As promised a long time ago, we’re here with a text about what it is that translators dislike. There are a couple of examples to mention; however, lest we sound too negative, we encourage you to start with our first article about translators’ likes.
What makes us angry, irritated, and annoyed, even if we’re hiding it well? What gets on our nerves, tests our patience, and makes us cry in fury or frustration? Here comes a long letter of complaint(s).
Bad translations in public space
This phrasing is intentional – in theory, there are no bad translations, only better or worse. In practice, they are simply often wrong. Which is not a crime in itself – we all make mistakes, this is human. The problem is that ill-translated texts are often blatantly present in public space, as a result of (human) negligence, indifference, or even stinginess.
We’re not going to point a finger at specific examples but we’re sure all of you have come across such mistranslations, also because they are often publicised when they refer to politics or some other matters of public interest. Or you could see them scrolling down your feed, exposed and ridiculed in the form of memes. Restaurant menus incrusted with errors and ill-begotten marketing slogans are just the tip of the iceberg – hasty, erroneous translations can pop up anywhere: in museums, hotels, tourist information points as well as in instruction manuals or on the websites of serious public institutions.
Why is that the case? Because language is usually dismissed and neglected – translations are made by people who don’t know a given language well enough, which is then visibly reflected in the text. Even if the translation is commissioned to a specialist, and they make mistakes too, it hardly ever happens that the text is proofread and verified by anyone else to detect any fault. And that actually would be enough – for instance, if you make a poster, show it to someone before printing so that they can scan it for typos or other errors. Sadly, this is a beautiful but rare scenario. What strikes us most is that such situations take place also in environments which one could perceive as top-class when it comes to language – in literature. Publishing houses tend to economise on editors – and translators – which is painfully noticeable in the books that are being released these days.
Translators are looking for mistakes again. Pic. Šimon HorákThis one is actually connected with the problem described above but refers to language errors in general, not only in translation. However, we’re not grammar terrorists – we don’t spend our spare time picking on other people’s mistakes. But yes, when there is a mistake, we can hear it and we can see it; after all, this is our job. And it’s just the errors we dislike, not their authors. What irks us in the errors’ existence is the problem we’ve mentioned before – negligence and carelessness, especially in writing, as speech allows much more. When mistakes are made as a result of blissful ignorance or out of habit (and habits die hard), one could turn a blind eye on them. Or they could try to find their source and the correct version – try and change something.
The way we speak has an influence on the way we live. Metalinguistic awareness helps people use language better, in a more efficient and more accurate manner. We agree with the opinion of a Polish professor of linguistics Walery Pisarek, who claims that mediocrity of texts breeds mediocrity of their readers’ thinking.
Sloppy texts are a nightmare. Our main goal is to send a flawless text to the client, translated and polished as carefully as possible, with all the punctuation marks and sense nuances taken into due consideration. Sadly, this is not possible when the source text is just a draft version in itself, sloppy in style and formatting, unready and unrevised. You can compare it to a visit at the dressmaker’s or tailor’s. If you want to have your dress or suit mended or otherwise altered, you usually begin with having it cleaned – you make sure it’s fresh and presentable, ready to work on. The same applies to texts.
We don’t want to say that everyone must be a perfect writer and a refined author. But we do believe everyone can do their best, i.e. take care of consistent formatting, remove typos and repetitions, correct basic spelling mistakes. All computer text editors can help with that. This appeal we’re making here can be actually expressed more concisely – read the text before sending it in to the translator. A missing comma or another character can change the message of a whole sentence. Vague phrasing cannot always be made clearer in the target language. Translators analyse the text so thoroughly in order to express all the meanings of the source text – which proves difficult when the source text is meaningless.
The text you want to commission for translation should be its own final version. All the changes and modifications have an impact on the translator’s decisions and some fragments may end up being translated from scratch, which affects both the deadline and cost of the project.
Presumably, nobody likes unrealistic expectations. What are these in our case? They often refer to the orders placed. We mean in particular the texts with undoable deadlines; sent in at the last moment, just before the planned publication; or sent in late in the evening, wanted first thing in the morning. We know this is not usually done on purpose to spite the translator – most clients don’t realise how long it takes to complete a translation and that the deadline depends on various factors resulting from the source text as such. This is all about proper communication – if we explain that translating a given text in a very short time is practically impossible (not because of other projects but because it is technically unfeasible owing to its length, specialisation level, or formatting issues), and if the client understands that and agrees on another deadline, everything’s fine, for each party involved and the text as well. The problem occurs when this doesn’t go so smoothly – when the client finds another person who’s willing to work overnight or has no problem with doing the job carelessly, we end up being perceived in negative light just because we wanted to do our job well and to respect some translation good practices.
