EVERY DOCTOR EVENTUALLY commits murder.
All physicians make mistakes, both of commission and omission, and sooner or later one will be fatal.
Greg Iles, Natchez Burning, Chapter 15, page 171.
Although according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University, medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer – heart disease killed 614,348 people, cancer killed 591,699 and medical error was responsible for 251,454 deaths during the period covered by the study from 2000 to 2008 – the occupation of medical doctor is still held in very high esteem and generally very well paid, at least in this country.
But in the age of blogs and social media, more and more people now dare to criticize more and more professions, including the profession of godlike MDs.
It is very easy to criticize any occupation, especially if you don’t know anything about it and don’t care how hard the person, who is doing his job as best as he can, is working.
It is also very easy to criticize a translation, any translation, and thus by extension the translator. The less the person doing the criticizing knows about foreign languages in general, and the language in question and the translation process in particular, the easier it is to tear a translation to pieces.
If a translation does not say what the person doing the criticizing knows it is supposed to say, then the translation obviously must be wrong.
A few months ago I was asked to translate a few lines from Japanese to English. It was only a couple of lines for which I still dared to ask for my standard minimum fee.
These two lines of Japanese text were written on the front and back of a Japanese credit card. I don’t remember what they said, some dumb advertising slogan about wonderful things that will come to you if you use the card, unlike with any other credit card.
But my translation was incorrect. Or so the customer said, because he had the original text that was written in English. Now, I knew that my translation was correct, as far as the meaning of the Japanese text went. But since I did not know what the original advertising text in English said, the translation appeared to be wrong. The client did not seem to know that an advertising slogan cannot be simply translated into another language, it must be changed to such an extent that it is basically rewritten, often resulting in a very different meaning.
Instead of trying to explain this simple fact through the intermediary of a project manager to the client, who I imagined was probably an important credit card company manager, I told the project manager that I was withdrawing my invoice and that I didn’t want to do this project.
The terse response of the project manager consisted of only two words, “Duly noted”. When I asked her about that particular job when she offered me a new project, she admitted that, “That client was very unreasonable”.
My instinct was telling me to stay away from this particular critic of my translation and let somebody else deal with the problem, and that’s what I did. It turned out that I was right to listen to my instincts.
It is dangerous when a client “knows” exactly what a translation should look like. For this reason, back translations can be particularly tricky, especially if a client does not know much about foreign languages and translation, which is often the case.
I used to periodically do back translations of Japanese questionnaires originally written in English and then given to Japanese focus groups for several years for a small translation agency, a one-man agency, for quite a few years. Fortunately, the guy who owned the agency knew that the best way to avoid problems with back translations is to give the translator the original text. He always sent me both the Japanese and English texts and I would look at the English one in a while as I was translating it if I was wondering how to translate something.
As a result, my translation was quite close to the original text, but it was also different enough because it was a real translation, so the client was happy. I did not ask whether the client knew that I had the text in both languages. Like a politician, I had a teleprompter at my disposal feeding me lines, but like a good politician, I was mostly improvising.
Writers who know foreign languages, such as the Czech-French author Milan Kundera who is fluent in French and English, are famously known for driving their translators crazy with often unreasonable demands. Miriam Nargala describes this in her article “The Unbearable Torment of Translation, Milan Kundera, Impersonation, and The Joke” as follows:
The novel [The Joke] has been translated into English, French, and many other languages more than once, depending on Kundera’s dissatisfaction with a particular translation (which, at first, he would support). Thus, there followed a cascade of translations (namely in French and English) as Kundera would eventually become dissatisfied even with the latest “definitive” translated version. As he famously says in an interview regarding the 1968 French translation of Žert, “rage seized me”. From then on, Kundera showed displeasure at any translator who, however briefly, would impersonate the author and take some license in translating Kundera’s work. Further, Kundera decided that only his full authorial involvement in the process would ascertain “the same authenticity” of his translations as the original Czech works. Kundera thus becomes the omnipresent, omnipotent author, himself impersonating God controlling his own creation. Finally, Kundera takes extreme measures and translates Žert into French himself. The resulting translation surprised many – editing changes are plentiful but apparent only to those who can compare the original Czech text with Kundera’s own translation. Kundera’s stance is conflicting, as he denies creativity to other translators but as the auto-translator, Kundera freely rewrites, rather than just retranslates, his own works.
What do you do as a translator with a client who is “seized by rage”? The best solution, in my opinion, is to pass the enraged client on to another translator. Kundera eventually started writing his books in French instead of Czech about 20 years ago. Unless he translates his books himself, which I doubt because I know how difficult it is to try to maintain the fluency in your native language after living in another country for decades without being able to speak your original native language, I wonder how often he is now “seized by rage” at the translators of his books from French into Czech.
Bilingual lawyers are also sometimes just as merciless critics of translations as bilingual or multilingual writers.
I remember that after I had translated a long summary of a divorce case, through a translation agency, again, a lawyer who had a Japanese last name and who must have been bilingual, was pestering me for several days by suggesting more lawyerly alternatives to my translation. I meekly agreed to every one of his suggested changes since I wanted to get paid. I also realized that although I was not getting paid for my time responding to his e-mails, he was charging his client billable hours. Presumably, the more changes he could make, the more money he made.
Mark Twain also dabbled in foreign languages, in particular German and French. He could not understand why there are three genders and so many cases with different endings for singular and plural of nouns, and he thought that the long compound nouns in German were simply hilarious. His ingenious analysis of German grammar in an article called The Awful German Language is definitely worth reading in its entirety, so I will not quote excerpts from it here.
And here is Mark Twain’s parody (I hope it is a parody) of a back translation of his own story from French into English:
Original: “There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49 or maybe it was the spring of ’50 I don’t recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume warn’t finished when he first came to the camp; but anyway, he was the curiosest man about always betting on any thing that turned up you ever see, if he could get any body to bet on the other side; and if he couldn’t, he’d change sides.”
Back Translation: “It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter ’49, possibly well at the spring of ’50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed.”
Unfortunately, I can’t find the French translation, but if you know French, you can see quite clearly how Mark Twin is being unfair to his French translator.
You basically have to start a sentence with “il était une fois” even when the English text says just, “There was”, “un individu” is not a bad translation for “a fellow”, “Je ne me souviens pas” does not mean “I no me recollect not”, “achever” means “to finish” in French, not “to achieve”, as Mark Twain is implying because it’s one of the hundreds or thousands of faux amis, false friends or false cognates, between French and English – false friends who sometimes help, and sometimes lead an English speaker who is learning French astray.
Like many translators, I have heard horror stories from translators of different languages, such as Japanese or French, whose native language is English and who happened to have a boss who thought that his or her knowledge of English was superior to that of the translator.
How do you say to your boss that his English is horrible without getting fired?
Fortunately for me, most of my clients are Americans because I live in the United States, and it is very unusual for me to come across a client who understands the language from which I translate.
Although even very good doctors may sometimes make mistakes that can prove fatal, and even good translators sometimes mistranslate something, I believe that just like you have to trust your doctor instead of trying to tell him that you know a better course of treatment, you simply have to trust your translator, instead of continuing to suggest a better way to translate whatever it is that you need translated. If you know better, why don’t you translate it yourself?
If your instinct tells you that your doctor or your translator is not very good, you should trust your instinct and try to find a better doctor or better translator, because your instincts are almost always right.
But to insist that you yourself know how to treat your symptoms better than your doctor, or that you know how to translate something better than your translator, even something seemingly as simple as two lines of text on the front and back of a credit card, is folly.