My authors are getting better, or I am

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
   — Mark Twain

Often you'll hear relatively inexperienced translators complaining about the poor quality of the documents they translate. Amazingly, the more experienced the translator, the less they seem to complain about the poor quality of the source material.

To be sure, a lot of the stuff that I translate isn't written very well. Sometimes it's because it was written in a rush by an engineer, who'd rather be making stuff than writing documentation. Sometimes it's because an internal document, like an email or PowerPoint presentation, is being translated for another purpose.

But in general, clients are paying the big bucks to have a document translated because that document has value. They usually don't just churn out dreck and then pay thousands of dollars to have it translated. For you, it might be just another job, but for the client this document is a really big deal. So translators actually tend to see documents that are better than average.

I think that at least some of the complaints about poor-quality documents stem from a lack of proficiency in understanding the source language. I know it was true in my case.

When I first started translating, I used to see a lot of really bad writing, but fortunately I mostly kept my mouth shut about it. Then over the years, like Mark Twain with his father, I found that my authors' Japanese-writing ability was getting better. Or maybe it was just my ability to understand it…

3 comments to My authors are getting better, or I am

  • Kate L

    The first draft of any of my translations tends to be mediochre, and it is only through careful editing that I am able to submit high-quality translations to my client. I’ve come to realise that this is not a reflection of poorly written original texts, but that I need to go through a two-step process in order to produce a good translation.

    My first draft is a literal translation of the text. I translate the meaning of the words and sentences into English, but the style still mirrors that of the original text. It is only during stage two of the translation process – careful editing – that I eliminate typically French sentence constructions and turn my translation into a more reader-friendly text in English.

    I agree with you that the “poorly written source text” argument most likely boils down to the fact that the translator has not fully understood the source language text. The skill in translation comes from working out what the author has (often intelligbly) written, and producing a stylish, flowing translation in the target language.

    If your translation sounds stilted, it is probably that you have completed step one of the translation process, but not step two. Re-read your work, try and work out exactly what the author is trying to say, and re-write it in your own words. Chances are that by doing this, you will inject clarity and style into your translations.

  • This is a complain I utter with some frequency, but it has nothing to do with an understanding of the source text. There is the occasional sentence which I’ve looked at wrong and need to revisit, but the “poor quality source material” that I refer to typically means mislabeled diagrams (showing incorrect part assignments), a dozen typographical errors and spelling mistakes on each page, many obvious and not an impediment, but some truly baffling, missing words, sections copied without necessary changes being made, etc. Or dialect being used instead of the standard language. Sometimes the term in the local dialect is an antonym of the word in the standard language. (The German word “verbauen” is a typical case.) These are issues that may affect safety or legal validity in some cases.

    However important these documents may be to the client, they are too often not executed with due care. I see it as part of my job to address these issues where possible, though in the case of a notary’s document for which I am preparing a certified translation, there isn’t much I can do about the fact that he spells his client’s name five different ways in four pages.

    Simply receiving a source document which has been spellchecked is a highlight of some days. It does not happen often. Clients who perform even the most basic competent QA on documents before sending them to me are held in the highest esteem.

  • @Kevin

    Notice I said “better than average,” not perfect. 🙂

    When read with a copy editor’s eye, even such august publications as the New York Times and the Economist are rife with errors.

    Fellow translator Bill Lise used to say that the first and last time a document is fully understood is when it’s translated. We tend to notice all the errors and logical inconsistencies, because we’ve actually got to understand exactly what the author meant in order to translate the document.

    Nevertheless, my point is that native readers of the source document generally navigate these problems in the source document with aplomb, and thus we should, too. The kinds of complaints you usually hear from beginning translators is that the source document is illogical, or that the exposition is poor, when often this is simply because the translator isn’t familiar with the conventions of the source language.

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