Posted by: Steve Vitek | April 24, 2012

Give Me 6 Lines Written By the Best of Translators, and I Will Find an Excuse in Them To Shoot Him

“Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.”

Cardinal Richelieu, 1585 – 1642

Shooting the translator is a popular sport, second in popularity only to shooting the messenger.

The way translation agencies organize the translation process does not help things either: A proofreader is told to proofread and make changes in a translation as required. If the translation is really good and the proofreader needs only to correct one typo per each 10 thousand words, is he going to be paid the promised amount, and is he going to be asked next time to perform the same task?

The proofreaders may want to ingratiate themselves to the translation agency and replace the translator, they may want to increase the number of proofreading hours during a period of meager receivables, or they may be young and inexperienced, which is usually the case, or simply inept.

Sometime really stupid changes are being demanded by translation agency owners who are also translators, often when they know another language, but not the one being proofread.

I once translated a medical package insert from Czech for a German translator who kept e-mailing me comments like “I worry about this word here. Do you think that it could be instead something else?”   ???????

I am sure she meant well, but I will never work her again. I am not really interested in her opinion about what word should be used for translation from a language that she does not know. I simply don’t have time for here worries. I have a business to run.

A young “project manager” for a translation agency who probably knows some Japanese once e-mailed me that the logic of my sentences in English was simply “crazy” and asked me to “revise” my translation. Of course it was crazy. It was not my logic, it was the logic of the Japanese patent agent who wrote the patent application, I was just translating with incredible precision and skill his logic into English. I refused to revise my work if he could not specify what exactly he would like me to do. He did not specify anything, and I stopped working for the agency once I got paid for this job. About a year later, I received a Christmas card from the guy with Christmas wishes handwritten in Japanese, presumably by him.

I am glad that he finally realized the error of his ways. Better late than never.

When I am the translator, I pick the words that I will be using, and I don’t like to be second guessed. Even when the second guessing is done by somebody who says that he knows both languages. You can always come up with an alternative translation. A proofreader who knows what he is doing will try to change as little in a translation as possible. If you need to do more than that, you should really find a better translator next time.

Sometime my direct clients also try to put the words into my typing fingers, so to speak, although not very often. They may again have a range of motivations. For example, it may be important for their legal case that a certain term be used in my translation of a patent instead of a term that I originally used.

There is a relatively simple solution for this problem. I run a search for existing translations of the term in a foreign language into English, and if I am able to find at least a few with the English word that they prefer, I can accommodate them in good conscience. If not, I don’t accommodate them and explain to them why I feel that I have to do that.

The worst kinds of clients, whether agencies or direct clients, are clients who know the foreign language, although monolingual patent lawyers, usually the young ones, can be pretty difficult to please too, because they think they know so much more than the translators. They do, of course, but not when it comes to translation.

It is so easy to attack a choice that a translator has made. As Richelieu put it four centuries ago, you can draw just about any inferences that you want to from six lines written on a piece of paper.

And you can shoot the best of translators for the choices that he or she has made in six lines of a translation, if that is what you want to do.

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