This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.
When it comes to reviewing copy, translators are often at what I like to refer to as “the very end of the line.” By the time copy is deemed ready for translation, it has usually been reviewed and edited by a plethora of people, including a professional team of editors and proofreaders. Yet, despite that overabundance of meticulous scrutiny, we translators often find that “final” texts still need editing prior to (and often post) translation.
While some may be tempted to think that the need for editing at this stage of the process highlights other reviewers’ shortcomings, this is seldom the case. More often than not, editors and proofreaders are bright, thorough, and highly proficient professionals. The issue is not so much how errors could have been made or missed, but why it is that “weak spots” in the copy typically surface at the very end of the line, that is, during the translation process. The answer lies not only in a translator’s language skills but in the very nature of translation.
Words Versus Ideas
While translators are skilled linguists with a thorough academic and practical knowledge of both their source and target languages (indeed, many are experts in their subject matter areas), this does not account entirely for them being more likely to identify unobvious copy flaws than many other reviewers.
It has been said many times before, but can never be overstated: translation is not only about words, it is mostly about ideas. In order to interpret the idea/concept/message behind a phrase and convey it in another language, translators must deconstruct and then reconstruct that phrase completely. It is during that “stripping” process that unobvious copy flaws often surface. While the translator does not necessarily need to be familiar with the subject matter of the source copy, in order to provide an accurate translation, he or she must understand the sense of each phrase and how it relates to the text as a whole.
If the copy is in any way ambiguous, a good translator will likely query it. There are many reasons for this. First, because a professional and ethical translator will not translate copy about which he or she is uncertain. Second, because at some point, someone might call the translation into question for not matching the source copy, regardless of the latter’s accuracy. And third, because a translator might actually feel some degree of accountability for the quality (or lack thereof) of the clients’ material.
Translators Are Writers, Too
Besides their ability to deconstruct copy, translators are writers in their own right. Regardless of whether or not a translator specializes in literary translation, writing (i.e., thinking through, drafting, revising, editing) is an essential part of the translation process.
The concept of the translator as a writer is foreign to many clients, but translators literally rewrite their client’s copy from scratch (think entire contracts, websites, instruction manuals, product brochures, articles, books, etc.), from beginning to end. This is why it should not come as a surprise that translators are more likely to point out inconsistencies than most people reading through page after page of copy, even with a critical eye.
If the copy contains discrepancies (e.g., conflicting information within the same piece, or across several pieces of printed material), the translator is more likely than most to notice it and point it out. In addition, translators often have to research the subject matter during a translation. If during that research they come across something that conflicts deeply with the information presented in the source copy, they might also question it.
An Inquisitive Translator Is Good News
Every professional’s brain is trained to look at copy differently. A marketing specialist may review copy to make sure that it contains specific selling points, flows nicely, and is catchy. A legal specialist may check to make sure a document does not open the door to legal challenges. An engineer’s review may focus on providing technical feedback. A proofreader will typically identify spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, and major issues with sentence construction. But few people read copy more carefully than a translator. Typically, it is not until the translator actually starts translating that inconsistencies, technical inaccuracies, and unobvious flaws related to the structure of a given phrase or its meaning surface.
Regardless of the source of uncertainty— a translator’s misinterpretation, ambiguity in the source copy, or an obvious misprint—a good translator will likely ask questions during the translation process. Not always, of course, but often enough that a client may have cause for concern if a translator never does. Although most professional translators are able to look past “weak spots” and return better/clearer copy than the original, never asking questions would suggest that the copy is always clearly and flawlessly written. It would also suggest that the translator always comprehends the text fully, including the client’s technicalities, plays on words, artistic/writing licenses, and other subtleties. The chance of that is rather slim, especially in creative environments.
