Posted by: patenttranslator | August 14, 2016

All Translators Sometime Make Mistakes, But They Kill Fewer People Than Doctors


 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.



  1. I once heard from an Italian translator who said his translation had been returned by the client as it was “all wrong” and the agency would not pay for it. That same day, he was approached to do a translation by another agency, and it turned out to be exactly the same text. The translator knew what to do: he substituted one word for a synonym of it and a few similar tweaks and sent back the translation to the second agency. The second agency reported that the client was delighted with the work! I have recently had a similar experience with a client who didn’t like my work, complaints of the “begin”, “start”, “commence” variety .In other words if you write “begin” the client will say that was wrong and it should be “commence” or if you write “start” the client will say “no it should have been begin”! Some clients are never satisfied, the French are the worst, they all think they know English better than Shakespeare (or at least better than me) and make incorrect corrections at every turn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Some clients are never satisfied, the French are the worst, they all think they know English better than Shakespeare (or at least better than me) and make incorrect corrections at every turn.”

      Ha, ha, ha ….. a French commenter below seems very eager to prove you right, even to the point to of telling me which word I should have used in the present post.


  2. NICE ONE PT!! All the Best 🙂 Michal

    On 14 August 2016 at 12:32, Patenttranslators Blog wrote:

    > patenttranslator posted: “ > 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, pag” >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had a client through an agency not long ago that kept insisting on a specific marketing phrase that was simply ungrammatical. After a couple re-edits with the same term suggestions, it occurred to me that someone higher up on the client side was probably insisting on this language. I finally told the agency that they could sign off on this if they wanted to, but I wasn’t going to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A sound strategy to adopt! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • The customer is always right.

      The problem is, we are expected to be able to read their mind, which is not easy to do, no matter how good a translator you may be.


  4. I am with you that back translations are not necessarily the best way to judge the quality of a translation, but I have to raise a point about the back translation of Twain’s text:
    I have no idea where you fished that one from: it is MT at its worst. It obviously serves your purpose for today’s post, but that is all. I expected more. As an example it is useless because it is meaningless.
    BTW, the standard is “il était une fois”…


    • Apparently, it is Mark Twain’s mockery of a translation of his own work into the French language expressed in the form of a back translation, not a machine translation. You can google it if you don’t believe me.

      But it is interesting that it reminds you of machine translation at its worst, because it does indeed look like a pretty bad machine translation, although it is understandable, which is not often the case with a real machine translation.

      I am changing my French suggested translation to your preferred standard.


  5. You should have mentioned that this “back translation” was Twain’s mockery of the bad French. It puts it in a very different light. AFAIK Twain knew French quite well having lived in several European countries, particularly in France. As it is, Twain’s mockery does not make it a good example of a real-life bad back translation.


    • What is the difference between “a parody”, the word I used in the post, and “a mockery”, the word that you prefer?

      And had I used the word “mockery” in my post, instead of the word “parody”, would it have prevented you from jumping to the wrong conclusion, namely that it was a machine translation?


      • A parody’s purpose is to imitate whereas a mockery is destined to ridicule.
        Nothing in your original post indicated this was done by Mark Twain to mock the bad French translation of his text. I did not “jump” to the conclusion, and I consider my reaction justified given your silence on the matter. Had you mentioned Twain was the author, we would not have this exchange.
        I wonder how many other readers of your blog also thought this was likely translated by some machine?
        This is my last word on this.


  6. “This is my last word on this.”

    Thank you so much.

    I must try to remember that a parody is not destined to ridicule.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Over 20 years ago, I was contacted by a new agency to complete a twenty-page translation from Italian into English (although it’s easier for me to spot a “back translation” now after 20 years, as a newbie, I wasn’t aware that people did those kinds of things).

    Approximately one week after completing the job, the agency contacted me and informed me that the client was not happy with the translation. I asked them to fax me a copy of the corrections. I was flabbergasted when they faxed me the document and I discovered what the client had done. The document was covered in red, handwritten ink on every page (yes, we did things on paper back then). It appeared as if almost no text had been left unchanged. Whoever did this must have spent hours and hours! What did they do? They corrected my back-translated English to exactly match the original English text. They believed that my translation should have matched the original English text 100% in every detail and spent hours “correcting” the text by hand even though the meaning of my version was exactly the same.

    Here is one of the, unfortunately few, articles from the ATA Chronicle that is actually about language and translation rather that CAT tools and marketing:

    Back Translation: Differences that Matter and Those that Don’t:

    And another article about translation errors:
    Understanding the Legal Consequences of Errors in Professional Translation:


  8. Thanks for your comment and the links to the two articles, Jeff.

    I read the ATA article, and I concur with the author. I don’t think that a back translation of the entire original translation is the best way to go, given how time consuming and costly this is, and also the fact that a new translation can something introduce new mistakes and lead to misunderstanding of the issues at hand.

    Simply ascertaining that the most important terms are translated correctly is the best, most effective and least expensive method in my opinion.

    I was once asked by a patent lawyer to compare and evaluate several translations of the same passages from the same Japanese patent. One of the translations was mine, and I seem to remember that there were four or five of them.

    It was a very complicated task, since all of the translations were quite good …. plus I had to make sure that my translation would come on top.

    I will read the second article when I have more time.

    Thanks for commenting again!


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