Posted by: patenttranslator | September 10, 2012

The Four-Eyes Principle, Bernard Madoff, and Grace Sherwood, The Witch of Virginia Beach

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.


  1. Oh, and here I thought four-eyes refers to someone with glasses. My mistake šŸ™‚


  2. That would be ” … the best of us” in the last sentence. Was that a test?


    • “Was that a test?”
      How did you guess?
      Based on the subject of the post?


  3. “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.”

    Hear, hear!


  4. “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.” Hurray, I subscribe, too.

    And ‘four eyes’ is an idiom for people who use glasses here in Brazil as well.


    • The same derogatory term is used for people who wear glasses in many other languages as well.


    • Count me in, too!


  5. Did you read my recent article about the four-eyed principle in MDƜ (magazine published by the German tranlsators’ association)? The article is in German and can be downloaded from (I took the liberty to quote from your article in ATA Chronicle, dated 2003 but still valid today).
    Just to supply a few more pro arguments for the principle you believe in (I am also a true believer therein). Thanks, wie immer, for your posting.


    • I read your article only after you posted the link here.

      Very interesting, but I think that we both need to learn how to write shorter posts.

      Less means more when it comes to attracting eyeballs and keeping them glued to our blog.


    • Hƶhere QualitƤt oder ā€žVier-Augen-Wischereiā€œ?

      I like it!


      • “Vier-Augen-Wischereiā€œ?

        That’s really good.

        Now, how would you translate it into English?

        “Four-eyes wipery”, which would be pronounced as “four eyes vipery” by German speakers?


      • Augenwischerei means window-dressing or simply a sham.

        Since the proper term for “Vier-Augen-Prinzip” in English is “dual review,” I would tentatively translate “Vier-Ausgen-Wischerei” as “dual re-sham.”

        I am no native in both languages and cannot be sure how “dual re-sham” sounds to the English natives. However, “four eyes vipery” would be too Denglish in my ears.


  6. Yep, I recently had a short, but important translation completely ruined by a “proofreader” breaking a long sentence into two short ones. Doesn’t sound too bad when put like that, but the resulting sentences (because all they did was to separate the two parts of the original sentence with a period) now made no sense whatsoever, causing the reader to miss the entire point of the document (an abstract for a scientific article). Because this four-eyes principal is so prevalent in the industry, those of us who do occasionally do proofreading or editing have to take those jobs just as seriously as we would if it were our own translation, and not just make changes to justify our getting paid for the job (which is probably what happened in this case).


    • A good proofreader looks for omissions and typos because these are the only mistakes that even a good translator will make.

      That’s it.

      If a translation needs to have anything else “corrected”, it was done by the wrong person.


  7. I presume that if you work for an agency, then they proofread your work. But what do you do when you work for a direct client? Do you get someone else to check your work?

    And while we’re at it, how do you check your own work? As you go or at the end?


    • 1. I occasionally work for a one-man agency, but no, he does not proofread my translations.

      2. Direct clients have a choice to have one translation translated by me and then proofread by another translator. They so far never requested that because it would take longer and it would be much more expensive.

      3. I check my translations while I am translating, and then I proofread them next day. Occasionally I have to proofread them right after I finish, but I really don’t like to do that because it is dangerous.


  8. Literary translators have had this worked out for some time now. After months and months of deliberating over every sentence, they hand in the completed translation to an editor, who enters any changes and corrections (most prefer pencil and a paper manuscript), the translator then records the changes as he or she sees fit, returns the manuscript to the editor who reads the text again and then calls to discuss pending issues, if any. After that, the manuscripts goes to a proofreader, who checks for typos before sending it to a typesetter, then the translator receives the typeset version, corrects any errors and types introduced during the typesetting, returns the corrected typeset manuscript to the editor, who double checks again. The manuscript then goes to the typesetter who prepares a new version, which is checked by the proofreader before it goes to print. Many translators also give the finished manuscript to their friend or friends to read before they hand it out to the editor.

    Naturally, this method usually does not work too well if your deadline is counted in hours or days instead of months or sometimes even years šŸ™‚

    BTW, I have discovered your blog only recently, but I really love it.


