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Translating Errors: The Translator’s limits

When working on a translation, it’s not uncommon to encounter errors in the source text. 

As translators, we are not responsible for the original version of the copy, but we do have a duty to ensure that the translated content is consistent with its source counterpart and makes perfect sense. This means that errors in the original copy need to be treated in the right way.

So, what do we do when we encounter one or more errors in the text we’re translating?

First of all: be sure it’s an error! Are you really looking at a mistake or did you just not grasp the meaning of that sentence? Read the whole text and look for other occurrences of the allegedly wrong word to compare.

If you’ve ascertained that what you’re looking at really is a mistake, then you need to categorise it to know how to deal with it.

Obvious vs. non-obvious errors

It might sound obvious, but not all errors are… well, obvious. Most of the time, spelling mistakes are quite easy to detect and can easily be corrected in the target tetx. Have you noticed the one I’ve made here? It’s pretty clear that tetx should have been text, I don’t need here to ask the client for confirmation before fixing it in my translation.

But why do obvious errors even exist? Well, source copies are not always spell-checked or sometimes the text is transcribed using an OCR (optical character recognition) tool that might miss some letters.

However, there are also non-obvious errors. These are the ones that have us wondering for a long time whether we should correct them in our translation or no, and if so, how. For instance, gender-number agreements.

Take a look at the following sentence:

Her brothers knows her well.

This sentence is of course grammatically incorrect, but is the right solution a plural or a singular phrase – which “s” shouldn’t be there? In cases like this, if the context doesn’t help, it’s best to ask the client for confirmation.

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Types of errors

There are different types of errors that we might find in a text. Let’s have a look at some of them and how we should treat them.

Spelling errors

Probably the most common errors, they are easily detectable and most of the time, translators can understand the meaning anyway and convey the message correctly in the target copy. An example of this is tetx vs. text, as we saw above.

Consistency

Throughout the novel you’re translating, the main character was engaged to a girl called Linda, but now you’ve just read that his fiancée’s name is Gloria. How is that possible? Was the writer thinking about his daughter’s name while writing or does the protagonist have a double life? In any case, we’d better look for other occurrences in the rest of the text and if we find none, we should ask the client for clarification.

Extra-linguistic errors

We’re working on a manual translation, with a lot of numerals. We notice that both the wheel and the handlebars have the same reference number. If we have visual reference materials, we’ll have further confirmation. But in cases like this, we can’t simply guess and use the numbers we think are correct; we need to contact the client and explain the problem.

Think of the consequences

When we find an error in the copy we’re translating, it’s also important to take into account the type of text we’re working on. Is it a very technical text or more of a creative one? Is it legal, medical or marketing related?

In very technical texts, even small errors could lead to serious consequences. Think about patent translation; if we arbitrarily decide to change a reference number and the patent application is not accepted because of, we’ll be solely responsible for it and may have to pay the consequences.

Of course, even if we’re translating less specialised texts, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to take errors seriously. We should just take extra care when working on content that can have severe consequences if badly translated.

Conclusion

We’ve seen that different types of errors can be dealt with in different ways. Nonetheless, there’s a golden rule we should always keep in mind, tell the client! It’s always a good idea to ask for confirmation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that might seem trivial, and remember what Einstein said, “There is no such thing as a stupid question, there are only stupid answers”.

Bonus tip: even when you’re 101% sure of an error and you can easily detect it and correct it in the target text, report it to the client anyway so they can also correct the original copy. They’ll be extremely grateful you went the extra mile for them and won’t forget it next time they need a translation!

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