A customer asked me a rather interesting question the other week. He needed a certified Dutch to English translation and had already received a quote from a Romanian agency. Their offer, however, involved translating the document twice: once from Dutch into Romanian (certifying that specific translation), and then a second time from Romanian into English (also certifying that specific translation). I strongly discouraged the customer from this approach and advocated having the translation done by a single, experienced and qualified Dutch to English translator instead. At some point during the process, though, the customer asked me a question that I suppose may be more indicative of the perception of translation that the general public might have: “Isn’t it all the same anyway?”
I was a bit thrown off by the question, especially in this case where the answer to me is a very clear no. Having the document translated twice via a third language, for one, would dramatically increase the likelihood of errors, particularly omissions, slipping through. The translators in this proposal were also Romanian, so not natives in either the actual source or target text, and unfortunately in these situations it’s often the case that they might be lacking in the cultural and legal knowledge of both the source (in this case, Dutch) and target (English) languages to make the final document properly reflect the original and also be suitable for its intended purpose. Third of all, there was no guarantee that the intended recipient of the translation (in an additional country) would have accepted this rather unusual chain of certification, or that it would have made a favourable impression on them even if they did. I could go on about the reasons why these two process chains are not the same, but I think you probably get the general idea.
This whole thing got me thinking back to my presentation at the American Translator’s Association Conference in 2017. I had mentioned that I had never heard of a customer asking for a bad translation, but we’ve certainly all heard horror stories of it happening. I had been meaning to do a write-up on some major factors that lead to bad translations and customer dissatisfaction and best practices on how to avoid them ever since, but kept putting it on the back burner. So thank you, dear Dutch customer, for providing me with the impetus to finally put pen to paper (figuratively) on this.
1. The translator is a “Jack of all trades”.
Would you take your car to a lawnmower repair shop for an oil change? Would you go to a veterinarian for minor surgery? Would you have McDonald’s cater your wedding?
For all but a few of us, the answer to these questions is a clear “no”. But to outsiders, it might seem like surely a translator can do any type of text, it’s just words, right? Contrary to general perception, though, that’s simply not the case. The translator’s job is to understand the meaning behind the words. If the document is about an engine, the translator needs to know how engines work. If the translation is about surgery, you most definitely want a translator that is knowledgeable about the medical field. If your text is for your hotel restaurant, you want a translator who knows a thing or two about making a menu sound elegant and delicious and ideally also knows a thing or two about the type of cuisine. While it’s absolutely possible to have a few different specialty areas, it’s impossible to be knowledgeable about everything.
Avoidance strategy: A good translator will know their limits and know when to turn down a job or use their network to find a suitably qualified translator. Be wary of the translator who takes on every job without hesitation.
2. The translator is a “’Jill of all languages”.
There certainly ARE polyglots out there, but speaking seven languages is a bit different than mastering them. With translation, the level of understanding on both source and target language levels required to do the job and do it well is considerably higher than simply being able to tour a city or order off a menu. Essentially, you need to be able to understand how everything works in those specialized areas mentioned above in both the source and the target language. It’s best practice to translate only into your native language, at least for major languages where there are plenty of options (German, French, Spanish, English ,etc.). Now, as with specializations, it’s certainly possible to have more than one source language, particularly if the translator was raised in different cultures or has spent significant periods of time living in those cultures, but having A LOT of source languages–or going back and forth between them as though it’s a mix-and-match game–is cause for a bit of suspicion. I was approached last week by a translator claiming to do Russian, French, Spanish, English, and Romanian in any combination of the above. That’s 20 different language pairs. That doesn’t leave you much time to get to know each and every source/target combination very intimately, now does it.
Avoidance strategy: Always feel free to ask your translator or translation services provider what language pairs they can translate, and certainly feel free to ask them about the process. If there are a lot of pairs they are offering, for example, how do they choose their outsourcers?
3. The translator isn’t very familiar with or is out of touch with the target language.
This happens more often than you might think. Lack of familiarity with the target language, say English, is usually because the translator isn’t a native English speaker. With English being a de-facto lingua franca in the modern world, many people who have never set foot in an English-speaking country will come out of the woodwork when an English-language job is posted in some circles, claiming native-level fluency. It’s a real risk, and it can be difficult for the client or an agency to spot. I’ve personally also seen a few translations out there from people claiming to be native German speakers when a small amount of research unfortunately uncovered that that wasn’t at all the case. More thorough brokers will take steps to verify native level proficiency, even if only by just having the text proofread by a native speaker to verify.
