Aug 31, 2013

The Miracle of Late Language Translation and Modern Quality

This morning a colleague was kind enough to share a link to a thoughtful essay by Italian to English translator Wendell Ricketts, whom I have long considered to be one of the professionals among us with the clearest insight into some of the practical and philosophical problems of current translation practice. In his article Please mind the gap: defending English against 'passive' translation, Wendell describes the train wreck of unprofessional translation into one's later acquired languages quite well.

I particularly like how he distinguishes the cases of limited distribution languages and French, Italian, German and Spanish (FIGS, but be careful before you eat them... dogs have urinated on the low-hanging fruit). There are also some interesting statistics shared, such as
"An average of 59% of ProZ translators into English from Spanish, German, or French are not native-English speakers."
There's an old saying in German about how even with a golden ring an ape remains an ugly creature, and those translating into a language acquired in school or in bed who assume that revisions by a "native speaker" will make the result "all better" would do well to remember that. I've seen what they consider to be acceptable results often enough, and I often see no ugly ape there but at best a gut pile from one which has been too long in the sun :-)

Of course, in an age when charlatans work the conference routes selling snake oil and machine translation "miracles" and conjure quality in a bottle with metrics received on faith from technocrats with little understanding of real language, and presumed reputable purveyors of translation assistance technologies sprinkle themselves liberally with these elixirs and exude their perfume, Wendell's commentary is most likely to be dismissed with a knowing smirk and a learnèd discourse on fit-for-purpose quality and customer satisfaction.

I smile with some pleasure when I hear such Wise Words as low-grade linguistic sausage purveyors and their suppliers would have us believe. There is a certain economic dynamic in the circles of fantasy fandom which may lead them to conclude that they are on the right path, as an individual lemming might think with the comfort of the crowd around him.

Until there comes the cliff on which the skeptical competition will stand and look down on the remains of those who trusted in Common Sense Advice and translators without native language mastery of their target language for critical communication with customers and prospects.


  1. It is just the most beautiful way to describe an ugly situation which is so right!

  2. My gut reaction to this blog is that it is motivated by purely commercial reasons: The author probably fears competition by translators translating into a target language which is not their native language. I myself translate into English which I did not learn as a toddler but which I studied in the United States and which I therefore speak at native level. It is true that it would be best to obtain certification of these skills by IELTS or TOEFL. I do these translations with a perfectly clean professional conscience because I have seen loads of mistranslations from German into English (especially with legal texts), done by a native speaker of English who did not understand the German source text correctly. Anyway, as so many British universities are dropping their German courses because of a lack of British students, in the future an even greater amount of German into English translations will probably be done by German native speakers because there will simply not be enough native speakers of English around to do the jobs.

    1. Indeed, Maria. Those backward Brits do need you:

      Take up the German's burden, send forth the best ye breed
      Go translate now in exile and serve your captives' need;
      Await in heavy harness, to render English wild--
      Your new-caught, sullen language, a breeze for any child.

    2. Kevin most certainly does not fear competition from the L2 translators, at least, not in terms of quality. Nor do I. No offence, but studying in a country as an adult does not bring one to native standard. The "I can English" attitude that one sometimes finds is quite frankly bizarre. My into German translations may be accurate, even clever at times, but they will never match up to the skill and creativity of a gifted native speaker. This works both ways, unsurprisingly.
      It is hardly appropriate for someone who until recently had some quite serious English errors on their public profile, until a kind native corrected them (hello, again), to tell a very seasoned native their blog is motivated by purely commercial reasons and a fear of the competition. I apologise for the bluntness, but you are evidence that there is no competition for a gifted native speaker such as Kevin, merely inferior substitutes.

