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Translation errors and the nasty problems they can cause
Thread poster: ViktoriaG

ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 10:48
English to French
+ ...
Mar 2, 2008

I just thought I would bring to your attention an article by Professor Jody Byrne about translation errors, liability and the problems such errors can cause.

http://www.jostrans.org/issue07/art_byrne.php

Please, do share your ideas if you have any.


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LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 10:48
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
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Translation errors and the nasty problems Mar 2, 2008

What a great article. I especially love all the concrete examples of errors. This is precisely the kind of thing I was writing about in another post. If only the owners of KTAs would read this. Sadly, I think that brokers acting as "translation agencies" who know nothing about translation or languages do not realize the extreme risk they are taking and probably will not stop until the lawsuits begin! I wonder how many agencies and translators would disappear overnight if people started getting sued.

KTA = Kitchen-Table Agency

[Edited at 2008-03-02 05:58]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 16:48
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
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Should the translator be held liable? Mar 2, 2008



Now the question is whether the translator should be held liable for the mistake. You can hardly expect the Japanese translator to pay back the US $ 8 000 000 000 it cost to save that bank. But would it be fair to punish the translator in some or other way? One can always shift the blame and say that the quality control procedures should have picked up the mistake, but believe me, there is often zero QC in breaking news translations.

Next question... what if the translator did it deliberately (or as a joke)? He could not possibly have known what devastating effect his mistranslation would have had on world financial markets.

In my country, a hoax e-mailer was sent to prison after his e-mail caused a burp in the local stock markets. Can a smiling translator suffer the same fate? Should he?


[Edited at 2008-03-02 08:04]


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:48
Member (2006)
French to English
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Interesting - but terrifying Mar 2, 2008

Viktoria Gimbe wrote:

I just thought I would bring to your attention an article by Professor Jody Byrne about translation errors, liability and the problems such errors can cause.

http://www.jostrans.org/issue07/art_byrne.php

Please, do share your ideas if you have any.


What an interesting article! Thank you, Viktoria.
My experience is that all too often these days the work agencies assign to me is desperately urgent, including complex legal pleadings, invitations to tender, and the like, giving the wretched translator virtually no time for research. Also, I am rarely told the purpose of the translation or the identity of the end client. Agencies seem terrified that translators will contact the client directly and circumvent them for furture work - something that I personally have never done and wouldn't do.
What this article says should certainly put us all on our guard.
Regards,
Jenny


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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 15:48
Dutch to English
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Thanks Viktoria Mar 2, 2008

Haven't got the time to digest it properly now, but a quick scan shows it will definitely be worth a good read.

Debs


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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 10:48
English to French
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TOPIC STARTER
Professor Byrne touched a raw nerve! Mar 2, 2008

I purposedly didn't comment before others posted, just to see how translators would perceive this subject. Well, from these few replies, I can already tell this subject is really worth discussing. How I wish Professor Byrne was a ProZ user...

I think that from the moment a translation job is performed for an agency, the translator should not be held liable. The agency's job is not just to outsource the job and give instructions to the translator and then perform QA. The agency also should make sure that the translator has the conditions to perform the work properly. This means that the translator should have sufficient time to not only translate, but also research, ask questions and implement answers, edit, proofread and even sleep on it. Moreover, the translator should have access to reference material that is specific to the translation he is expected to carrry out. When a translation is so important that somebody could suffer a major prejudice if there are any errors in it, it is only natural that care is taken to ensure that such errors never happen, and that is part of the agency's job.

However, in my search to find articles on how people in the industry perceive our work, people other than translators themselves, I came across many articles discussing what to expect from a translation agency (I couldn't find any discussing what to expect from the translator himself - why am I not surprised?). Well, there was one article from a major player in the US who was telling prospective clients to expect to pay more if they want that document translated faster (he is essentially saying that time is money), because then the agency will have to constitute a team of several translators - no word on volume discounts the translators are asked to provide, and no word on QA taking longer because of unavoidable inconsistencies caused by several translators each using their own style and their own preferred terminology (these can already constitute errors, especially in legal and technical translation). The same article was also saying that the client can expect that each translator turn around 2000-3000 words per day - no word on how long it takes to do QA on those 2000-3000 words. I am amazed at this - I am fast, but even I say no to any client who expects me to turn around more than 2000 words per day. It is not a question of wanting to be respected and not wanting to work overtime - it is a question of quality. I refuse to submit mediocre work when I know I can submit excellent work. What bugs me is that I seem to care more about quality than my client does. Granted. But what kind of quality does the end client expect? I bet it is also 100%. If I want to supply 100% quality and the client expects 100% quality, but the agency is satisfied with 70% quality, we have a problem.

