Source Text Blues

One of the many challenges translators face is one that many newcomers don't anticipate: poorly written source texts. We frequently get some very good questions about how to deal with awful source texts, and we thought we'd address this issue here. This is a difficult topic, and as with most business-related issues, there are few black/white answers, but read on for our thoughts on source texts and the role of the translator. 

  1. We are not the language police. Stick to your role: the client has hired you to perform a specific service, which is translation, so you should focus on that (of course, there are always exceptions).  Now, if the client asks for feedback on the source text, that's a different story. Hiring a translator who then critiques your source text is a bit like hiring an architect who comes to your house to talk about the new backyard porch and then points out that you have poor interior decorating skills. Some of our trusted clients do want us to put together a list of source text errors that we might come across, and we usually put together a very matter-of-fact list and refrain from making any unsolicited comments.
  2. Consider the possibility that you might be wrong. Many times, translators don't fully understand some of the sentences in the source text, and there's nothing wrong with that. That's where the international networks of linguists come in: we help each other! It is part of our job to dissect very complex documents and to produce a linguistic equivalent in the target language. However, consider this: perhaps a translator is not understanding the text (or a portion thereof) not because it is so poorly written, but because the translator has not kept up with current usage in his or her source language. It happens. Translators must consider the possibility that they are wrong, especially if they have not lived in a country in which their source language is spoken in many years. For instance,  we are very aware of the fact that the Spanish we grew up speaking in Mexico City has changed and evolved, and to stay on top of it, we read Spanish-language newspapers, magazines or books on a daily basis. Many times, certain passages initially strike us as being slightly off, but turns out that we were out of the loop!
  3. Read the entire source document before you accept a project. If you feel that the source text is so incomprehensible that you can't possibly translate it, then decline the project, and do so politely. If it's a long-time client, you might want to point out some of the shortcomings of the source text, but before you say these things with iron-clad conviction, check with a trusted colleague to get a second opinion. 
  4. Source texts are almost never perfect (unless you get very lucky). Expecting the perfect source text (easy to read, no strange abbreviations and acronyms, no formatting issues, perfectly written) is similar to a doctor expecting the perfect patient who describes her symptoms with razor-like precision or a CPA who expects her client to be obsessed with Excel spreadsheets. Poorly written source texts will be a big part of your life as a professional translator. Look at the bright side of poorly written source texts: any grammatical or style issues can usually be eliminated by translating the text!
  5. Research before you ask/comment. Knowing when to ask the client for clarification is another tricky subject. We wrote more about that here. But before you comment on any source text, you might want to do some research about the source text in question. Google a few lines and see if your client is the author -- now, then you must really use kid gloves. We heard about a colleague who a few years ago told a client that the source text was "terrible," only to be informed that the client, a highly respected economist, had written the text herself. Our hunch is that our colleague wasn't familiar with the highly specific way of writing for academic journals, but tried to shift the blame to the source text, which brings us to the next point.
  6. Stick to your areas of expertise. There's a reason we don't translate documents for the pharmaceutical industry: we are not qualified. The source texts wouldn't make sense to us not because they are poorly written, but because we lack the expertise to understand them.
  7. Now, different standards apply to homemade "translations." Many clients think their foreign-language skills are so strong that they can translate the text themselves. Then they simply request an editing job from a professional translator, but oftentimes, the "translations" are so poor that you have to start over. In this case, we think it's perfectly acceptable to state that you recommend a new translation (you don't have to go into great detail). But again, be kind: the misguided "translator" might be very proud of his or her work. We like our colleague Chris Durban's line about refraining from finger-wagging. 
  8. No public complaining. Don't mock a client's source text (and don't make fun of any clients, period) online or anywhere else where the client might see it. It's unprofessional. If you have to ask for clarification on a source sentence from colleagues, stick to members-only listservs or to close friends and colleagues. Never identify the client by name. 
Again, there are no easy answers, but we hope to have contributed some food for thought to this interesting topic. We very certainly don't have all the answers, but we try to be remember that we are in the customer service business. 

We would love to hear from our colleagues -- how do you deal with sub-par source texts? Have you ever said something about a source text that you wish you could take back? What's been your best/worst experience/resolution? Please leave a comment and let's continue the conversation. 


