The so called four-eyes principle (Vier-Augen Kontrolle in German) is a well known rule that is used among other things in business transactions to protect against negligence and corruption although there is no empirical evidence that it really works. In the business sphere it means that all important decisions are approved by at least two individuals, usually the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) and the CFO (Chief Financial Officer) of the company.
In the translation industry, the four-eyes principle means that every translation must be read at least by two people, usually the translator and a proofreader. Most translation agency operators swear by the four-eyes principle. “The quality of our translations is guaranteed because we strictly adhere to the four-eyes principle”, most will say.
This principle has been well established in many fields for many decades, but does it mean that it really works?
Well, four eyes see more than two eyes, so it should work, right? Yes, it should. But only under certain circumstances, because principles usually work only under certain defined circumstances.
Most people know the name Bernard Madoff, a 50 billion dollar hedge fund trader who stole untold billions of dollars from his clients until he was caught only because the economic environment has changed, although Bernard Madoff was audited every year by an auditing team consisting of 3 people, which would make it six eyes instead of mere four. The auditors did not prevent him from stealing money from his clients because they either did not know what to look for (not very likely), or they did not want to dig too deep under the surface since it would mean the end of a very lucrative gig (very likely).
It is good to have a sound principle for your operations, but the devil is in the details.
Talking about the devil, another principle that was well known and practiced for several centuries in Europe and later also in colonial America was a handy method that was used to separate innocent women from witches.
Our friendly neighbors back then had a really good system for determining a witch who was making the livestock die and crops wither: if they suspected that a woman was a witch, usually because she was pretty and knew how to use the healing power of herbs, a special court would be convened and the suspected witch would be tried by water – she would have her thumbs tied to her big toes and then be thrown into a river. If she somehow survived, which did not happen very often for obvious reasons, this was proof that she was a witch requiring further punishment. If she drowned, she was innocent.
I know this because in the city of Virginia Beach, which is right next to the City of Chesapeake where I have been living for the past 11 years, there is a long road called Witchduck Road, named after Grace Sherwood who was the first person to be tried in 1706 as a witch via by ducking (dunking in water) in the state of Virginia.
Because Grace Sherwood freed herself from her ties and swam to shore in an effort to save her life, she was confirmed as a witch. Fortunately for her, she was only sent to jail for several years and when she was released, she lived out her days with her three sons on her farm. She died at the age of 80 in 1740 and it took until 2006 (266 years) before Grace Sherwood was exonerated of her crimes by the governor of Virginia.
I am using these examples to demonstrate that just because a principle is well known and everybody believes in it does not mean that it makes sense.
If you apply the four-eyes principle to translation business, it again makes sense only under certain circumstances: namely if the second pair of eyes happens to be in the head of a proofreader who knows as much about the translation as what the original translator knew.
However, most of the time the second pair is unable to see much because translations are usually proofread by junior employees, or by inexperienced freelance translators who are happy to have any work at all, even though the remuneration for proofreading is invariably quite low, which was probably not the case with Bernard Madoff’s diligent auditors.
A second pair of eyes can usually catch omissions and typos even if the head possessing these eyes is not a very experienced head. But if this inexperienced head has delusions of grandeur, the second pair of eyes can often do a lot of damage to a very good translation.
So as far as I can tell, the four-eyes principle is not a guarantee of anything.
Here is the principle that I do believe in: If you need a good translation, make sure that it is done by a good translator.
You can then have the translation proofread by a second pair of eyes, which may help to catch a typo or an omission, because this is something that can easily happen to the best of us.
If you need to do more than just catching a typo or an omission, this means that the wrong translator was picked for the job and the chances are that the second pair of eyes will not really help things that much.