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When you can't decide whether it's you or the text that's the problem.
Thread poster: Rachel Braff

Rachel Braff  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:38
Member (2014)
French to English
+ ...
Jun 18, 2015

What do you do when you're working on a text where every sentence is a battle because nothing really makes sense? At what point do you conclude that the problem is with the text, and not with you?

I'm working on something right now that I increasingly am thinking may have been either written by a non-native speaker or may have been translated at some point (which sort of comes down to the same thing, in terms of heavy dependence on a thesaurus or dictionary and ending up with odd word choices). It's not so terrible that I would be justified in giving up on the whole thing, but it's bad enough that it's taking at least twice as long as similar texts have taken in the past. The worst thing is that I keep vacillating between self-doubt (I'm just not getting this) and the conclusion that there's just something off about the text.

I guess my question is mostly just: does this happen to other people? There's not much I can do about it at this point but try to power through. But I think I could get through it faster if I were able to confirm that yes, there is something wrong with the text and it's not just me. (Or I might even feel better if I were to conclude that it IS just me--it's the not knowing that's killing me!)


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Mikhail Kropotov  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 22:38
Member (2005)
English to Russian
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Hard to tell without seeing your text Jun 18, 2015

But I've been in this situation before. In fact, I come across it daily. It feels terrible.

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Paula D  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 20:38
Member (2013)
Turkish to English
badly written texts Jun 18, 2015

It has certainly happened to me before. However, I usually find that by the end of the text I have become accustomed to the style, no matter how badly it is written. My advice is to go through and quickly translate the parts you are sure about, but leave the other parts in the original language. You might find that by the time you have got to the end, you understand the subject better, have got used to the style and can make a more educated guess at the parts that are ambiguous. Also, if it is a subject area you are not familiar with, I would recommend reading something about the subject in English to give you a better chance of understanding.
I always ask a native speaker if I think something doesn't make sense, is badly written or is hopelessly ambiguous. It normally is the text that is the problem in these cases but I would never complain about a text without asking a native speaker first. Good luck...


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Fiona Grace Peterson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 21:38
Member
Italian to English
Bread and butter Jun 18, 2015

I work from Italian to English, and poorly written texts are pretty much the order of the day! The school system seems to teach children that the more "flowery" their texts are, the better they will sound. It also seems to be a characteristic of Italian academic thinking. I have zero knowledge of French, but being a Romance language, perhaps it suffers from the same malaise? Unlike you, however, I don't really suffer from self-doubt - to me it's blatantly obvious when a text is poorly written! This is not a criticism of you, just a suggestion that you perhaps need to be more objective, and trust that YES, it probably IS the text, if you suspect it is

I am not a proponent of garbage in garbage out, and always try to render a poorly written text as well as possible. But we are not miracle workers - there is only so much you can do!!


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Rachel Braff  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:38
Member (2014)
French to English
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TOPIC STARTER
getting used to the style of the original Jun 18, 2015

Paula D wrote:

It has certainly happened to me before. However, I usually find that by the end of the text I have become accustomed to the style, no matter how badly it is written. My advice is to go through and quickly translate the parts you are sure about, but leave the other parts in the original language. You might find that by the time you have got to the end, you understand the subject better, have got used to the style and can make a more educated guess at the parts that are ambiguous. Also, if it is a subject area you are not familiar with, I would recommend reading something about the subject in English to give you a better chance of understanding.


Yes, I've found with problematic texts that I do get more used to the style by the end. This is the worst I've encountered, but hopefully that will also happen here.

And yes, good advice about reading about the subject in English. I've done some of that and it's been helpful so far in distinguishing between vocabulary that's actually specific to the subject and just plain weird phrasing.


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Rachel Braff  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:38
Member (2014)
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Yes, I think this is suffering from floweriness. Jun 18, 2015

Fiona Peterson wrote:

I work from Italian to English, and poorly written texts are pretty much the order of the day! The school system seems to teach children that the more "flowery" their texts are, the better they will sound. It also seems to be a characteristic of Italian academic thinking. I have zero knowledge of French, but being a Romance language, perhaps it suffers from the same malaise? Unlike you, however, I don't really suffer from self-doubt - to me it's blatantly obvious when a text is poorly written! This is not a criticism of you, just a suggestion that you perhaps need to be more objective, and trust that YES, it probably IS the text, if you suspect it is


I think the "flowery" phenomenon definitely applies here! I've heard that about Italian too. I haven't encountered it universally with French, but I think there's certainly an element of that around. I also wonder if this is suffering more than usual from it because Morocco (where this document apparently came from) is a country where French is more of an academic/governmental language than a colloquial one.

And maybe I should work on trusting my instincts about it being the text--I do have a history of being one of those people who was sure I'd done badly on a school test, only to have it come back with a 98%.


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Rachel Braff  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:38
Member (2014)
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks! Jun 18, 2015

Mikhail Kropotov wrote:

But I've been in this situation before. In fact, I come across it daily. It feels terrible.


Thanks for the reassurance that I'm not the only one!


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 03:38
Chinese to English
Is it you or is it me... Jun 18, 2015

...sounds like it's become personal between you and this text!

