Dealing with low quality of source documents
Thread poster: Trans-Iberia (X)

Trans-Iberia (X)

Local time: 11:11
Aug 1, 2007

I find lately that the vast majority of documents I receive (here in Spain) are written in really, amazingly bad Spanish. I don't know if the problem is a deficient educational system or just good-old-fashioned sloppiness, but almost every document I get has glaring grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and formatting errors that often make full and accurate comprehension very difficult.

So, my question is: how do you deal with this sort of problem on a daily basis? At what point should a document simply be rejected? I like to send a message to the agencies when I finish the translation with a disclaimer stating "I cannot be fully responsible if certain sentences have been misinterpreted, because the original document is in such poor condition that it is barely understandable at times." But when I do this agencies just seem annoyed and respond nothing. Sometimes you will then get the typical complaint from the client, because there are some minor glitches in the translation (though the source doc had MAJOR problems to begin with), leading to the inevitable e-mail battle over who is right. Do you tend to refuse such docs, ask for a better version??? Thanks for any feedback!


Deborah do Carmo  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:11
Dutch to English
+ ...
It comes with the territory Aug 1, 2007

It's obviously not our job as translators to guess what is meant in a source text.

That said, there is a certain level of intuition and persistence needed, otherwise we'd be rejecting a good deal of source texts we receive.

Yes, in a perfect world, the source texts would all be crystal clear and beautifully written. We don't live in that world.

There is a often a fine line between what to query and what not, but generally my rule of thumb is if I have to resort to any form of guesswork, I flag it.

And, in those relatively few cases, people can get as irritated as they want, it's my head on the block at the end of the day.

You've been translating for 7 years already - so you've no doubt developed a sense for what can be problematic.

You've just been unfortunate to be hit with some poorly written docs recently, it seems, but I wouldn't advocate issuing general disclaimers. It obviously annoys clients, it also starts to sound like you don't know what you're doing if used too often. Crying wolf and all those things - it can backfire, badly.

Something can either be translated or needs a rewrite - it's the agency's job to get clarification when something is really unintelligible - in those more extreme cases, just stick to your guns.

All I can suggest is treat each new text as a separate issue. Irritated as I can also get with yet another problem text, each one is an issue on its own, so I try not to overreact because of something similar that might have happened a few days ago - and keep reminding myself, it comes with the territory.

Best of luck

[Edited at 2007-08-02 02:12]


Claire Titchmarsh (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:11
Italian to English
+ ...
Interesting point Aug 1, 2007

Think of yourself as an interpreter. Imagine that you were standing next to the guy who wrote the sloppy text and he was giving you the information verbally instead of on paper. Would you say: "I'm sorry, your accent is just horrendous, I can't understand a word you're saying, please go away and come back when you can speak properly". Of course not. You might ask him to repeat a couple of words or explain a concept better - so why not do the same with your agencies.

When writing to agencies about poor quality SDs you could try saying "this is ambiguous", followed by two alternative translations. Don't let grammar and punctuation bug you, think of it like people coughing while they speak or saying "erm" a lot, it's just annoying.

The message is always in there somewhere, but sometimes, if the text was written by a person who never usually writes anything in his or her everyday life, it will take a little longer to fathom. Pazienza!


Ioanna Orfanoudaki  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:11
French to Greek
+ ...
I always go back to my client Aug 2, 2007

I always inform my client that some points in the original text are ambiguous. I have also had cases of source texts containing contradictory terms/sentences/definitions, which is worse than ambiguous...
I generally try to spot these tricky points at the start and inform the client so that they can come back to me with a clear answer before I complete the projet. If I don't, and am under pressure to deliver before a deadline, I let the client know that I faced problems with the translation of sentence "so and so" and that I temporarily translated it as "such and such", so that the client is aware of the content of the translation. Sometimes, the client comes back saying that, in fact, they meant something else, in which case I just correct the sentence and send it back corrected. Sometimes they don't come back, which means that my guess was right... (phew!) I have even had cases where my client sent out a message to those translating the source text into other languages informing them that there is an ambiguous point (that I pointed out) and how it should be translated!
Hope this helps!


John Cutler  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:11
Spanish to English
+ ...
GIGO Aug 2, 2007

I’ve mentioned this same idea in other forums. It’s called the GIGO method of translation: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

I’ve finally decided that it’s just part of our job. There are so many poorly written SDs that I now consider myself a type of garbage recycler. I may be handed garbage to work with, but the garbage I give back is going to be cleaned up and polished as much as is humanly possible within proper translation practice. It’ll be recycled and presented in a newly usable format the same way glass and paper are recycled.

I agree with the others who have said that we don’t need to include disclaimers on our work. It would be easy to give into the frustration caused by other people’s lack of writing skills, but, in the end, it comes across as an excuse and looks like we’re the ones who don’t know how to do our work. I’m not saying this is true of you nacozari, but there is a saying, “A poor workman blames his tools”. (Please don’t take that personally, it’s just an example).

