Open Thread: Tricky Editing Project

Happy 2012, everyone! We wanted to share an interesting business case from our practice with our dear readers and would love to get your opinions. As usual, since we are talking about a real client, we have changed all the identifying details. 

A few months ago, a new client came to us with an editing project. We requested his documents to determine whether he would need proofreading, editing or a new translation. It did not take us very long to determine that what he really needed was a new German translation -- he had done this one himself, and he's a high-end personal chef, not a translator. We gently told him that a new translation would be his best bet for his business. He was not offended in the least, but he did bring up an excellent point, one we had actually not heard before. He did not want his website to be "too perfect" in terms of the German language, as he's not fluent. He did not want to set the expectation that his German is better than it actually is.  As a personal chef,  he would have to interact with every new client, and he obviously did not want to mislead them into thinking he was a native German speaker (he's not). What an interesting dilemma, we thought. We pondered this for a while, and then offered him our (cheaper) proofreading service, specifying that we would just fix the most obvious grammar and syntax mistakes, while leaving the style issues alone -- again, he *wanted* quite a few mistakes in the text. It was an unorthodox proposal, but anything to make the client happy (and no, our names are not on his website). 

Our new client cheerfully agreed and we proofed his texts for him using track changes. In the end, we probably did spend more time doing actual editing (which goes beyond proofing), because, well, it is just quite difficult to not fix something that's not correct. It goes against everything we've been taught and against what we usually do. We did, however, go to great lengths to make sure the text sounded like it was written or translated by someone who is not fluent in German. It was quite a challenge! At the end of the day, this might not have been a very lucrative project because we spent a lot of time on it, but the client was delighted with the end result. 

What do you think, dear readers? How would you have handled this request? We'd love to hear your ideas and thoughts. 


Kevin Lossner on January 12, 2012 at 4:10 PM said...

Wow. This was an interesting challenge, one that will be great fun to discuss at the next local translators' dinner :-)

I wonder if the same principle should be applied to B&Bs and other small establishments where customers should expect only rudimentary communication in their languages.

Misha Krasnotsvetov on January 13, 2012 at 4:50 AM said...

This is the reason why some translation agencies offer different 'levels' of translation. Not everyone needs the perfect written website, because it is just not the way they run their business.

Thank you for the interesting article, never encountered this kind of requests myself yet.

Mar González on January 13, 2012 at 5:17 AM said...

I guess your solution was the best thing you could do. Tricky and difficult, I guess, but at least your customer is now satisfied. And I bet you also learnt something while autocontroling yourself not to correct all the mistakes...

May on January 13, 2012 at 6:43 AM said...

I think his argument is quite valid. But this is a special case. His website is intended to reflect his personality, and no one has an expectation that his language skills are a reflection of his cooking skills. It also probably imparts a certain charm, like a slight foreign accent. I would have corrected all spelling and conjugation mistakes, but left sentence structure or prepositions. On the other hand, if his website is bilingual, the English pages should be impeccable.

To Kevin, I think its a bit different for say, a B+B, because in that case the website represents an establishment, and not a person, even if the establishment is very much the work of an individual. A poor translation would signal to me poor management. How many other corners did they try to cut?

Sometimes mistakes are necessary. When sending cover letters to companies in Japan, a friend of my husbands deliberately left one or two mistakes, claiming that the Japanese found perfect Japanese from a foreigner to be impertinent.

areacode514 on January 13, 2012 at 3:04 PM said...

Although I understand the chef's concern about not wanting to give the impression that he knows more German than he actually does, I think that a website can nevertheless permit itself to be "Marketing"-oriented.

I would see no harm in having a site with content perfectly written.

To give an analogy, although many people are awful at spelling, we would think it normal (or even come to expect) for them to run their texts through a spell-checker before publishing them. This is simply for good form, so that the reader can understand what the writer wants to communicate, without getting distracted by all the misspelled words.

I think the same could apply to the translation of a site.

Nonetheless, congratulations on having done one primordial thing -- to make the client happy!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on January 13, 2012 at 5:20 PM said...

@Kevin: it sure is tricky, isn't it? We are not sure we made the entirely correct decision, but the client is happy, so we are happy. Good point about B&Bs. Sometimes we see perfectly translated websites with a nice description of the owners' ACTUAL language skills so visitors know what to expect. ;)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on January 13, 2012 at 5:21 PM said...