    3. I don't see the L2 issue as a black-and-white matter as many do at all, and on those rare cases when it's come up on the blog or elsewhere in discussion, I think I have made that clear enough. I know a few very gifted people working in my language pair who write very, very well in their second language, my native English, and often surpass my standard to a very evident degree. One in fact used to correct my written communication was probably a much better writer in English until she returned to Germany, where even daily contact with her American husband, heavy reading and conversational use failed to protect her embattled prepositions from demise. The fact is that the number of L2 translators living in the countries where their native language predominates who can work well into their second language is very small. Your typical Diplomübersetzer or staatlich geprüfter Übersetzer just can't make the grade despite any test results that say otherwise. I know enough colleagues with such qualifications who try to work into English and have done so for decades. The results are not good. The few who can manage it get referrals from me when appropriate. It is they who generally fear the competition into their own native language, where for whatever reason they simply can't find enough work. I find that some of them make rather decent proofreaders, however. Because they concentrate so hard on the English which is less comfortable than their native tongue and probably question meanings more, they find little omissions and typos much better, and if there is some trap in the source language, they are very helpful in identifying it. In the end I really don't care who takes on what job as long as I do not have to deal with the consequences of anyone's bad work. I generally refuse to shovel up what some unqualified person has left on the pavement after taking on a job without the requisite language or subject skills, and those messes occur with all sorts of linguistic backgrounds. I think we've probably all left the odd pile on a bad day, but some make an uncomfortable habit of that.

  3. Hi Kevin and Rose, thanks for reacting to my comment. I wrote it because this list of mistranslations by non native speakers of English published by Wendell Ricketts made me angry. I could just as well publish a list of mistranslations by English native speakers who translate from German into English. It concerns my area of specialization, which is law. For example a very important court decision rendered by the German Constitutional Court about the European Stabilization Mechanism was translated and revised by my British colleagues into English and many, many sentences were incorrect. Therefore, the English text reads very smoothly but the content is wrong. I have seen many of these translations but I just do not publish a list on the internet as this guy Wendell Ricketts does (I am not allowed to, because I am a European official working in the language service of the European Institutions in Brussels and as an official we have a "devoir de restreinte". Of course, the ideal solution would be to have a team of translators and revisors, one having the target language and the other one having the source language as native language, work on the text. But nobody is paying for this, not even here in the European Institutions. And yes Rose, you did correct my ProZ profile and I am very grateful to you for this.

    1. Well, Maria, I could probably match any of your awful examples of DE>EN incompetence by native speakers equally horrifying, if not worse examples, of botched work by US natives thoroughly vetted in important government departments in Washington. I'm not going to claim that a birth certificate from any particular country will guarantee good work in any way. And I do know a small handful of Germans who can hold their own with some of the best English natives. But they are rare. having come no closer to EU institutions than some technical consulting for their contractors, I don't know your situation, but it's probably quite different from the case I thought of when I first read your comment. I'm actually quite happy when I find a German colleague who can be trusted to translate well into English, but over the years I have been embarrassed so often by requests to revise hopeless work, or I've seen colleagues who can't speak two consecutive, grammatically correct sentences in my language take on jobs they are simply incapable of and remain unaware of just how far out of their depth they really are. It's a funny thing that the ones I trust most to handle English well are most aware of their limitations and usually know exactly how best to compensate for them. But I suppose that's true in any field.

      However, the peculiar arrogance one finds with so many L2s (the Dutch are far worse offenders than the Germans in this regard) is rather wearing. They point to the many examples of mediocre English natives as if to proclaim their own equal standing with the best and brightest, perhaps not realizing that they have a way to go yet to be another Joseph Conrad. I am often asked why I do not translate into German when I can usually pass as one in speech or writing if I am not very tired. Well, "greed" could be one reason I suppose. Even on my best days, I'll still work slower into German. And although my carefully crafted phrases might beat your bog-standard Diplomübersetzer from the Saarland on a good day, they'll never match what the best native German linguists can produce. If I can't translate into German to the same standard I can into English, then I prefer to leave it to those who can do better and perhaps clarify those rare strange bits in English that they sometimes miss as they kindly do for me with puzzling bits of their language. There are risks and compromises in most endeavors, and as long as we try to be honest about what we can do and have a realistic understanding of our limits and how to deal with them, I'm OK with that. There are plenty of idiots out there who will keep grinding out linguistic sausage no matter what any of us think or say, and as long as I don't have to clean up after them, I don't much care.


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