To what extent do you rewrite or edit?
Thread poster: Maaike van Vlijmen

Maaike van Vlijmen  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 00:24
Member (2009)
Italian to Dutch
+ ...
Mar 2, 2007

Dear all,
I have a problem and I don't know whether it's entirely my fault or not. I recently translated a large document with a subject I wasn't familiar with. The agency knew this, but they chose me because I did the test translation best. During the translation, I discovered that the document was written quite badly, or at least in a strange way. Many parts in the text looked like they were translations from English (the text I got was Portuguese). Sometimes I couldn't even see the meaning of a sentence, because it really didn't make sense. My fiancé is a native speaker of Portuguese and highly educated (he also writes scientific articles), and I frequently asked him for advice. He told me the Portuguese was bad, and he was convinced it was a translation. I managed to translate the text and I thought I did ok. I really did my best. The text was proofread by someone else and then it was sent to the client.
Yesterday I got an email from the agency, saying the client wasn't satisfied with the translation (it was the first time this happened to me and I cried my eyes out), because it was too complicated and sometimes too literally translated. They gave some examples of how it could be improved.
Since I felt horrible about it, I told them I was willing to learn from my mistakes and that I could take another close look at it. Only then I told them I thought the source text was written in a strange way, and that I suspected it was a translation. They didn't answer that, but they sent me the translation so I could try to improve it.
Now I'm reading it and I see that some parts are complicated or not very smooth. However, I feel like they want me to rewrite the text, as I saw in their examples of improvements. The problem is that I don't know if this is really my job. Since they gave me such a weird text, and given that I wasn't familiar with the subject, I feel I couldn't do much about it. Maybe if I had had more time, I could have edited it. Already during the translation process I was asking myself: should I just change this completely, to make it more understandable? Now I regret that I didn't talk about it with the agency...
So my question is: what do you do when you translate a text that doesn't make sense? Are you allowed to change it? To what extent? And what is the role of the proofreader here? Should he or she have made some changes?
I feel very bad about this, I want to solve it and make everybody happy. I will try to do what I can, but I would also like to know what other translators think of this.
Thank you for your thoughts!

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Alan R King
Local time: 01:24
Basque to English
+ ...
What I do Mar 4, 2007

Hi Maaike.

I usually try to produce a translation that sounds right in the target language, and will do whatever I consider necessary to the text to make this happen, as long as I feel I won't be accused of making the translation say "something else".

That is my style of translating and if clients like it, they will come back. Generally my clients do come back, so I figure I am justified to continue with that policy. (Once, years ago, a translation agency I did a test for told me I had not been literal enough. No problem. I guess there are different tastes in this, and I have my own.)

However, when the source text you are provided is badly written (all to often the case, I find), complications arise. If the writing is not totally disastrous, it may just mean more work for me. Working the way I do (basically reconstituting the text to convey the author's intention), as long as I am able to understand the subject matter, I encounter few exceptions to the rule of thumb that a well-written text is less work for me to translate than a badly-written one - because I generally need to do less "editing" to produce a good target text.

However, some authors are SO bad that they come into a different category: they are such clumsy writers that it's often anybody's guess what the h**l they are trying to say - or even if they themselves know! Here my usual principle sometimes breaks down: I cannot improve on the text better to convey its meaning if it isn't clear what meaning is supposed to be conveyed. Then and only then I will resort to my Plan B, which is to TRANSLATE AS LITERALLY AS POSSIBLE. That is all you can do with a really awful source text. How can the client complain? Garbage In, Garbage Out. Right?

I rarely discuss these problems with clients because they usually don't appreciate the subtle points you're trying to make and get the wrong end of the stick. Instead, I say to myself: if they like my work, they may come back for more. Either way, my conscience is clean.

Maybe my approach to translation is not the professional one. Sometimes I wonder. But it works for me.

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Barbara Micheletto
Local time: 01:24
Russian to Italian
+ ...
Dear Maaike, Mar 4, 2007

this situation happens to me quite often, and this is what I generally do. Bearing in mind that the reader (and the agency, as well) will look at my text in the end, I have always said to myself: "how will they know by themselves that the source text was so poor, and that my translation is a mere reflection of that? Moreover, even if I tell them, they will probably think that every misunderstanding, poor conceived sentence, etc. is mine..." Therefore, I always try to obtain a well written and smooth text even if I have to make some changes, but obviously I never change the meaning.
Upon delivery I always inform the agency that the source text was very poor, probably a translation, and that I did all my best to obtain a smooth, plain text. If some points remain controversial, I opt for the most reasonable alternative (in my opinion), then I make a list of such points for the agency. To put it simply, in such cases I strive to avoid complaints, so the above mentioned list can be very long!
In your place I would try to improve the text at your best and then tell the agency that your first translation is a right and accurate translation of the poor source text they gave you, that the new translation is a sort of rewriting (or adaptation) and that you hope it suits them.
I hope this is not a very long text and you can do it rather quickly. Anyway, do not panic! I think in similar cases there is not a generally accepted behaviour (for what concerns patents, for istance, you are not so free in modifying the text) and other translators would do other ways, maybe exactly as you did, therefore you should not feel responsible towards the agency. My 2 cents.


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