@Misha: we don't work with agencies, but we have heard of the different levels of translation, and that's interesting food for thought. If we had translated it ourselves, we probably wouldn't have offered a translation with on-purpose mistakes, but on the editing side, we thought it made sense. Very interesting discussion about this topic. We are still pondering it!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on January 13, 2012 at 5:22 PM said...

@Mar: thanks for reading and for commenting! Yes, it sure was challenging not to correct obvious style issues....but we do love happy customers.

Unknown on January 14, 2012 at 12:05 PM said...

This was definitely an interesting challenge! I think you did the right thing in listening to your client, especially because, as it has been already pointed out, his website was a personal reflection of himself and his personality rather than a company website. It is so true that there are so many clients out there in need of different approaches to translation and being as flexible as you have been shows respect to the client and understanding of his needs, especially because, after all, what matters are the deliverables, and you gave your client exactly what he needed.
@Misha: I completely agree, us too we offer different levels of translation according to its purpose and intended audience.
@May: the bit on necessary mistakes is very interesting.

Juliette on January 16, 2012 at 3:37 AM said...

Absolutely agree about "fixing" a bad translation taking far longer than doing it from scratch. However, I don't see why you should have refused it if that was what the client wanted - especially if your names are not on it!

I'm very interested in what Misha said about "different levels of translation". Could you give me some examples Misha? It has to do with some academic research I'm doing.

Does anyone know of a "translation brief template" that might avoid misunderstandings in this kind of case - to clarify exactly what "sort of translation" the client wants right at the start?

céline on January 16, 2012 at 6:20 AM said...

I completely get his point that he wants his site to be faithful to who he is, but I would have argued that copy can be written in a way to reflect someone's personality without peppering it with mistakes. He could even have written a humourous paragraph explaining that his German is far from being as good as his website might suggest. Ultimately, you delivered what the client wanted, so you did your job, but I think he could have achieved his aim with clever copywriting, and I would have tried to convince him to take this route.

Sussex Coast Talking News on January 16, 2012 at 7:15 AM said...

I had precisely the same request from a native German speaker - a very good client for whom I do a lot of press and publicity work. This time it was a personal order rather than for his company because he was sending his details to a University to enroll for a distance learning course. He expressly wanted me to keep some mistakes in. I tidied it up a bit but didn't change his style (which was quite good anyway, just a little too colloquial for a formal document). So you are not alone in receiving such a request Judy and Dagmar

Oliver Lawrence on January 16, 2012 at 12:48 PM said...

Interesting. Maybe for the B&B scenario, a hybrid approach could be used, with perfectly written text for the important practical information (who wants to struggle with mistakes - intentional or otherwise - when reading location directions or price details?) but a personal 'welcome' or 'about us' page written in a more homely style.

Tolken on January 16, 2012 at 11:44 PM said...

I have been reflecting over that but from another point of view: How come that some airlines' recorded messages in languages foreign to that company are not perfect, but with a clear accent or sometimes gramatically flawed? I have concluded that it is because the company wants to signal exactly what you write in your post. In theory they could have a perfect message because it is recorded, but then maybe it would raise expectations on the crews' language knowledge - or something along those lines.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on January 19, 2012 at 3:09 PM said...

@everyone: thanks so much for the insightful comments! Lots of good food for thought, and thanks for joining the conversation. Seems like there's really no right answer in this case, but we are happy with the outcome. We do think it's important to set correct expectations in terms of language proficiency of the providers -- small business or large. Remember when some airlines had "click here for Spanish" and you did, only to be taken to the English-language booking engine? And there was no Spanish-language phone help, which was disappointing, and we always thought that was misleading for customers.

Happy to hear that many of you have received similar requests. Good point about airline phone messages, @Tolken.

@Juliette: thanks for the input about the translation brief. Usually, we describe the services to be provided in detail in our price quote, which the customer signs. In this case, we spelled out, in great detail, what kind of work would be included and what we would, at the client's request, not do.

This exchange of ideas is fantastic -- almost like being in a room together, isn't it? ;)

english editing on February 15, 2012 at 12:33 AM said...

wow! this is a strange request!!! usually everybody asks for a perfect editing and here the client needs something totally different!!! Buy who is the targetted audience for such kind of the website?

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 15, 2012 at 9:48 AM said...

@English editing: Thanks for the comment. We think this is more about the writer/provider than about the target audience, which would certainly be fluent English speakers. :)

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