On the other hand, target language attrition can occur when the translator has been immersed in the source language for a very long time (years or decades) and has not been in contact with native speakers of the target language for some time. This can cause features from the source language to actually be carried over to the target language even where they sound unnatural in it. This is a good reason to verify that your translators have committed to continuing professional development in their target language, as this is one way to combat this issue.
There are certainly also situations where a native speaker simply lacks the writing skills needed for the job, but hopefully these are rare.
Avoidance strategy: If a translation services provider is doing a proper job, then quality assurance measures should uncover those situations quickly enough. Feel free to ask your translator or service provider about the quality assurance measures they have in place.
4. The translator doesn’t follow a style guide.
The importance of style guides is often overlooked. They ensure consistency and clarity within (and across) texts. It’s not the Wild Wild West, there are rules and authorities out there; in fact, there are so many style guides for the English language out there that you really could probably have your pick of selecting your default one (of course, this should probably be done by taking your specializations and the conventions in those fields into account). At Brickner Translations, for example, we use the Chicago Manual of Style as our base style guide. It’s also fine for a translator to have a house style guide to cover deviations from their base style guide (or I suppose even a very thorough house style guide that’s all their own, though that seems like overkill), and certainly it’s a good idea to keep separate style guides for each client if they have particular preferences. But the complete absence of a style guide is a red flag.
Avoidance strategy: You should be able to ask your translator what style guide they are using, and they should be able to give you a coherent answer. If they don’t, that should be cause for concern.
5. The translator is afraid to ask you (or their colleagues) any questions.
As mentioned above, it’s vital that your translator understand what the translation is about. Say you have an engine. The translator needs to know how it works. If they have any doubts, it’s vital that they ask for clarification. This of course serves to make the target language text better, but it has an added bonus: if you have a true expert translator asking about something that doesn’t make sense, you might well uncover an error in the source text too, which is a huge added value. Indeed, if your translator is too afraid to approach you to tell you about the errors he or she found in your source text, that’s also a problem. It’s really just being helpful!
The translator should also ideally have an extensive network of colleagues that they can ask questions in a collaborative manner when truly in doubt (where it doesn’t violate confidentiality agreements, of course). There are multiple platforms out there for this in 2018 and have been for many years. Indeed, if the translator doesn’t have some sort of professional network in this day and age, be it through their professional memberships, social media groups, or their local connections, that’s also worrisome.
Avoidance strategy: Feel free to ask your translator about their professional network; most good ones will certainly be open to discussing it with you.
6. The translator isn’t charging enough to make quality a priority.
There’s an old meme floating around somewhere about how it’s suspicious when your food is ready for pickup too quickly. It’s also suspicious when something is too cheap. Yes, of course we all like to get a deal. But over the years surely we’ve also all been burnt on deals that were just a bit too good to be true, no? Those fake Oakley sunglasses from Mexico that break right before you get them over the border? That hotel where if you’d have just read a few more reviews you’d have discovered it’s right next to a loud nightclub that never closes? That hairdresser at Cost Cutters that said you were going to be blonde for that wedding and you came out brunette? Yes, those things happen. And in translation as well, there’s such a thing as too cheap. Because if the translator feels like they’re getting short-changed, then the “you get what you pay for” psychology tends to surface. And in that kind of a scenario, quality is pretty much always going to be on the chopping block, even if it’s subconscious.
Avoidance strategy: Be wary of any translation that looks suspiciously cheap. You tend to get the level of quality that you pay for.
So there you have six major factors that lead to bad translations. At the end of the day, translation is really all about trust. Customers need to know that they can rely upon their translator for a reliable translation that is fit for purpose. And trust is built upon transparency. Asking your translator about their translation process and expecting a transparent answer is the solution to most of these factors, and being open to questions from your translator is another. It’s ironic that in an industry so focused on communication that the root cause of many bad translations is indeed poor communication itself, but it’s clearly a recurring theme.
This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive by any means, it’s just a few of the most common causes of bad translations we’ve encountered over the past decade. Feel free to point out any additional issues you may have experienced in the comments, and rest assured that we at Brickner Translations always strive to ensure that the entire translation process is as seamless for our customers as possible while providing our customers with high-quality work.