I believe that translators should be liable for their work as long as they work with direct clients and as long as the client is responsive and does everything in his power to make sure the translator makes no errors. As for agencies, even as per contract law, the agency is liable. I don't think translators will be put out of commission because of the errors they make - the agencies will be, and when that happens, they will simply close and reopen under a different name after a few months. Back on the merry-go-round!

What can translators do about this? For starters, it would be nice if we stopped quoting the same standard rate to everyone - each job comes with its own specifics and even after years of experience, I find that while I can translate 3000 words per day on one job, I can only turn around 800 per day on another. Of course I will charge a higher per word rate for the latter. It is important that clients - both agencies and end clients - understand that the more difficult a job is, the more it is worth, not just to the translator but to the client as well. How can we expect to have sound deadlines if we accept tight deadlines at the same per word rate as the correct deadlines? Another thing we can do is to make sure we have a contract that covers everything for each job (you can have just one contract per client which specifies that it is indefinitely valid for all jobs you accept from that client until a new contract is signed which voids the old contract). It needs to be specifically outlined that if the agency doesn't do their job right, the translator is not liable. If they didn't review my work, I cannot be held accountable. Last but not least, we can - and should - demand from all agencies to provide us not only with source text, deadline and instructions but enough time and the right conditions to do a good job. We should make this a point. Even though my contract doesn't involve the end client, I want my translation to serve them well all the same. If the agency cannot understand this, I am afraid it is time for me to move on.

[Edited at 2008-03-02 16:58]


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Tatty  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:48
Spanish to English
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Just a quick comment Mar 2, 2008

Hi,

I don't have much time to read it now either but I thought I would just comment quickly on the first example with French.

I think that "wounding" and "bodily harm", both terms of art in English criminal law rather throw up the same problem, so I really don't think that bodily harm is an improvement.
Personally as a starting point I would try to find out if "blessure" is a term of art in French law and if so in what area, in order to get better insight into the term. The text comes from international law, so whether blessure is a term of law in French may be irrelevant. I could attempt to find other examples of it and its translation in international law (since this type of translations are usually done in-house the translator should have had access to this info). If international law if anything like EU law, the different language versions of legislation etc. are supposed to be consulted for the purposes of interpretation, a standard practice. What's more, the purposive approach is to be adopted, meaning that less importance is attached to individual words - you are supposed to look at the spirit of text.

All these points have been missed by the author of the article, which I think are relevant. Could this be because the author does not have a degree in law and therefore is not really in the best position to comment on legal translation. That's all that legal translating needs - firstly the people imparting legal translation courses never, to my knowledge, have any law qualifications, and it would seem that its keenest observers and commentators don't hold any either.


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 17:48
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
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The one who issues is responible Mar 2, 2008

No technical writer or translator can be hold responsible for errors. Only the issuer of the text is responsible, and they have insurance. Errors are inavitable. Machines are constructed so that if the operator presses the wrong button not harm can be done. Only by sticking your hand in the wrong place will you get hurt.
Every technical manual has the little sentence: We do not take responsibility for errors or misprints in this documentation.

These professors are so funny. First they state, that nobody ever has been convicted because of translation error, but then they make up all kind of cases where it nevertheless could happen.

How could the world ever get by without those translation professors?

Forget it!

Cheers
Heinrich


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Tatty  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:48
Spanish to English
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They should have posted the query on proz... Mar 2, 2008

I would have said: death, injury or any other physical harm.

