This post provides a short analysis of the common dialogues that take place between translation agencies and freelance or in-house translators. More specifically, I want to look at those situations where a translator is at fault, but reverts to finger-pointing instead of admitting it. My goal is not to criticize translators since as a translator myself, I occasionally struggle with the same issues, but rather to highlight them and discuss why and how we should avoid them.
Q: This is clearly a marketing text requiring a creative translation. Why did you translate it so literally, making the translation sound unnatural?
A: I thought that sticking to the original text as much as possible was more important.
Technically, a project manager shares responsibility for this issue to a certain degree because they didn’t specifically instruct the translator to provide a creative translation. But let’s face it, a translation professional should be able to distinguish between a technical text and a more creative one and choose the translation style accordingly without any external advice. By the same token, a PM doesn’t need to expressly forbid using colloquial style each time they assign a technical translation project to a translator. This is something that a pro understands by default. A translator who failed to observe the very basic principles of translation like the one above is either incompetent or knowingly delivered poor results and is just looking for an excuse.
Q: Do you know what this sentence you translated means?
A: I don’t have a clue. I’m not a specialist in this field, I’m just a translator.
Another common problem is a translator’s failure to understand what they are translating about. Instead of taking the time to dig deeper, a translator may choose the path of least resistance—succumb to a literal translation, hoping that even if it doesn’t hit the target directly, it’ll be close enough anyway. This attitude is one of the gravest mistakes a translator can make in their career. It’s contrary to the main purpose of translation, which is to convey the meaning correctly. If you don’t get the meaning, you obviously can’t get the translation right. Personally, I believe that a translator considering a potential job should only accept it if they immediately understand at least 90% of the text. The remaining 10% can become clear through research and context. Understanding only 80% or less significantly increases the risk of literal translations that won’t make any sense to the end user.
Q: This term is clearly incorrect. Do you know what it means? Did you check whether it fit this context?
A: No, I just copied and pasted it from a dictionary.
This answer typical of amateur translators implies that responsibility for an error rests with a dictionary. But is it really? Wherever we, as translators, find our translations, the ultimate responsibility always rests with us. It’s not the dictionary that’s going to be paid for the job, right? A dictionary is a good servant, but a bad master—although it’s often indispensable, it can be a source of problems when used unwisely. The fact of the matter is that many words have more than one meaning and hence can be translated in many different ways. A dictionary tries to help you choose between the meanings by indicating the different fields they belong to. But if you don’t have a clue about what a word means, this information can be of limited value and even misleading. The best way for a translator to cut out the guesswork is to check the meaning and usage of the words on the Internet. Running each term in combination with the surrounding words through a search engine will show whether it has the right meaning and fits the context. The number or search results is very informative, too. When you get just a handful of results, the chances are this is not the right translation.
Q: The quality of your translation is substandard. Why did you make so many errors?
A: I thought that as a translation agency, you are supposed to review my work and catch errors.
Indeed, arranging translation review by a second linguist is one of a translation agency’s primary responsibilities. But is it a valid reason for a translator to drop the ball and expect someone else to clean up after them? The purpose of translation review is not to correct errors per se, but to catch those tricky errors that a translator overlooked. The amount and magnitude of errors must be extremely low. If a translator doesn’t care about the quality of their own work, why would an agency engage them to begin with? Unfortunately, however logical this reasoning might be, there’s also a psychological aspect to this problem that some people can’t control—knowing that someone else will check their translation and clean it up, a translator may subconsciously feel more relaxed and less responsible for the final result.
Q: Why are you late with delivery?
A: I am late due to computer problems, power outage, etc.
Undoubtedly, these reasons can be valid. Sometimes, a translator may be understandably late with delivery due to a family emergency, for example. What I want to suggest, though, is that as translation pros, we must take a more proactive approach to ensuring we always deliver on time. It’s up to us to ensure we have a second set of equipment or backup Internet connection to finish the translation in case the main one fails. It’s up to us to arrange appropriate backup of the work in progress. It’s up to us to start translation as soon as the job arrives instead of waiting until the very last minute. When a translator doesn’t follow these common-sense business principles, whose fault is it that they can’t deliver on time due to the Internet connection being down? If a translator takes an unplanned vacation, letting a translation job sit on their desk for two days, and when they return and start working only on the day of delivery, their computer crashes, is it really the computer manufacturer who’s to blame for the late delivery? The more proactive we are in this respect, the less is the risk of failure.
Can you relate to these experiences? Please let me know what you think.
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