  9. In my line of work there is no time for such luxuries.

    Yesterday I had a request for a quote on a French patent from a law firm. This is what they asked:”How soon can you translate it? We need it in two days.”

    It was eight thousand words. I told them that I could do it, at a surcharge of 40%, they told me that they would get back to me once they told their client.

    I am still waiting for their client’s decision.

    This is pretty much typical of the kind of requests I deal with in my line of work.


  10. […] 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.  […]


  11. My two eyes spotted a mistake in the first paragraph: “ā€¦CEO (Chief Operating Officer)ā€¦” šŸ˜‰

    Keep up the good work, Steve.


  12. Fixed.



  13. The test for witches, all (?) female, must have been the ancestor of water-boarding, the advantage being that it seemed to have been done with lots of eyes on board, so to speak.


  14. Another similarity to our enlightened age is that all military-age males (above 18) near drone strike areas are considered by Obama terrorists and thus legitimate targets for assassination by remote control.

    But because we are a nation of laws, they can be proven innocent posthumously, just like the witches of old.

    So this is again the same logic that was used 3 hundred years ago for witches. But it is more difficult to prove the innocence of the targets of drone strikes than was the case with the witches who were in some case exonerated because only little bits and pieces remain from these legitimate drone strike targets.


  15. Steve, I think the proper English term for this is “dual review” – “four-eyes principle” is yet another example of the awful Denglish that makes the rounds of our professional circles too often. You’re right about the success of that practice being very dependent on conditions which seldom prevail. A good reviewer is worth her weight in gold, but few agencies are willing to pay more than a bit of corroded copper for the work.


  16. Hi Kevin:

    I noticed the term “four-eyes” principle first a few years ago on the Honyaku discussion group which has members mostly in Japan, and then I saw it on a blog of an Austrian translator who writes in English and also on other blogs. I seem to remember that several translators talked rather disparagingly about this awkwardly named principle.

    I Googled it when I was writing the post and it seems that it is now a well established principle in various types of businesses although there is no evidence that it in fact works for other purposes than purposes based on the CYA principle.

    Any chance you will be in Prague end of September or early October when I’m there for about a week?


  17. Goodness, goodness, Kevin! “A good reviewer is worth HER weight in gold…” This must mean that male reviewers either are not or do not exist. Some habits die hard, do they not?


    • @Ricky: I know one really good guy who does reviews. I know about half a dozen ladies in my language pair that I would trust not to botch things. So consider my wording accurate and appropriate statistically speaking šŸ˜‰

      @Steve: I’m still convinced that this terminological abomination seeped out of some Teutonic sewer before spreading around the world. I hadn’t planned to hit Prague, but a trip there just got more interesting. If you are around long enough, maybe I can convince you to run up to Warsaw on 4-5 October. The TM Europe conference promises to be interesting; it was one of the great and pleasant professional surprises for me last year.


  18. […] or a method that can be applied to every translation, such as the “Four Eyes Principle” discussed in this post, or the industrial standards mentioned above, is in my opinion a […]


  19. […] I wrote in my post about the so called “four-eyes principle”, this particular principle is likely to work only under certain predefined circumstances, which in […]


  20. […] erroneous misinterpretation of the well known, tried and true ā€œfour-eyes control method” (known as vier Augen Kontrolle in German, now featuring nine quality control steps in a modern application of this famous medieval […]


  21. […] erroneous misinterpretation of the well known, tried and true ā€œfour-eyes control method” (known as vier Augen Kontrolle in German), now featuring nine quality control steps in a modern application of this famous medieval […]


  22. […] if the original document was in Japanese or German. This is also a good example demonstrating that the famous “four-eyes principle” makes sense only when both sets of eyes are equally qualified to determine that a translation is […]


  23. […] I already blogged about the unreliability of this method, also referred to as “The Four-Eyes Principle”, in this post. […]


  24. […] am a big fan of inviting a second pair of eyes to look over your work from a fresh perspective. They may notice something you didn’t. […]


  25. They may, and good ones usually will.

    But it takes time and money, neither of which my clients are usually prepared to offer and some (quite a few) will screw up a perfectly good translation.


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