Elisabet Tiselius on March 5, 2013 at 12:15 AM said...

Since I don't translate I cannot really comment on the text side. However, the same problems definitely occur in interpreting. It is a delicate thing, though, in particular in court and medical interpreting, since the poor/inaccurate/ambiguous way of expressing oneself actually may say something about your condition or be a conscious strategy.
It is not uncommon to hear that "s/he got a better interpretation than s/he deserved". I can completely relate to that frustration, but it is not necessarily the best interpreting strategy.

Unknown on March 5, 2013 at 12:17 AM said...

I‘ve often had very positive reactions to my comments on source text quality. Often the translator is the first person to read a document from a true reader’s perspective. So if I don‘t fully understand some sentences in the source text and continue to do so after thorough thought and research, there might really be something wrong with these sentences. Either it is only the style that makes the sentence incomprehensible or the sentence may even contain a “real error”. In most cases my customers are glad to have those text weaknesses spotted by the translator, especially if the text is intended for publication.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 5, 2013 at 8:53 AM said...

@Elisabet: Ah, very good point about the way clients/deponents/witnesses/patients express themselves. Judy is a court-certified interpreter, and here in the US, it's all about maintaining register. Very challenging indeed. For medical interpreting, which we don't do, it's a whole different ball game. There's lots of discussion going on in the medical interpreter certification world -- should the medical interpreter just be a conduit or a cultural broker? Or even an advocate? No easy answers... Thanks for commenting!

@LJ: Thanks for reading and for commenting. Excellent point about grateful clients. We've had that once in a while, too, although usually the text that we translate will be published, and not the source text. On the other hand, one of our hospital clients sends us forms they use in English to translate into Spanish and we kindly point out the source text issues, if any. As you said, most clients have been quite grateful. We should have written about this aspect as well - thanks for the reminder!

Caroline Durant said...

I don't think I've ever commented on the writing style of a source text, except where I have had to ask for a clarification, but I do point out any typos and spelling mistakes in the source text if it is a marketing text. In this case, I assume that the ST will be published too, and I expect clients to be happy for the extra proofreading. In fact, I feel that I am missing out on an opportunity to be proactive when I forget to mention such errors. What is your view on commenting on this type of mistake, as opposed to stylistic 'mistakes'?

Oliver Lawrence on March 5, 2013 at 2:15 PM said...

If the source text is equivocal or ambiguous in certain parts or contains errors, then it's important to point it out (tactfully).

This may be as a service to help the client improve their text (if the client's organisation is responsible for it). Perhaps more importantly, it will also serve to highlight and justify the need for a translation that departs from the original.

Gio Lester on March 9, 2013 at 11:22 PM said...

Spot on. But I have been known to offer my editing services to clients when the mistakes were blatant (there/they're/their; which/what/who). But only in those situations.

James Kirchner said...

Sometimes I get source texts that the foreign client has partially written in his own version of English, and I can't understand them. When I get these, I may pretend I think they're translations and request that the project manager ask the client for the German original (or Czech or French) because I don't understand the "translation". Sometimes, on ongoing projects, I have to ask the agency to request that the whoever is writing the stuff write in his own language, because I just couldn't understand the English.

One of the times I wonder if I'm seeing bad writing or if I don't understand is when German writers use German and English synonyms, or Germanisms and Latinisms right next to each other, such as "automatisch und selbsttätig" or "herunterladen oder downloaden". I always wonder if the person who wrote those sees a different nuance to each word.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 12, 2013 at 9:09 AM said...

@Caroline: Absolutely, if the ST will also be published, then we think it's a great idea to include comments on the source text as well (tactfully). Some clients might not like that, and they might rightfully claim that the source text is in the translator's B language, but an extra set of eyes to catch typos is always beneficial. We've been known to include a short list of source text errors with a note telling the client "to use this information as you see fit." So, to answer your question: our thoughts are that it's fine to point out obvious errors as long as you do so nicely. That said, there will always be some clients who are very happy about that feedback, while others might not be (perhaps because they don't have time to fix the ST, perhaps because they don't like unsolicited feedback), but if the client mentions that the ST will also be published, it's probably a good idea to go the extra mile. Thanks for reading and for commenting!

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