Decision Tree: Bad Translations

Palm trees near Recife, Brazil. Pic by Judy.
One of the complaints/questions we get from colleagues quite frequently goes something like this: "My client has some terrible translations on their website. I keep on telling them the translation is awful, but my client doesn't think so and refuses to do anything. What should I do?"

This is a common situation, and not one that lends itself to easy answers. We thus tried to come up with some sort of decision tree. Judy tried to use SimpleDiagram to make a tree,  but her computer-based drawing skills are just as bad as her handwriting, so we abandoned this project and will just put this in writing. We've included a picture of palm trees, as they are also trees!

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this affect the quality of your work or your reputation? That is, do you need these translations for your own translations (=are they reference material)? Do these translations make you look bad? Our bet is that since you didn't translate them, your name isn't on them, so we don't see how they could really directly make you look bad. We translate plenty of websites, and know that clients oftentimes tinker with them without our knowledge and do the occasional translation themselves. It's not ideal, but it's the nature of the web. Also think about this: if you, for instance, translate the company's contracts, and they happen to have a terrible website, that's certainly very unfortunate, but has no ill effect on your work other than that it annoys you. You've done your due diligence by pointing out this shortcoming to your client, and that's all you can do. Move on.
  • Is the client paying you? We had colleagues talk to us who are so ticked off at their client's language nonchalance that they are tempted to end the working relationship. Needless to say, we think that's a poor decision. We are not the language police nor can we make clients do what we think is best. All we can do is make recommendations and suggestions, and if they don't accept them, well, then we have to accept the fact that our word isn't gospel. As long as the client is paying you for whatever translation work you are performing for them and you enjoy that relationship, there's no reason to be a purist and let your convictions get in the way of making a living. For instance, our dentists constantly point out that we don't floss enough. It's the same story every six months, but they continue to provide dental services. Perhaps this isn't the best analogy we have ever come up with, but it will do for now.
  • Does this annoy you so much you just cannot handle it? Well, if it does, then you are certainly as free as the other party to walk away from this relationship, and you have every right to to so. You are not married to your client, and if seeing your client's bad translations gives you heartburn and increases your blood pressure to dangerous levels, then sever the relationship. Just ask yourself: is it really worth it? We do have one client who pays us very well for the work we do for him but insists on doing other portions of his business translations himself. We cringe when we see them, and have gently pointed out that it would be best to have "one voice" for his translations (a euphemism for "your translations are not up to par"), but he thinks things are fine the way they are. We tried. So we continue working, cash his checks, and have hope that he will come around.

Of course, please take this all with a small grain of salt, but in essence, this is what we would recommend. We would very much enjoy reading your comments and thoughts on this topic. Happy Wednesday!


Jane on August 29, 2013 at 8:04 AM said...

I agree with what you're saying to a point, but I wonder if you have any good suggestions as to what to do in the following circumstances.

I regularly translate material for a major European museum which they use in both printed and online publications. However, their website is a horrible mish-mash of English and non-English material, and as I'm not their only translator into English even some of the texts that HAVE been translated are rather uneven in quality. I'd like to use the name of this client occasionally when negotiating with new prospective clients, but their texts are such a mess that I don't feel I can. (I also feel that they are insulting their visitors by presenting such nonsense on their site, but that's another issue!) Any bright ideas as to how to get some use from this client - other than simply being paid - would be gratefully received!


Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 29, 2013 at 4:26 PM said...

Jane: Thanks for your comment and for presenting this challenge to us. We certainly understand where you are coming from, and this is a tricky one. You could tell prospective clients that this museum is your client, and attach some of your translations, while pointing out that the website is not your work. That might be the only way to really do this. And we certainly agree that these terrible translations are insulting to visitors, but as you say, that is another issue entirely. :) Unfortunately, we cannot change our clients' behavior, so we must work around it.

Thanks for reading! We hope you find our take on this helpful, but surely other colleagues have better ideas as well.

Oliver Lawrence on August 30, 2013 at 7:16 AM said...

Hello folks. I think that the best we can do is to point out to the client, tactfully, that their website copy does not reflect the quality image that their other materials portray and that this may be driving away potential sales.

If that doesn't get a businessperson's antennae twitching, then probably nothing will.

I don't think there's any point in getting aerated about it as blots on the linguistic landscape per se. As long as it doesn't harm your reputation, I think it's best to move on.

Anonymous said...

I've had a similar issue but the other translations were done by fellow's frustrating knowing they're being paid the same as me but have a much poorer grasp of the language or just don't bother researching/double checking anything they write, while I make an effort for everything to sound good.

As you said though, not much I can do! If I could use this as a way to negotiate a better rate I would try but I can't really think of a good way to do that...

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