The Rube Goldberg Approach to Translation

As a general rule I don’t have too much of an issue with doing test translations for new clients or agencies. Some really good agencies even pay translators for these tests. The logic behind test translations is pretty sound because it doesn’t matter what you have on your CV, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the only way to gauge how good you are as a translator is to see a sample of your work.

Recently a translation agency made contact with me and, after the usual introductions, asked if I would like to work with them on technical translation projects. After much to-ing and fro-ing we were both satisfied that we could work together. I outlined my experience and specialisations, they described the type of projects they get and we both agreed that there was great potential for future work. Hell, we might even get matching tattoos. Rates and terms were agreed without so much as a whimper. Everything was going well until the issue of test translations cropped up.

The epitome of inefficiency - a Rube Goldberg Machine

The epitome of efficiency?

This agency had a pretty weird approach to test translations. Instead of a test translation at the start of our working relationship, which is the customary thing to do, they announced that they ask translators to complete short test translations for each project. The translator who produces the best test translation is then awarded the particular project. I read and re-read the email several times to make sure I understood what they were proposing, hoping that I had misunderstood. But no, when they received a job from a client, rather than contacting a translator who they had already screened, tested and knew was suitable, they would start a mini screening process before work could even start on the translation. I can imagine this being pitched to customers as a way of ensuring that “only the best translators are used” for their projects, and it’s probably well intentioned, but does anyone seriously think this is good practice?

Aside from the startling inefficiency of this Rube Goldberg approach to operations management, which disadvantages both customers and translators alike, things became even more interesting when I queried whether translators would be paid for producing numerous test translations over an extended period of time. The hitherto brisk and prompt exchange of emails suddenly ground to a halt. I never received a response and can only assume that it confirms my worst suspicions.



Weird translation request of the week

I got an enquiry from a client I work for on a regular basis asking whether I would be available to do a translation review for them. I’m pretty busy at the moment and can’t really take on any more work just yet but I thought I’d have a look at it and see if there was any way of tweaking my schedule to fit it in. The email arrives with all of the files attached. Looking through the English texts first I noticed a few “odd” formulations and some generally unidiomatic expressions here and there. This is nothing surprising – most things need to be proofed and this is why people have translations reviewed and edited.

But when I went to open the source file to get a feel for the project I realised that there was no source file. Thinking that this must have been an oversight on the part of the PM I went back to the email whereupon I spotted the following: “This is a translation from Chinese. The client won’t give us the source text but we’re pretty sure that the translation is factually correct”.

Needless to say the prospect of trying to edit a translation without benefit of a source text for clarification didn’t appeal and certainly would have taken more time than I had to spare. Now this probably isn’t worth a post all of its own but I love the comedy value of an Irish translator, living in England who translates from German and Spanish into English being asked to review a translation from Chinese, a language he doesn’t speak. You really do have to love translation sometimes.


Translator, heal thyself!

I have never had a problem with editing translations produced by other translators. Nor for that matter have I had a problem, in principle, with others editing my own work. As far as I’m concerned this is just good practice; most professional activities require a second set of eyes to ensure quality and to catch those little booboos that crop up every so often. Over the years, of course, I have had to lock horns with overzealous editors who missed the point of editing and tried to impose their own stylistic preferences on my translations when they were supposed to be looking for inaccuracies, checking terminology etc.

The thought has crossed my mind on more than one occasion that sometimes the editor is secretly a little miffed that they weren’t asked to translate the text and that they are “just” the editor” but that’s a different story.

Its bad enough that any quack can call himself a translator but when they start self-revising...

Does translation quality need to be a team activity?

This idea of editing is an essential part of ensuring the quality of translations and we owe it to our clients and to ourselves to do this. Recently however, over on the Translation Journal blog I discovered that there is something of a question mark over whether translators should edit the work of others. To be honest, I finished reading that post with the feeling that the author and the person who posted a comment were just a couple of grumpy sods. You get them in every profession and you get used to the way they can see the negative in pretty much anything. One of the conceivable abuses of editing that the article mentions is an agency who is not willing to pay the translation rates of a good translator so instead pays the lower rates of a “bad” translator in the knowledge that the “good” translator can be paid for 2-3 hours to fix the mistakes and stylistic infelicities in the translation.

So basically, you’re getting a good translator’s translation, without paying for it. As cynical as this might seem, I have thought on occasion that this was being done to me – simply because the translations I was asked to edit were so bad and involved so much work to bring them up to scratch. I did raise it with the client and it turned out that the translator was actually a trainee in-house translator so my edits were serving two purposes: fix the translation, obviously and also “train” the translator because I tend to include comments and explanations for my changes (force of habit from being a lecturer).

There are various benefits for editing another translator’s work but recently I’ve been wondering about the ethics of self-revision. I have been asked on several occasions to do “translate and edit” jobs. You may be asking how this type of job differs from a typical translation job. Shouldn’t all translators check their work? Of course they should and the vast majority do carefully proof their translations before they send them back to the client. This type of  job is different because the client was an agency and their clients, large multinationals, specifically requested translation and review, which is a separate service in addition to the revision a translator does as a matter of course. The customer assumes that one person will translate and another will edit.

Miracle cure for all your translation woes

Miracle cure for all your translation woes

For whatever reason, the agency decided that it was preferable/acceptable to have the translator do both but I wonder whether this is sensible. There must be ethical, moral and possibly even legal questions to be answered. Is it the same as doctors treating themselves?

You could argue that self-editing is as questionable as self-prescribing medication. But is it? Lots of us have seen the curmudgeonly Dr House on TV throw fistfuls of painkillers down his throat while wrestling with the ever-changing facts of complex medical dilemmas. There’s even the doctor in France who “cured” his alcoholism by prescribing himself insanely massive doses of muscle relaxants so there’s obviously some mileage in this self-medication gig but as a translator can you really spot and fix the types of errors that an editor can when you’re reading you own work? Most of us know that when you’re looking at the same piece of text for a long period you go a little snow-blind and stop noticing even obvious things.

By the same token, if you make a mistake because of a lack of knowledge, for instance, you can’t really be expected to spot it afterwards can you? But ethical quandaries for the translator aside, I wonder whether this practice is not just a little bit dishonest. By paying for a second pair of eyes to look at the translation shouldn’t the client get just that, not just the same pair of eyes but with a different hat on? Instead of getting a doctor, the client might unwittingly be buying snake oil from the back of a wagon.