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dealing with poor source texts
Thread poster: Maria Popiel

Maria Popiel  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 15:57
Spanish to Polish
+ ...
Mar 16, 2015

I've been thinking about asking this for a while. I tried to look for a similar topic in the forum, but couldn't find anything, so here I go.

How do you deal with texts that you are supposed to translate but once you get started, you realise that they are full of syntax errors, plagued with strange and non-existing idioms, with thoughts and concepts linked illogically, with gerunds appearing where they shouldn't be, etc., in short, poorly written texts?

How do you translate such texts?

Do you leave the source text intact and just do your best with the translation, eliminating all possible mistakes in the target text (and thus changing quite a lot of details)?

Or do you translate the same way the source text was written? Or maybe you simply refuse to translate them?

Just to be sure we all mean the same: let's assume that you are sure that the author of the source text did not make all those mistakes on purpose. He believes his text is OK and that it conveys the meaning in an adequate way.

So what is your modus operandi in such situations?icon_smile.gif


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Epameinondas Soufleros  Identity Verified
Greece
Local time: 16:57
Member (2008)
English to Greek
+ ...
Edit while translating Mar 16, 2015

The best approach, I believe, is to add a comment to let the client know that something is wrong in their text, and translate the 'edited' version of the source sentence (I mean the one that you have edited mentally, not waiting for the author to provide an actual edited version). You take responsibility for the translation and the reader might not know that what he is reading is a translation, so you should strive to provide a text that makes sense rather than to 'reveal' the original author's flaws.

Of course, you should only do that if you are perfectly sure about the intended meaning behind all the mistakes in the source text.

[Edited at 2015-03-16 14:50 GMT]


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:57
Member (2008)
Italian to English
All the time Mar 16, 2015

Maria Popiel wrote:

......
How do you deal with texts that you are supposed to translate but once you get started, you realise that they are full of syntax errors, plagued with strange and non-existing idioms, with thoughts and concepts linked illogically, with gerunds appearing where they shouldn't be, etc., in short, poorly written texts?



Ever since I began working as a translator from Italian to English, I've had this problem and in at least one case, I had an end user who, seeing how much better my English was than his Italian, began just roughing out his academic papers, expecting me to produce something wonderful in English. That relationship finally came to an end when, in my frustration, I gave him a translation that was exactly as he had written it in Italian. I told him his style was very avant-garde and that he should develop it!

Almost all the time the Italian texts I'm given are badly written. I write better in my native language, English, than most of my Italian clients know how to write in their own language, Italian. The worst offenders are academics who think they appear "cultured" by writing in an intentionally impenetrable Italian which, as often as not, conceals a paucity of ideas that I, as the translator, uncover very quickly. Then there are the people who work in industry and are highly specialised in their technical field but have no skill when communicating with others.

Just last week, for example, I was asked to translate the sales brochure for a company that manufactures products for use in the construction industry (which is one of my specialisations). From the very poor quality of this text it was clear that they had written it themselves, rather than pay for an expert copy-writer to help them sell their products more effectively.

I did my best with it, but it was quite a struggle and in the end, because no matter how much you try "to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" the results are always less than satisfactory.

My worst experience ever, a few years ago now, was when I translated an entire book from the Italian into English. The author thought my English was so much better than his Italian, and clarified his ideas so much more effectively, that he rewrote the whole thing, which I then had to translate all over again.

And then…… he did it again! I can't tell you how much anguish that job cost me and how much money I lost doing it. Never again! I now always specify that the text I receive in Italian must be definitive and that I do not accept modifications or additions.

[Edited at 2015-03-16 16:13 GMT]


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 19:27
English to Hindi
+ ...
My approach Mar 16, 2015

I have faced this problem.

If the source is too bad, I intimate the client and check whether he could get it edited, or even offer to edit it myself, at a fee, of course!

But if he says that his client feels the source text is ok and that I should go ahead and translate it, I once again explain to him that the translation in this case won't be an exact rendering of the source, but my best interpretation of it, as some of the source text would be ambiguous and open to various interpretations (a clear hall-mark of a sloppily written text). After getting my client's approval to this approach, I would go ahead and translate the text in lucid, grammatically correct sentences in the target language.

In this case, the translated text would be a more readable and elegant document than the source document.