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The Misha
Local time: 10:48
Russian to English
+ ...
With Heinrich on this one Mar 2, 2008

Not that I advocate bad translations, or not giving it all to the job at hand, but the issue brought up by the venerable professor is purely theoretic and, possibly, self-serving (Remember publish or perish?). For once, the predominant majority of bad translations (except, possibly, in legal texts) or mistranslations involve stylistic clumsiness and unauthentic or unidiomatic translations done by poorly qualified non-native speakers. Statistical probability of a bad translation leading to far-reaching or costly consequences is fairly small - except, of course, in some widely publicized instances which against the background of total translation volume only prove the general rule.

The second issue, as explained to me once by an old, experienced ambulance chaser, is the deep pocket. Not only do you have to have serious damage evident for a successful lawsuit, you have to have a deep pocket too. Samuel is right about that. Really,what are they going to do? Sue me for beaucoup bucks over a minor or ambiguous mistranslation? Yeah, right. What may likely happen is that I loose my job (if employed), or a client (if a freelancer). Though bad enough, it is not quite the same as going to a debtor's jail.

So for now I simply do not take on any work outside of my subject area of expertise, lose no sleep fretting and spend my would-be liability insurance premiums on better bottles of Scotch. And so should you. The day when a mistranslation causes Armageddon is not likely to come any time soon.


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Heike Behl, Ph.D.  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 07:48
Member (2003)
English to German
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in-country/expert reviews are a must Mar 2, 2008

All legal translations of any importance that are supposed to hold up in court as legally binding documents have to be reviewed by a professional lawyer who knows that target country's laws in and out. On more important levels such as the Warsaw Convention, that should even be an entire committee.

All medical translations that can in anyway cause harm to patients or medical staff should be reviewed by a medical professional familiar with that area.

Etc.

Thus, the problem with "injury" and "wounding" quoted in the article shouldn't even have existed in the first place, and it seems rather ridiculous to blame the translator for any resulting problems. To push it a bit further: They give us translators the power to rule the world as our word will be the final unchecked and absolute word!

You don't let a layperson author laws and regulations or medical directions or manuals. Why would anybody expect that a translation would always be 100% as if written by an actual lawyer or physician (even if many of us do have some practical experience in our areas of expertise)?

Very often, there is so much more planning, thinking and group effort involved in the writing of original texts, not to mention the time allowed for the writing process. Papers that take months to complete, are based on several reviews by different people or bodies and go through numerous revisions are expected to be translated in a fraction of that time by a single person without the backing of team members or interim feedback in a single "perfect" version. Usually also by somebody who is/ has not been actively involved in any of the circumstances culminating in this paper, somebody who's an outsider and is still expected to have all the necessary insider knowledge.

Anybody should be able to see that it is simply unrealistic and unfair to expect the same level from the poor translator, who's just doing as good a job as he/she can under the circumstances. It should be an absolute no-brainer to use in-country and/or expert reviews for anything of importance.

Of course, translators specialize and should know their way around to hopefully avoid any mistakes with serious consequences (or stupid mistakes as the "steam/smoke" mistranslation), but you simply can't expect the same level of expertise and specialization in a rather narrow field as usually lawers, physicians or technical writers have, writing on topics that are their daily life. Generally, the freelance translators' area of specialization has to be much broader for them to get enough work. One could set different standards for in-house translators working in a law firm or for a research facitlity, for example.

One interesting -- apparently legally grounded -- paradoxical conclusion of that article: The less a translator knows of the field in which he/she works, the less they can be held liable for any mistakes.

I find that rather problematic, don't you?


[Edited at 2008-03-03 00:01]


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 08:48
English to Spanish
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Sometimes it is Impossible Mar 3, 2008

Sometimes it is impossible to come up with terms that will satisfy everyone, especially in the field of law. In different jurisdictions some terms can have special meanings defined in laws, whereas in others they may be no more than generic terms. If asked, I will always caution people that when using a certain term it is to be taken generically and never with any specific meaning it could have in the target language under some law, because I cannot take into account such meanings or such laws. I have no way of knowing what legal concept in the target language and jurisdiction it could be compared with.

