The art of spinning straw into gold

by Wendy Schönberg, translated by Josephine Beney

A new translation job comes in. The text is well-founded, neatly structured and linguistically sound. Not only has it been written by an experienced author, it has clearly also been proofread and thoroughly checked for content and style. Bingo: the ideal starting point. Just the kind of job every translator hopes for.

But in practice, things often look a little different. Copy with very tight publication deadlines can be particularly problematic, as it is usually created under a great deal of time pressure and is often a patchwork of material harvested from previous articles. This can lead to a sense of disconnect in the new text, which makes it less intelligible for the reader. Another complicating factor is that source texts are not always written by native speakers, so language quality can vary considerably.

Wendy Schoenberg

Then there are texts that have been composed by someone whose job doesn’t involve much writing, and who has little experience working with language. If the customer doesn’t have time to check their document before commissioning the translation, any errors and inconsistencies will remain undiscovered until the translator starts work. In other cases, however, a source text will pass through many hands before landing in the translator’s inbox, in which case the document may have been worked on by different authors, undergone numerous reviews and edits, collected a trail of comments, had old changes discarded and new changes added. It’s not always easy to keep track of this entire process, so it’s no wonder customers sometimes struggle to produce a consistent, well-written source text that is tailored to the target audience.


When do I pick up the phone?

So how do I, as a translator, approach these kinds of texts? What do I need to watch out for? For content flaws, the right course of action is obvious; if I notice an error in a certain section of text, I can’t just copy the mistake into my translation. If I have a clear sense of what the text is supposed to say, then I reformulate that section in my translation and flag it for the customer so they know to correct the original. If I’m not really sure of the intended meaning, I contact the customer by email or telephone to try to clarify things. If we’re unable to reach a conclusion at that point, we can at least agree what to do next.

Linguistic deficiencies are not quite so easily resolved. What to do if the copy is poorly structured or repeats itself unnecessarily? Inelegant repetitions can usually be avoided by using synonyms (although there’s a limit to the number of ways you can say the same thing), but what do I do about redundant content? What editorial scope do I have? Am I allowed to alter parts of the copy, or summarize certain passages? There’s only one thing for it: pick up the phone or, even better, meet with the customer in person. One solution might be to agree to have a native speaker proofread the text before it is translated.

I mediate between cultures

Particular sensitivity is required when it comes to dealing with those texts that don’t really “work” in the target language – when the content strongly reflects the cultural context of the original, for example, and there is a risk of putting off readers from other countries. Once placed in the linguistic and social context of the target language, such content could trigger an undesired response by causing affront or coming across as unintentionally humorous. For example, imagine that the CEO of an international company based in Germany gives a speech to his or her German employees that highlights the achievements made on German soil. Were they to make this exact same speech to employees at locations outside Germany, there’s a chance their words might provoke resentment or at the very least irritate the non-German audience.

In such cases I consider it my responsibility to explain the problem to the customer, and suggest ways that the text could be adapted to prevent any damage being done. As a translator, I don’t just transfer words from one language into another, I also mediate between cultures. And as a reliable corporate communications partner, the BVIW translation team has on more than one occasion worked closely with the customer to spin straw into gold.

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