It is important to document your above approach by bringing it to the notice of the client, otherwise, at a later stage someone, such a proof-reader or a reviewer, comparing the source and target text, could blame you for having deviated from the source or mistranslated the source.


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Paulinho Fonseca  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 10:57
Member (2011)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
It certainly happens. Mar 16, 2015

Maria Popiel wrote:

I've been thinking about asking this for a while. I tried to look for a similar topic in the forum, but couldn't find anything, so here I go.

How do you deal with texts that you are supposed to translate but once you get started, you realise that they are full of syntax errors, plagued with strange and non-existing idioms, with thoughts and concepts linked illogically, with gerunds appearing where they shouldn't be, etc., in short, poorly written texts?

How do you translate such texts?

Do you leave the source text intact and just do your best with the translation, eliminating all possible mistakes in the target text (and thus changing quite a lot of details)?

Or do you translate the same way the source text was written? Or maybe you simply refuse to translate them?

Just to be sure we all mean the same: let's assume that you are sure that the author of the source text did not make all those mistakes on purpose. He believes his text is OK and that it conveys the meaning in an adequate way.

So what is your modus operandi in such situations?icon_smile.gif



I would not touch the source, but communicate it to client using a (query xls) for the first flaws found. It has happened to me and client just asked me to do my best. LOL. I have done it and never had problems.
Of course spotting someone else's flaws without being asked is a delicate thing, but in order to prevent future or potential problems to my work I do it in a professional manner using the query and not simply communicating that source text is full of errors/mistakes/flaws by email/phone/skype. 
Paulinho Fonseca


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:57
Hebrew to English
Let's face it.... Mar 16, 2015

The vast majority of people the world over are not great writers, a significant portion of them are actually very poor writers. It's a rare day that I get a text and think to myself "wow, this is well written, bravo to the author".

Especially if you are working in certain specializations - for example I mostly deal with legal texts and in my experience lawyers are notorious for overestimating their linguistic abilities.

This problem is often exacerbated by the fact that quite often we are given drafts and expended to churn out finished works.

Dealing with it depends on how poor it really is. If it's that bad you are struggling for coherence then I'd say raise it with the client and try to work something out.

Otherwise it's pretty much part and parcel of the job and it's more a case of gritting your teeth and bearing it (and hoping the next project has a more talented author).

*Also, there are occasionally some clients who seem to specialize in crappy source texts (and conversely others who almost never throw a substandard source text your way), my advice would be to learn which of your clients has a habit of sending the painful texts your way and try to phase them out (or drop them altogether, if you are able).


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:57
Member (2008)
Italian to English
I agree Mar 16, 2015

Ty Kendall wrote:

..... it's pretty much part and parcel of the job and it's more a case of gritting your teeth and bearing it .....


I agree


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Maria Popiel  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 15:57
Spanish to Polish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
thank you! Mar 16, 2015

Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I can see now that poor texts are perhaps more common than I used to think. Personally, I am pretty used to them and don't even grit my teeth anymore. Sometimes it's the client who warns me that the text isn't very good, but they need it and they need it well translated so I know I have a lot of freedom to improve the text.

But I was curious about how others deal with it. Thank you once more! Hopefully, some more people will share their experience.


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Rolf Kern  Identity Verified
Switzerland
Local time: 15:57
English to German
+ ...
Unfortunately... Mar 16, 2015

... nobody mentioned the basic problem: Is the Client the author of the text or has he received it and does not understand it?
Our reaction must be different according to the case.
I do not think that I must go into details here.

Rolf


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Amel Abdullah  Identity Verified
Jordan
Arabic to English
+ ...
Unfortunately... Mar 16, 2015

Poorly written source texts are the norm in many cases. Before deciding how to handle them, it's best to ask the client what their preferences and expectations are. A lot will depend on what the purpose of the translation is. Some clients may actually want a poorly written target version that reflects the original, while others may give you the green light to "polish" the text and fix things as you see fit. Still others might prefer that you provide notes and comments whenever you make or suggest a change.

