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When your source text is not well written...
Thread poster: Furorensu (X)

Furorensu (X)
France
Apr 29, 2019

Hello

I am not sure this has been discussed before, but here is just a discussion question out of curiosity from a translation newbie:

What do you do when the text you are translating is, well... badly written ? (e.g. language mistakes or poor content flow..)

Is the job as a translator to transcribe the text as it is with its flaws, or will you correct it your way to make it smoother in your
... See more
Hello

I am not sure this has been discussed before, but here is just a discussion question out of curiosity from a translation newbie:

What do you do when the text you are translating is, well... badly written ? (e.g. language mistakes or poor content flow..)

Is the job as a translator to transcribe the text as it is with its flaws, or will you correct it your way to make it smoother in your target language for your target audience?

Have you ever had this experience?
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Teresa Borges
Portugal
Local time: 13:52
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Yes, I've had that experience Apr 29, 2019

I’ve had that experience and my attitude depends on the client and on the kind of errors the text contains. I must say first of all that usually I don’t accept a job without having a good look at it, but even so things happen. So, if it’s a new client what I’ll do is saying that this paragraph or sentence or whatever needs reviewing and I’m not able to translate it as is; if it happens to come from a long-standing customer I’ll either translate correcting it if I understand what is m... See more
I’ve had that experience and my attitude depends on the client and on the kind of errors the text contains. I must say first of all that usually I don’t accept a job without having a good look at it, but even so things happen. So, if it’s a new client what I’ll do is saying that this paragraph or sentence or whatever needs reviewing and I’m not able to translate it as is; if it happens to come from a long-standing customer I’ll either translate correcting it if I understand what is meant or I’ll ask a few questions until I’m satisfied that I can keep on translating. I must say that a long time ago I had to translate a transcribed text (a speech) and clearly the transcriber didn’t master English and though I tried my best the result was disastrous. In the end, I didn’t invoice it…

[Edited at 2019-04-29 10:16 GMT]
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Elizabeth Tamblin  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:52
Member (2012)
French to English
Hi! Apr 29, 2019

If there are spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, etc., I will not replicate them in my translation. However, I will occasionally retain ambiguity of meaning, if no clarification can be obtained from the client.

 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:52
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Lazy author Apr 29, 2019

This can indeed lead to difficulties.

I used to do quite regular translations for an Italian author. As time went on, his original text became more and more lazy as he realised that my translation actually improved, In English, on his carelessly written Italian.

Finally he gave me a text so badly written that it was nothing more than a draft which he expected me to miraculously translate into a perfectly written English document. I had become so frustrated by his attit
... See more
This can indeed lead to difficulties.

I used to do quite regular translations for an Italian author. As time went on, his original text became more and more lazy as he realised that my translation actually improved, In English, on his carelessly written Italian.

Finally he gave me a text so badly written that it was nothing more than a draft which he expected me to miraculously translate into a perfectly written English document. I had become so frustrated by his attitude that I decided to do a literal translation of what he had written, which of course read really badly in English.

This made him very angry and he didn't pay me. That was the last translation I ever did for him.

So you have to be careful!
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Hebat-Allah El Ashmawy
Andrew Morris
Natalia Pedrosa
 

Baran Keki  Identity Verified
Turkey
Local time: 16:52
Member
English to Turkish
+ ...
If you're translating from English Apr 29, 2019

You should expect almost half the texts you receive for translation to be written by non-native English speakers. At least this has been my experience. I've learned to decipher broken English, and I think it's a valuable 'skill' that you acquire over the years.
Some Europeans (like the Dutch, Scandinavians etc.) write in good English, grammar, punctuation etc., but still they can not beat a native English speaker.


Hebat-Allah El Ashmawy
Giuliana Buscaglione
Kay-Viktor Stegemann
P.L.F.Persio
JPAlex
Nadja Balogh
En-Ru
 

Jan Truper  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 14:52
English to German
+ ...
fix it Apr 29, 2019

Furorensu wrote:

What do you do when the text you are translating is, well... badly written ? (e.g. language mistakes or poor content flow..)

Is the job as a translator to transcribe the text as it is with its flaws, or will you correct it your way to make it smoother in your target language for your target audience?

Have you ever had this experience?



I've had this experience a lot, to the point that I added this line to my CV a few years ago:
"I think while I work (i.e., I make sure my translation makes at least as much sense as the source text)."

I think the translator should deliver the best possible text in his/her target language, irrespective of how flawed or inane the source text might be.
(The only exception being if the source text is willfully faulty or inane, of course.)