I believe that the future belongs to those of us who can write well and publish coherent, correctly punctuated material. I think if you turn down work because of the poor quality inherent in the original, you may end up going hungry. The world is full of gobbledegook writing and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon, so as the prayer says,

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” And to paraphrase the rest: “…and the courage to turn garbage into something beautiful”.


tectranslate ITS GmbH
Local time: 11:11
+ ...
When in doubt, ask. Or at least make a note. Aug 2, 2007

Lawyer-Linguist wrote:

There is a often a fine line between what to query and what not, but generally my rule of thumb is if I have to resort to any form of guesswork, I flag it.

I wish more translators did this. A lot of them seem to think that they'll be considered incompetent if they ask questions.

Obviously, if you're out of your depth as a translator and have bitten of more than you can chew with a specific job, your questions will make the client aware of this. Then again, not asking and translating based on guesses is probably even worse.



Martin Wenzel
Local time: 11:11
English to German
+ ...
Do you want something fishy or is it beautiful that you want? Aug 2, 2007

My rule of thumb is: Each time something sounds fishy, I need to go back and double-check because there is almost always something wrong.

I find that technical texts that are clearly written save me a lot of time...

On the other hand, and this happened to me the other day, I am not sure I like beautifully written texts either any more, at least from a practical, economic point of view as a freelance translator paid by the line...

I received a tourism text and accepted it thinking, this will be a walk in the park...

It seemed easy at first glance, when I started translation I realised that it was full of idioms, plays on words, double meanings. I think I have never spend 10 hours on 3 pages of text in my whole life...

So I am not sure the beautifully written texts are the ones we should desire...


Rafa Lombardino
United States
Local time: 02:11
Member (2005)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Clients are not language people Aug 2, 2007

Unfortunately, I've come to the realization that most people working on original documents are not language people themselves. Of course large corporations have a solid and reliable communications department (and we assume they work with good journalists and writers to produce their material), but most clients out there don't have money (or will) to invest in a communications department. Sometimes, they just buzz in their secretaries and ask them to write something on that subject they talked about during the last meeting. And the poor secretaries do their best to please the boss, even though they didn't go to college to learn how to write correctly and make a career out of it.

When I get a document like that and the situation is really bad, I let the client know that it either looks like a back translation (e.g.: someone else has translated an English document into broken Portuguese and now I have to try to understand what's going on to put it back into English) or that the original material is indeed poorly written.

One of my most frustrating experiences was this magazine article I got from Brazil about the painting industry. "Great," I thought, "I have just translated several articles into Portuguese that talk about the same exact market! I have all the terminology down in English, so it will be piece of cake!" Well, my mistake!icon_frown.gif

The way that story was published in a trade magazine really hurt my eyes (I had the originals scanned in PDF, so I'm sure it had already gone to print.) My background is in Journalism, so I was extremely irritated with the lack of consistency in punctuation, the grammar mistakes, the on/off switching between formal and informal language, and --worst of all-- the use of SO MANY English terms poorly adapted into Portuguese. Those people clearly didn't have a clue about what they were doing...

Well, this business is not perfect (no business is!), so all we can do is put our best effort into it and let the client know what's going on. Of course, if something is so badly written that you cannot get the message at all, go back to the client and ask questions. If you show them that you're going through the trouble, they'll understand the situation and try to do better next time.

[Edited at 2007-08-02 14:07]


Trans-Iberia (X)

Local time: 11:11
thanks... Aug 3, 2007

thanks for all of the interesting and supportive comments everyone. i am not sure if i have drawn any one clear conclusion. i have obviously dealt with this problem for years, but it seems to be getting a bit worse lately, as the general population's interest in writing well decreases. i guess nowadays it's all about quantity and not quality, and as the younger generations who have gone through progressively worse schooling systems rise through the ranks, we will have to deal with these problems more and more.

i guess i will just keep dealing with this on a case-by-case basis, though i do like the idea of thinking about written translation as if it were an oral interpretation, in which you can't get everything right word for word. most of the time everything turns out fine, whether i provide a disclaimer or not, but you must be careful. i was recently burned after translating a very long technical document about petroleum refining. as is the case with many technical docs, the quality of the language used was extremely low, and it was chock-full of unexplained abbreviations and acronyms. i repeatedly told the agency about the problems, but they say to just go ahead and do the best possible, and then i was faced with a complaining client afterwards. suddenly all my prior warnings were forgotten and it was just 'my fault'.

i think it is important for agencies at least to stand by their tried-and-true translators in such cases or a huge burnout factor is created. in an ideal world, clients would realize we usually return documents in much better shape than the garbage they give us, but i don't see much appreciation out there! after reading the answers here, i think i will just grin and bear it even more than before, since in the real, practical world there just isn't time to deal with these problems in a quality way.


tanaudel  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:11
German to English
Square brackets and translator's notes Aug 25, 2007

I use square brackets and translator's notes whenever something is illegible or frankly ambiguous and the client has not been able to supply a better copy.

Fortunately, this is rarely the case with original official documents. With everything else, I let my clients know they can come back to me with questions or concerns, but I haven't had any in this regard. Yet.


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