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FarkasAndras
Local time: 15:57
English to Hungarian
+ ...
Yes Mar 16, 2015

Of course a poor source text is par for the course. Most of the texts I translate are mediocre at best, at least with regard to style. Most of the time, I polish them a bit as I translate them. If the meaning of a sentence or a phrase is unclear, I usually make an educated guess as to what the author might have meant and add a translator's note. Same with typos (without a note if it's really obvious and minor). If something is utterly nonsensical or patently wrong and undecipherable, I sometimes give up and render it "as is" with a translator's note.
I always take a look at the text before accepting a job, which helps avoid some of the worst train wrecks. Not even a well-paid job is worth tearing my hair out trying to figure out what the author might have meant.

[Edited at 2015-03-16 21:03 GMT]


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 21:57
Chinese to English
Differences between languages? Mar 17, 2015

This is very interesting. I very rarely receive badly written source texts, and now I'm starting to wonder why!

One possibility is that Chinese has little morphology, so it's not like you can get the word endings wrong. If there's an error in the Chinese text, it's a wrong word, and the text is instantly incomprehensible. So that space where you can understand what it means, but it's also badly written, doesn't really exist in Chinese, or it's much smaller.

Actually, now I think about it, the legal docs I receive are uniformly badly drafted. I almost never see anything with the rigour you expect from decent legal drafting. But that's a question of the lawyer's skill, and I always translate exactly as is. Let their negotiating counterparts do the education on that problem!


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Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
Hong Kong
Local time: 21:57
Member
Chinese to English
+ ...
Sure there's badly written Chinese Mar 17, 2015

Though it's not so much poor syntax or grammar as entire chunks of prose that falls somewhere between "trite and cliched" and "outright makes no sense". But then, my biggest client does Chinese to English game translations.

I have carte blanche to rewrite as I see fit there, and I know for a fact that a lot of the text will go through another rewriting as needed. I still don't like to see vomit-inducing scripts, but it's what it is.


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jyuan_us  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 09:57
Member (2005)
English to Chinese
+ ...
Editing is not always possible Mar 17, 2015

Epameinondas Soufleros wrote:

The best approach, I believe, is to add a comment to let the client know that something is wrong in their text, and translate the 'edited' version of the source sentence (I mean the one that you have edited mentally, not waiting for the author to provide an actual edited version). .

[Edited at 2015-03-16 14:50 GMT]


If the text is "full of syntax errors, plagued with strange and non-existing idioms, with thoughts and concepts linked illogically, with gerunds appearing where they shouldn't be, etc.,", I guess it will not be editable. You don't know what the author wanted to say in the first place, how will you edit it?

If you really mentally edited the type of text mentioned above, you were not editing it per se. You were rather rewriting it, ending up with with concepts very different to what was originally meant by the author.


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Maria Popiel  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 15:57
Spanish to Polish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
I think in many cases you do know what the author means... Mar 17, 2015

jyuan_us wrote:

Epameinondas Soufleros wrote:

The best approach, I believe, is to add a comment to let the client know that something is wrong in their text, and translate the 'edited' version of the source sentence (I mean the one that you have edited mentally, not waiting for the author to provide an actual edited version). .

[Edited at 2015-03-16 14:50 GMT]


If the text is "full of syntax errors, plagued with strange and non-existing idioms, with thoughts and concepts linked illogically, with gerunds appearing where they shouldn't be, etc.,", I guess it will not be editable. You don't know what the author wanted to say in the first place, how will you edit it?

If you really mentally edited the type of text mentioned above, you were not editing it per se. You were rather rewriting it, ending up with with concepts very different to what was originally meant by the author.


In most cases I am able to extract the meaning. But this might be due to the fact that I have quite a long experience as a proofreader and editor of texts written by dislexic people (but, like, really dislexic, not those who only think they are). I also had a client who was actually quite a brilliant writer, but once in a while (well, OK, pretty often) he would produce Master-Yoda-like sentences, if you know what I mean. After a couple of years working for this guy I guess I got pretty used to sorting things out in a jungle of someone else's chaotic thoughts.

So I think in many cases you can understand the meaning even if the text is, well, horrible, especially if you can read a bigger chunk of the text and know the context.

But if you don't, then it's better to talk to the client, obviously.

The text I am dealing with now is written by the client in a language that is not his mother tongue, nor is this person a writer or linguist.
I am wondering... perhaps I should offer the client to help him improve the source text as well?


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