Kevin Fulton
neilmac
Andrenise Aime
 

Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 08:52
German to English
Consequence of multinationalism Apr 29, 2019

There are any number of reasons for poorly-written documents: lazy authors, lack of editing or quality control. A few years ago a major multinational decided that it was cheaper to have manuals written in English by local technicians, then edited by native English speakers. In many instances, the results have been gibberish, requiring frequent queries ("return to shape" = "replace all covers"). Editing these documents has proven to be a steady – if sometimes frustrating – source of income.... See more
There are any number of reasons for poorly-written documents: lazy authors, lack of editing or quality control. A few years ago a major multinational decided that it was cheaper to have manuals written in English by local technicians, then edited by native English speakers. In many instances, the results have been gibberish, requiring frequent queries ("return to shape" = "replace all covers"). Editing these documents has proven to be a steady – if sometimes frustrating – source of income.

Around the turn of this century I was involved in a major translation project involving hundreds of documents relating to software procedures, allegedly already in use at a major automaker. Although the text used German words, it was plain that few of the authors were native speakers of that language. What was more disturbing was that many of the described procedures could not be successfully executed, as they contradicted one another ("Press F1 to continue, cancel with F1") or lacked verbal complements describing the action to be performed. It was obvious that no one had read through the documents in the first place. The agency, of course, was clueless, as they were at the end of a long chain of subcontractors.

Multinationalism has proven to be a double-edged sword. It has provided a lot of work for translators, but much of that work has not been particularly well-paid relative to the amount of toil involved.
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Baran Keki
neilmac
 

Liviu-Lee Roth
United States
Local time: 08:52
Romanian to English
+ ...
Not only multinationalism Apr 29, 2019

I have been working for a US government entity and I noticed a decrease in quality of the official documents written by law school graduates! When I come across a poorly written document, I send it back to the client asking for "clarification". Many times I have to suggest the correct wording.

My feeling is that our generation, of dinosaurs, is more exigent with the source text, than the younger generation.


Josephine Cassar
neilmac
Vi Pukite
Germaine
 

Philippe Etienne  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:52
Member
English to French
Non-native source language is the worst Apr 29, 2019

in my opinion.
I can cope with typos, grammar issues, awful style, unfortunate homonyms, inconsistencies, unusual trains of thought, dodgy structures or blunders in meaning (green/red, left/right, affirmative/negative...), but a writer with a poor command of the source language is the biggest challenge for me.
If s/he is FIGS (Italian, German, Spanish or French - yes, I have translated English texts from French companies, authored by French people, into French...), I may be able to
... See more
in my opinion.
I can cope with typos, grammar issues, awful style, unfortunate homonyms, inconsistencies, unusual trains of thought, dodgy structures or blunders in meaning (green/red, left/right, affirmative/negative...), but a writer with a poor command of the source language is the biggest challenge for me.
If s/he is FIGS (Italian, German, Spanish or French - yes, I have translated English texts from French companies, authored by French people, into French...), I may be able to figure out the original meaning in the respective language, then do an educated guess as to what is meant, but I know nothing about Russian, Chinese or Japanese...

As others have said, unless the intent is clear, writing error-ridden translations on the excuse that "the source text is full of mistakes" is not the thing to do. The service you provide must be usable !

Philippe
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Furorensu (X)
France
TOPIC STARTER
Thank you all for sharing your experience! Apr 29, 2019

It is interesting to see everyone's opinion! I am myself confronted with such a document in English right now, and reading about everyone's experience helps me decide what to do. (I understand what is being said, so I will just try to write it better in French!)

 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 14:52
Member (2018)
French to English
My attitude will depend on the client and the end purpose of the text Apr 30, 2019

My attitude will depend on the client and the end purpose of the text.

If I have a well-written text with just one glaring typo, I'll point it out to the client as a courtesy.

If the text is so badly written that I'm not sure how to translate it, I'll ask the client for explanations.
I once had to translate some accounts written by witnesses in a law suit. It was important to retain the same flavour to convey the character of the writer. One had produced an acco
... See more
My attitude will depend on the client and the end purpose of the text.

If I have a well-written text with just one glaring typo, I'll point it out to the client as a courtesy.

If the text is so badly written that I'm not sure how to translate it, I'll ask the client for explanations.
I once had to translate some accounts written by witnesses in a law suit. It was important to retain the same flavour to convey the character of the writer. One had produced an account full of contradictions, those contradictions had to stay, however much it frustrated me! Incidentally, the client came back to ask if we could place more emphasis on certain points, adding "very" where the source did not justify it, and we refused (I was doing this job with a sworn translator who would have to stamp it).

