Jan 15, 2009

Correction woes

There are few things I find more spiritually mangling than correcting the work of other translators. I would much rather shovel manure in stables somewhere. (Really - I used to own a farm and I rather like doing that. And the leavings of horses, donkeys and sheep smell better than much of what passes for translation.)

There are exceptions. A few translators I know - a very few - are simply brilliant or have such a pleasant, ordinary way with words that reading their work is relaxing and often delightful when I find some clever choice of words. I'll review the work of such people any day. I'm fortunate to live and work with one of them, so I get to do this at least several days a week, and it's actually fun. We have great, sometimes heated discussions over little points, and the results are usually something to be proud of.

This does not, however, reflect the reality of most requests for proofreading or editing work. There are plenty of flaming discussions in online translators forums on the subject of review work, with many different viewpoints being expressed for different purposes. I'm not interested in getting wrapped up in these debates about how professional or unprofessional it is to suggest alternative wording (always a good thing for the sake of better communication I think, though many would probably want to stick a pitchfork in me for saying so). What the whole universe of proofreading and editing reduces to for me is the simple fact that the majority of the German to English translation work I see as well as the majority of English text submitted for review is deeply flawed. I am influenced by the things I read, and when I have to deal with such texts, it is like gargling poisonous liquid. I try not to swallow and hope that not too much gets absorbed.

For years I merely refused to take on such work. Recently, however, I was foolish enough to point out frightening errors on the website of a company that claims great expertise in English-language documentation, and as a favor to a client I like very much, I agreed to fix the problem. Then, without thinking much about it, I agreed to review a few patent texts in need of certification. Now patents don't have to be worded brilliantly, but the technical terms should at least be correct. If a glossary is supplied and at least three people have proofread the text beforehand, you would expect it to be in good shape, right? Not if the processes aren't in order and the text is not being reviewed by technically qualified persons who are preferably native speakers of the target language. You can't expect generalist Bulgarian translator or a patent attorney with an electrical engineering degree to do a good job reviewing a text in English covering steel alloys, for example. It might happen, but I won't bet my reputation on success in such cases. But unfortunately, some translation agencies are willing to do just that.

When the fog clears from my brain, I'll just go back to saying "no" in every language, with every intonation I can muster. Translation is fun, and even nightmarishly difficult texts that put my hourly earnings on par with a worker at the local McDonald's can be a welcome challenge (if only to recognize such traps and quote them properly next time!). But editing monkey translations? Nein, danke!


  1. I take editing/proofreading assignments only from reliable agencies who are known to use only high-quality translators. Considering that, I like such jobs: I charge half my translation rate for editing, and editing takes about 30% of time than translating the same amount.

  2. Editing or proofreading the work of a good translator is indeed a pleasure, though I still prefer translation, because I find it less fatiguing. However, too often what we see is the dregs, when a valued client of ours has gambled on a new translator and risks losing an account, or a previous translation must be certified for legal use (which I will not do without thorough checking), etc. I dislike such work very much and only do it as a favor to clients for whom our respect and liking goes well beyond the usual scope of business. Even then I can count on one hand the number of times I've agreed to corrections like these in the past few years, and it feels like too much.


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