One strategy that might work (depending on what the client wants) is something I did when learning interpreting: gisting. If the text is really bad, the client might well not want a translation that reflects its oddness. So instead of trying to translate as best you can at the sentence level, take a step back and do it all at the paragraph level first. Work out what each paragraph means, then click away from the source and just write it in English. Then, in the editing phase you can throw in some more words to anchor your version a bit closer to the source text, but just accept that there are going to be some differences.

This has worked for me a couple of times when I was getting stuck in thickets of sentences - zooming out and taking a less granular view helped to grasp the overall shape, and then when I dived back in, the sentences weren't quite so unmanageable (and where they were, I had the confidence to just ignore them and assume it really was an author error).


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Alex Lago  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 21:38
Member (2009)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Not the first time and not the last Jun 18, 2015

This has happened to me more than once and I'm sure it will happen again at some time, unfortunately it is part of the job.

I do however use the same strategy as Phil and it does work

Phil Hand wrote:

One strategy that might work (depending on what the client wants) is something I did when learning interpreting: gisting. If the text is really bad, the client might well not want a translation that reflects its oddness. So instead of trying to translate as best you can at the sentence level, take a step back and do it all at the paragraph level first. Work out what each paragraph means, then click away from the source and just write it in English. Then, in the editing phase you can throw in some more words to anchor your version a bit closer to the source text, but just accept that there are going to be some differences.

This has worked for me a couple of times when I was getting stuck in thickets of sentences - zooming out and taking a less granular view helped to grasp the overall shape, and then when I dived back in, the sentences weren't quite so unmanageable (and where they were, I had the confidence to just ignore them and assume it really was an author error).


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Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 15:38
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
Not fun at all Jun 18, 2015

Paula D wrote:

I always ask a native speaker if I think something doesn't make sense, is badly written or is hopelessly ambiguous. It normally is the text that is the problem in these cases but I would never complain about a text without asking a native speaker first. Good luck...


Agree with Paula on asking a native speaker for their thoughts. If you're right, and the text is still good enough to translate, this won't be of much use in terms of renegotiating with the client, but at least it will give you peace of mind. In fact, if you're really translating at half your normal speed, it might be cost-effective to hire a native speaking translator for an hour or two and send them a list of the more egregious errors to try to sort out together?

Obviously the other thing to do is to take this as a lesson and go through texts a bit more carefully in the future before accepting them. I've been caught in the same situation several times before, and it's no fun at all; if you discover this kind of thing prior to accepting the work it's usually fairly easy to renegotiate with the client for a higher price.


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Rachel Braff  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:38
Member (2014)
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Very personal... Jun 18, 2015

Phil Hand wrote:

...sounds like it's become personal between you and this text!

One strategy that might work (depending on what the client wants) is something I did when learning interpreting: gisting.


...it's feeling like an abusive relationship at this point!

Thanks for the suggestion. That is really helpful, and when I read it I realized that my most successful interactions so far with this thing have been when I was able to step back a little.


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Rachel Braff  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:38
Member (2014)
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Should have pre-screened more carefully. Jun 18, 2015

[quote]Preston Decker wrote:

Obviously the other thing to do is to take this as a lesson and go through texts a bit more carefully in the future before accepting them. I've been caught in the same situation several times before, and it's no fun at all; if you discover this kind of thing prior to accepting the work it's usually fairly easy to renegotiate with the client for a higher price.


Yes, it's a good lesson. When I first looked this over I was really only trying to see how jargon-heavy it was, since it's somewhat specialized. This is a good reminder to not just look at things in terms of vocabulary.


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Georgie Scott  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 21:38
Member (2009)
French to English
+ ...
The joy of living with a native Jun 18, 2015

I live with a French person and have had him look at quite a few texts where I've been asking myself the same question. It's always been the text.

They are notably different from texts simply written in a challenging style. It is such a relief after hours of struggling to see a native look at the text and say "c'est quoi ce ****?!"

[Edited at 2015-06-18 14:58 GMT]


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:38
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Flowery language Jun 18, 2015

Yes, the French are somewhat prone to flowery language. Just look at the way they end their letters: "Veuillez agréer, Madame, l'expression de mes sentiments les plus distingués". Imagine the client's reaction if you translated that literally and said "Pray accept, Madam, the expression of my most distinguished sentiments".
In English we simply end with "Yours sincerely" or "Yours faithfully" - just as silly really because we're not necessarily either sincere or faithful.

To return to the topic of badly written source documents, I sometimes have to translate the statements of witnesses to a crime or offence, probably either spoken and taken down by a police officer or painfully handwritten by someone who is none too literate, or statements full of "youngspeak" with which I'm none too familiar in any language ...
One can only do one's best to convey the tone of the original.


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Rachel Braff  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:38
Member (2014)
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Backup from a native Jun 18, 2015

interpretwhisky wrote:

I live with a French person and have had him look at quite a few texts where I've been asking myself the same question. It's always been the text.
[Edited at 2015-06-18 14:58 GMT]


That's good to hear. Unfortunately I don't have easy access to a native for this one, but your experience is encouraging.


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