:07
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
No it's not your fault! Nov 15, 2013

EvaVer wrote:

I mostly refuse such work, but if already accepted, I ask questions and warn the client that the source is garbage - but with the horrible knowledge that it will be my fault anyway...


If there is a trace of the questions you asked, then you can at least prove you tried!


 

Daouda Gassama
Senegal
Local time: 07:07
English to French
+ ...
It's just another big challenge Nov 15, 2013

First of all, you should inform the client that the source text is poorly written because it could be ground for price and deadline change (of course, you should charge extra fees for the extra time and extra workload).
Then do your best to translate it accurately. Lastly, note all inconsistencies of the source text and ask the client more explanations about it.
Translating poorly written source text is just another big challenge to prove our capabilities in translation and editing. It also makes a difference between experienced translators and beginners.


 

Meta Arkadia
Local time: 14:07
English to Indonesian
+ ...
GIGO is a no-go. Nov 16, 2013

With GIGO, you'll shoot yourself in the foot. You only have two options: Either refuse the job, or accept it and turn it into a terrific text in your language, as usual.

The source language is completely irrelevant. Well, completely irrelevant, minus for two persons, you - the translator - and the editor, if any. The target group won't even know of the existence of the text in any other language.

Cheers,

Hans

[Edited at 2013-11-16 01:20 GMT]


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 09:07
Spanish to English
+ ...
Depends on client Nov 16, 2013

I'm usually lucky enough to be able to ask my clients directly when something is gibberish and they are usually surprised. Academics especially are notorious for copy-pasting from previous works without much attention to accuracy or relevance.

On the rare occasions when the text is so bad as to be unintelligible, after checking with a source language native speaker to make sure the fault really is with the text and it's not just my lack of understanding, I usually ask the client to clarify. It happens quite often in companies working in several countries -I don't know how many times I've heard the excuse "someone in Mexico wrote it"... "That was created by our French subsidiary"... "The original draft was from Italy"... (I translate from Spanish).

As the old saying goes, "you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear".


 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:07
Member (2008)
Italian to English
My worst experience Nov 16, 2013

My worst experience in this area was translating a very long book from Italian to English. When I had completed my translation the Author congratulated me on having written a book that read much better in my English than in his Italian.

He then proceeded to completely rewrite his book and I had to translate it all over again.

That was the first, and last time I'll ever do that !


 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:07
French to English
+ ...
Beware of theoretical philosophy... Nov 16, 2013

elm0505 wrote:
I've always had this dilemma regarding "bad" source texts. Am I, as you suggest, supposed to write a decent text even if the original one is badly written? Or do I have to keep accuracy to a maximum and produce an ugly target text from an ugly source text


This is something that philosophers and academics who don't actually make their living as real-world translators love to mentally masturbate over. But in practice, most clients aren't going to say: "the source text is a bit crap, so please can you make sure the translation also sounds crap".

Now, there will be obvious exceptions to this. For example, I translated a report recently on the state of education in Mexico which included interviews with non-native Spanish speakers and where part of the raison d'être of the report was to show exactly how those non-native speaking teachers expressed themselves. Under those circumstances, the need for "fidelity" was obviously prevalent. But I think such cases are exceptions and will hopefully be 'obvious when you see them'.


 
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