"We just translate"…or do we?

Early in my freelance career, I failed two translation tests in a row for two different agencies. Both of these tests were marketing/PR-type pieces, and the agencies’ comments went something like this:

Agency 1: “Your translation was too faithful to the original. The French text was not very well written, and part of the translator’s job is to improve on that.”

Agency 2: “Your translation sounded great in English, but it strayed too far from the original. We want a translation that is faithful to the original, even if the original is not well written.”

Since then, I’ve learned many lessons about translation technique and about asking clients for feedback on the type of translation they want. Recently, I translated some marketing materials for a cultural festival; the document contained some factual inaccuracies and was also written in a rambling, run-on style that I thought wouldn’t work well for a U.S. audience. Although I suggested a lot of possible edits to the document, the person coordinating the project immediately let me off the stylistic hook by saying “The original is really badly written; but hey, we just translate, right? Don’t drive yourself crazy over this; you didn’t write it!”

I think that this issue of whether “we just translate” is a big one in our profession. When we receive a poorly written source document, do we “just translate it,” or do we edit it for correctness and clarity? In theory, it’s nice to think that clients would be willing to pay extra for having their document “re-crafted” into the target language, but in practice this seems tough to implement. In addition, there’s the messy matter of conflict between languages. For example, most French documents make copious use of the passive voice: mistakes were made, profits were achieved, crimes were committed, fun was had. Changing these to the type of phrasing that’s more pleasing to the English-speaking ear involves not just a stylistic tweak, but a substantive one. If we eliminate the passive voice, someone has to make the mistake or commit the crime.

In part, I think that this dilemma has to do with our own pride in our work. We don’t want to return a translation that sounds terrible, but yet we don’t want to criticize the original, especially if our client wrote it. On the other hand, editing/rewriting a poorly-written original takes time, and most often we’re getting paid by the word. Feel free to submit your thoughts; do you “just translate”?

15 Responses to “"We just translate"…or do we?”
  1. Kevin Lossner December 11, 2008
  2. MT December 11, 2008
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  3. John Ross December 11, 2008
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