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Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
Cyprus
Local time: 17:48
Turkish to English
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Thanks Mar 3, 2008

This is clearly an important article and I have copied it so that I can read it carefully when I have time.

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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 10:48
English to French
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TOPIC STARTER
Errors are inevitable Mar 3, 2008

Even though errors eventually do happen, I have seen way too many errors that were perfectly evitable, and in many cases, I could tell the translator was only doing production work (let's get 8000 words done today so I can accept the other 20,000 words tomorrow) and not translation, which involves research, proofing, etc. In such cases, it is clear that the translator was simply not doing his job right, and in case this causes errors that will have serious consequences, the translator should be held accountable (unless s/he works with an agency, of course). Of course, I would only accept to be accountable to the extent of the total amount of my invoice for the job, and I would be surprised if a translator was brought to court for $50,000 in damages even if the damages did amount to $50,000 - companies don't expect mere physical persons to cough up that kind of money and they probably would never attempt that kind of legal procedure, which is probably the main reason why Professor Byrne and his collagues couldn't find any cases.

I agree that some translation errors are caused by the source text, that is, the source text contained an error and the error got translated along with the rest. Of course, the issuer of the source text is responsible for this. But I've seen some near-perfect source texts that, once translated, became hardly legible. Taking a text and making it worse through translation surely doesn't have anything to do with the issuer of the text. So, I only partially agree that the issuer of the text is liable.

As for Professor Byrne's article, he merely mentions that even though there are, to his knowledge, no convictions of tranlators for errors, it nevertheless could happen, which I believe is true. I think such litigations never turn into court cases because agencies simply decide not to pay the translator in such cases, and the translator seldom takes the agency to court for this, since s/he is only a physical person. However, recently, one of my agency clients asked me to take extra care in my translation because he signed a document in which he agrees to pay $50,000 to the client in case there are any errors in the translation that can harm the client. If the end client wasn't thinking of a possible lawsuit, I wonder what he was thinking of...

The same way issuers of source text can put disclaimers in their documents, I have seen many translated texts with disclaimers saying that in case of dispute, the original takes precedence over the translated text (I believe the EU, among others, uses such disclaimers).

Please, note that this opinion comes from a person who has never outsourced a job (and is not about to anytime soon, either).

It would be interesting to discuss what exactly a translation error is. For example, many agencies view stylistic corrections as errors, which in my opinion is ridiculous. So, just what IS a translation error? Moreover, who is in a position to judge whether a squiggly red line really constitutes an error? I think therein lies the dilemma. Translation is such a subjective business...


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Anne Koth  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 16:48
German to English
Not just the translator's fault? Mar 4, 2008

This is very interesting, especially the "steam/smoke" issue:

"the translator somehow confused the word steam (Dampf) with smoke (Rauch). Unfortunately, a defect in the product meant that it overheated when used, releasing clouds of poisonous smoke. With reassurances from the instructions that this was normal and nothing to worry about, users allowed the smoke to fill the room. "

Isn't it also the proofreader's fault (or, if there was no proofreader, the agency's fault for not having the text proofread)? Of course, it was a silly mistake to make, but the proofreader (or the agency) didn't do their jobs right, either.

Here, as "smoke" made just as much sense as "steam", the proofreader would have to be reading the German and the English text simultaneously, and extremely carefully, to spot the mistake. That requires a lot of concentration; it's something I find very hard myself, especially with similar-looking words such as "employer" and "employee". Again, I don't want to exonerate the proofreader, either, but I imagine many people not working in translation would find it hard to imagine why the mistake was made or went unnoticed in the first place. Mistakes such as this are far more likely to be made in the translation than in the original, where the people checking the text also usually know the product quite well.

I thought this comment odd:

"One possible explanation for the error (which by no means exonerates or defends the translator) is that the translator confused the German word for smoke which is Rauch with the German word for smell or aroma which is Geruch. "

What does "Geruch"/smell have to do with "steam" or "smoke"? Isn't it more likely that the translator simply had an image of a large cloud issuing from the bread-making machine, and then accidentally wrote it as a cloud of smoke, rather than a cloud of steam? (Maybe influenced by the image of a smoking toaster?)


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