Oct 15, 2012

Would you certify sewage?

Good afternoon, Mr. Lossner,
   We have received the attached document from a patent attorney. An English translation of it has already been prepared by the attorney's office, but it must be certified. Thus in this case it would be necessary to check it in order to issue the certification.
  Could you please inform us of the cost and time required to certify this translation? The customer has also informed us that there will be further translations in the future, particularly for patents. Thus we would be interested in working together long-term. Thank you for your consideration of this matter.

Best regards,

Your Expert Translation Agency
I always get a sinking feeling when the customer thinks he's able to translate a document himself and get me or some other court-sworn translator to rubber-stamp it as "true and correct". Any certification would require a very careful word-for-word review of the translation, comparing it against the source text. Anything else would be unethical. Of course there are colleagues who don't care about such niceties and send stacks of pre-stamped paper to their agency customers for use with God-only-knows-what-translations. On their heads be it. My stamp and signature put my reputation, such as it is, at stake, and I don't see the need to do that in support of work by King Louie & Co.

In twelve years of commercial translation work, I have yet to see a single patent translation submitted to me for review that could pass without heavy editing. Even the best translators can have a bad day, but it seems that the patent translators some of my clients and prospects use never have a good one. I assume that the translator who did this particular piece of work had just had his dog run over by a steam roller.

The first line gave me a bad premonition of things to come. It started out like this:

Huh? A quick look at the original text revealed the monkey's tail:

OK... well, anyone can substitute a word by accident when distracted, but... the rest of the first paragraph wasn't much better. It read a bit like Tarzan's first, painstaking steps with the English language, learning from picture books and guessing at words. The second paragraph continued the tour de farce:

I'll let you, Dear Reader, take a wild guess at that one. A quick scan at the remaining 13 pages showed the same level of expertise in every paragraph my unfortunate eyes glanced upon.

My response to the inquiry was perhaps less patient than it could have been, but the day was rather a hectic one, and if I am to embark on a long-term collaboration with a service broker, I expect this broker to be able to tell liquid manure from drinking water. I figured it was time for a lesson in colloquial American English, so I opened with

No way, José!

(in normal font color and at ordinary size for courtesy) and suggested that a retranslation of the patent might be advisable, as there was not a single sentence I saw worth recycling as text. Alas, I fear the client prefers British colloquialisms or insists on "saving" money with his fine translation skills, for I heard not a further word in response to my proposal.

I feel sorry for the inventor. The poor fellow put his trust in an attorney who surely is not cheap, and said attorney probably charged him a fortune for that dog's breakfast "translation". In this case, it's obvious that machine translation played no role; Google Translate would have offered an improvement of the mess I was given.

These days, it doesn't take a lot of effort to find a qualified translator to translate a text like this. Professional associations like the BDÜ, ITI, SFT and the ATA offer directories of translators and their special skills or qualifications, including those able to prepare sworn translations. Or there's always Google and relevant keywords. Often, the worst thing that can happen is to put your trust in an attorney or other agent who in turn passes the text elsewhere, and from there on further it goes and ends up with a cranky guy like me who is likely to have a stroke trying to patch the holes in that moldy Swiss cheese.

Those who need translations for important purposes should do themselves a favor by hiring a professional to to a professional job. It's almost always cheaper to get it right the first time.


  1. Hi Kevin, the same thing happens to us frequently. Sometimes clients think they can save money by sending machine translation and requesting an editing job.

    But may I suggest this: instead of 'no way Jose,' send a quote for full translation. If they ask, say that it is your editing price. If they turn down the quote so be it. If they accept the quote, then you can decide whether to use the existing baseline or just chuck it and start from scratch.

  2. Well, GTS, that's more or less what I did. I indicated a range of what it might cost to re-do the mess depending on the schedule on which they want it. But did I try particularly hard in this case? No. When an inquiry follows the standard BS formula used here (edit this mess from the client, lots of work coming, we want a long-term relationship), you and I both know that it is seldom serious. The bottom of the range I quoted is probably more than these people ask from the end client, and if someone expects to get certified work requiring specialist science expertise for below JVEG rates, I'm afraid they'll be disappointed.

    Moreover, as I mentioned, I am concerned about starting a relationship with someone who clearly does not understand or want to understand what they are dealing with. If I work with an agency, I prefer to have partners there who are able to assess what they have properly and advise the end client appropriately. This was clearly not the case here. What we have here appears to be what my German friends call an "Umtüter", others call "box-shifter" or many other things, some not very polite. I doubt that any value is added in the middle in this case. That need not always be the case - I have clients I like a lot, with whom I have worked successfully for years, who can't assess such things. But they take a different approach, which projects a lot more seriousness. Here the inquiry follows a standard formula known for unserious inquiries. The only thing that was missing was for it to be sent to "undisclosed recipients", but I can't imagine the list of qualified translators was so long that cutting and pasting a few addresses individually into the recipient field would pose too much of a burden.

  3. Excellent idea, Medical Translator.

    I will use it next time when somebody asks me to certify a piece of garbage.


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