While I much prefer to translate well-written texts, I do enjoy the detective work trying to work out what the source text is supposed to say. Once I managed to work out that a paragraph of total gibberish had been typed by a touch typist who had wrongly placed their left hand. I did point that one out to the client.

Basically my attitude is that if the client produces a badly-written text, they have to work harder to help me produce a decent translation.
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Andrew Morris
Emma Page
 

Emma Page
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:52
Member (2017)
French to English
+ ...
degrees of "not well written"... Apr 30, 2019

The replies here seem to be referring to quite a few different issues which can come up in source texts.

1) non-native writing which is so poor as to be impossible to understand
2) grammar/spelling errors which don't obscure meaning but make the translator's job slightly more difficult
3) "lazy" writing...a matter of opinion, but I assume this means stylistic errors which could conceivably be replicated in the translation, but which would produce a clunky or unprofessio
... See more
The replies here seem to be referring to quite a few different issues which can come up in source texts.

1) non-native writing which is so poor as to be impossible to understand
2) grammar/spelling errors which don't obscure meaning but make the translator's job slightly more difficult
3) "lazy" writing...a matter of opinion, but I assume this means stylistic errors which could conceivably be replicated in the translation, but which would produce a clunky or unprofessional-sounding target text.

If there are just a few instances of 1 and 2 in a text but most of it is fine, I'll translate what I can and send the client questions or notes where I can't. If the majority of the text is nonsense, I'll ask the client whether they want a gloss/best-effort translation of what is salvageable, or whether they want to have the text corrected before I work on it. Usually the answer is the former, which is fine by me. As long as they have acknowledged the issues with the text, any problems with the resulting translation won't come back to me.

For number 3, I almost always leave the repetition, awkward wording etc. in my translation unless it's very easy to correct. If the client complains, I'm happy to point out the issues with the original and offer my editing services for an additional fee.

The key is to remember what you're being paid to do. Most of us translators will be better-than-average writers in our target languages, but unless you're being paid enough to make correcting the original worthwhile, don't do it! On the other hand, pointing out small ambiguities or errors shows that you are being conscientious and I find that clients are more likely to trust my work and become return clients when I do so.
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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:52
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Good people, poor writing skills Apr 30, 2019

In my main field (architecture and construction), I sometimes find myself having to translate documents written by technical experts who, however, do not write well. This is very understandable, and I am very forgiving because I respect their technical expertise.

[Edited at 2019-04-30 10:26 GMT]


neilmac
Carolina Finley
Liviu-Lee Roth
Dan Lucas
P.L.F.Persio
MollyRose
 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 21:52
Chinese to English
In defence of non-native English May 2, 2019

I just wanted to comment that I have had surprisingly few problems reading texts written directly in English by people who aren't great English speakers. The comparison I'm thinking of is: A text that was written in a foreign language and translated badly vs. a text that was written badly in English. I'd prefer the second, every time. Of course, a non-native English speaker will make some odd word choices and use awkward sentence patterns - but all of those things get changed when we switch into... See more
I just wanted to comment that I have had surprisingly few problems reading texts written directly in English by people who aren't great English speakers. The comparison I'm thinking of is: A text that was written in a foreign language and translated badly vs. a text that was written badly in English. I'd prefer the second, every time. Of course, a non-native English speaker will make some odd word choices and use awkward sentence patterns - but all of those things get changed when we switch into another language anyway!

And I've always found that there is a mysterious clarity that comes from someone with clear ideas that they want to communicate. Even if their language "channel" is noisy, I feel like I can always perceive the ideas behind them, ignore the noise, and just write a good target text. When a mediocre translator has intervened, the ideas themselves have lost their definition and clarity, and reconstruction is much harder.

Of course, this has to do with my particular experience - I usually see non-native English texts when I'm being asked to edit academic papers, written by highly-educated writers. That's definitely a biased sample! But in general, separating the meaning behind from the language-specific surface representations is what we do for a living, right? So errors/problems that are purely surface or stylistic in general shouldn't be a problem (though they can make the work much less fun). Where the thinking/meaning behind the text is fuzzy, life becomes much harder, because then it's our job to reproduce the fuzziness, through a different filter. That can be really difficult.
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B D Finch
 

reiwa
United Kingdom
It depends. May 16, 2019

It depends on how bad it is. If it's barely legible, then I will most likely not accept the job in the first place because trying to work my way through the text will be additional labour on top of the translation itself.

If it's a couple of errors here and there, I will ignore them and assume what the probable intent was.

[Edited at 2019-05-16 14:28 GMT]


 
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