In fact, most translators will agree that asking questions is often part of the job. As Translation: Getting it Right, ATA’s free client education guide, puts it:
An inquisitive translator is good news:
No one reads your texts more carefully than your translator. Along the way, he or she is likely to identify fuzzy bits—sections where clarification is needed. This is good news for you, since it will allow you to improve your original.
Good translators strip down your sentences entirely before creating new ones in the target language. And they ask questions along the way.1 But not every client may feel that way.
Asset or Nuisance?
Some clients value their translator’s input so much that they will actually wait until their copy comes back from translation before releasing it or going to print. For these clients, a translator’s meticulousness tracking of the subject matter is an asset, and they have learned the value of building extra time into their production/printing schedule to allow for both translation and post-translation editing. But clients who are relatively new to translation or to the international scene may have a difficult time appreciating the fact that an inquisitive translator is a good one (not a nuisance), or that copy can never be reviewed by too many eyes.
In some cases, a translator’s attention to detail may even be met with animosity, resentment, or distrust. A writer may take umbrage at his or her copy being queried. An editor may feel that his or her professional skills are being challenged. A manager may be upset that a production date is not met because of “translation delays.” In extreme cases, a client may choose to ignore a translator’s queries and use preliminary translations, or, worse, opt to work with translators/agencies that never ask questions or point out “fuzzy bits” in the source copy.
To Edit or Not to Edit?
When it comes to ambiguous (or untranslatable) source copy, a translator is confronted with more than the not-so-simple choice between editing and not editing. To begin with, the extent to which a translator should (with the client’s approval) edit source copy is an issue that is somewhat controversial. While most will agree that obvious misprints can safely be corrected and overlooked for translation, many will contend that more intricate changes, such as correcting technical terminology or rewording entire phrases to improve readability or sense, may not necessarily be up to the translator.
When we come across those (fortunately rare) cases where the source copy simply must be rewritten, we may have no choice but to request revised copy from our client. We may even have to take it upon ourselves to “redeem the untranslatable” by rewriting the source copy, rerouting it for approval, and retranslating it. (Whether we should is a matter of personal opinion.) In other (more common) cases, the source copy requires edits that, however small, may bear heavily on both the translation and the quality of the source copy.
In both cases, we should be fully prepared to justify our requests for edits, but at the same time be professional and tactful when presenting such requests to our clients. While some clients will welcome our feedback, others may not be open to editing the source copy. When a client is unwilling to edit the source copy, we may very well find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between producing accurate target copy that may not match the source copy, or producing target copy that matches the source copy but may not be accurate.
What We Can Do
While it is not essentially our place to critique our clients’ copy or always our role to correct it, it is within our reach to educate the people with whom we work regarding what we do, what we may find along the way, and how that can benefit them.
At times, it may even fall to us to remind our clients tactfully that editing copy during and post-translation is about one thing only: improving the original and working together toward a greater, better end. Ultimately, if packaging or a website features obvious misprints, if assembly instructions are confusing, if a contract leaves too much room for interpretation, if a product is pulled off the market because of misleading claims, or if someone hurts themselves because of copy written (or translated) incorrectly, those mistakes will reflect badly upon the client.
So, let’s continue being inquisitive, but just as important, let’s strive to step out of our traditional role and keep reminding and proving to the world around us that every contribution matters and that we (writers, editors, proofreaders, translators) are not competing against each other, but complete each other. And if, down the road, it leads to some of our clients learning to build extra time into their production/printing schedule to allow for translation and post-translation editing, the better for us—and them.
- Durban, Chris. Translation: Getting it Right, 18, www.atanet.org/docs/Getting_it _right.pdf.
Christelle Maginot has over 25 years of experience as a professional translator. For the past 18 years, she has been working as an in-house translator for a major consumer goods corporation, where she handles and supervises the translation of corporate, technical, sales, and marketing material into multiple languages. She has a master’s degree in International Business/Marketing and English, French, and Spanish translation from the University of Aix-en-Provence, France. Contact: Christelle.firstname.lastname@example.org.