Interestingly enough, the unrealistically high expectations normally refer to the price and the deadline. The emphasis is hardly ever placed on quality – which is always our priority. We are happy to talk about new challenges, though, such us a new subject matter, additional language-related services, creative translation. What’s the moral of this long passage? Talk about your expectations and possibilities to adapt them to each other in a flexible yet realistic way.
Disrespect towards our time
Have you ever had an appointment, a business or a private one, which got cancelled literally a minute before it, for no apparent reason, even though you had agreed on the date in advance and had to adjust or even limit your plans to suit the other person? Or have YOU been the other person, who cancels the meeting for no particular reason?
This topic is connected with the one above and you can experience similar situations in your professional and private life. Some translation projects can serve as a great example – the ones submitted at 6 p.m. on Friday with a deadline for 8 a.m. on Monday. If the project is accompanied by a request, by a kind question whether it is possible to prepare the translation over the weekend, it may simply be possible under some circumstances. However, there is no kindness involved in most cases, but rather a pre-assumption that the contractor will always adhere to the conditions without saying a word. We do realise that most companies and institutions work according to a fixed schedule and that texts are often sent at the end of the working day – but the fact that translators have a flexible schedule does not mean that they work at night and at the weekend as a principle. Again, the best solution is to respect the other party: to think, to talk, and to ask questions; to send a message a couple of days before the planned text submission if you know the deadline will be tight or non-standard.
Disrespect among translators
Sadly, we can observe disrespect also among translators themselves, although – luckily – we have not experienced it directly or personally. This is not a very common situation, and yet we find it too frequent.
On the one hand, there are persons who undermine the position of their colleagues by working for disgracefully low quotes or performing their work in an extremely unprofessional way, which casts a shadow over the whole professional group. On the other hand, some senior translators tend to speak in a very disdainful and impolite manner about their junior colleagues, totally forgetting or ignoring that they used to be less experienced in the past too. Sometimes an innocent question asked on a social media page for translators can end up in a real undeserved storm. This brings us to the same conclusion over and over again – let’s just talk to teach other: calmly, openly, respectfully.
Stereotypes about translators
Do you know anyone who likes stereotypes about themselves? We regularly mention the ones concerning translators and we’re planning to write a whole text about them. Let’s just briefly point out a few hair-raising examples here.
One of the common misconceptions is that translators simply copy the text into another language. Were it so simple, it wouldn’t be so exciting. Were it so simple, anyone one could be a translator and just get on transcribing words from a dictionary. Were it so simple, the specialists who create machine translation algorithms wouldn’t bother working so hard on them and Google Translate would be enough for everyone (well, for some it already is). To translate a text, it’s not enough to understand individual words but to grasp all the possible senses and meanings hidden in and between the lines. You also need to know how to combine the words in a given language into functional, natural collocations. Literal translation does not take context, culture, and connotations into account. In a nutshell – in order to translate, you need to THINK.
Here comes another myth – supposedly, translators are like dictionaries and they know every single word in the foreign language. Well, that’s not the case, unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps). Do you know every single word in your native language? Basically, that’s impossible. Translators translate texts in various specialised subjects, which expands their mental lexicons. But the feat is not to memorise all the entries in a glossary but to know how to FIND the right word in the right source to match it with a given phrase. We get really disconcerted (probably most linguists do) when asked “How to say xyz in English/Spanish/German?”. We might not know the answer immediately but we do know how to look it up. And we’ll sure be like: “Give me the context”.
That’s it for now, although we might add several items to this list. The sentence “Say something in Spanish”, which makes you feel as if you were back to kindergarten, forced to recite in public. Totally ineditable and illegible PDF files to be translated. Blurred and unclear phone calls. The ongoing functional illiteracy in society. Ignoring the translator’s name while speaking about a translated book or another publication. Well, that’s enough, indeed!
We hope you’re not feeling overwhelmed by this text. It’s not like we’re constantly displeased, disappointed, and disillusioned. And yet, we do believe it’s a good idea to talk openly about the issues you have because sometimes the bothering situation results from the other person’s unawareness rather than their ill will, and conversation can really change a lot. And if it doesn’t, you can add “Conversations which don’t change anything” to the list above. ?
We’d love to know what you find annoying about your professions. Is there anything similar to our problems? What do you do about your trouble spots and how do you deal with them?
Martyna & Paweł