We all make mistakes. Being wrong doesn’t make you unprofessional, it just means there’s room for improvement. As long as you’re passionate about your craft, learning from your embarrassing experiences will only help you grow.
We talked to Eric Spreat, who edits Russian to English translations, and Paz Sepúlveda, a reviewer of translations between English and Latin American Spanish, who also regularly offers clients her expertise in style in Spanish texts. Paz and Eric have quite a lot to tell about common errors in translations, as they both regularly evaluate tests completed by freelance translators. Such tests are meant to help clients ensure the translator is qualified for the job, however in many cases the clients themselves are unable to tell a good translation for a bad one, and this is when such experts as Paz and Eric come into play.
— What are the errors you find most frequently in test translations? Is it poor grammar, incorrect terminology, stylistic imperfections or a different kind of mistake?
Eric: The errors I most commonly encounter predictably have to do with the interference of Russian syntax and phrasing in English. What we focus on as translators is rendering the precise content, meaning, tone and style into the target language, and most linguists stumble on the last two. Most tests I evaluate are completed by established specialists in legal and marketing, so the content and meaning of the text are almost always clear, but tone and style in English follow very different norms than in Russian. I like to look at it this way: if my mom, who only knows English, wouldn’t say something a translator wrote, then there’s probably a problem with the style. This may be frustrating for non-native speakers, but this elusive “feeling of language” is in fact the most crucial element of proper localization.
Paz: Some translators ignore cultural or idiomatic aspects, so the translation turns out to be too literal. Some rely on machine translation, not doing enough editing, which leads to major mistakes in the target language. Terminology is a big issue for people who are not specialized in a given area, like engineering or medicine. That’s a common problem with less experienced translators who are just starting and take any job that comes their way to make ends meet. I usually recommend students to take notes while watching TV to get a better grasp of terminology, grammar constructions and the sort. It’s a fun and rewarding way to improve your language skills!
Another big issue I often find in the English to Spanish translations is that some translators don’t seem to realize that in different languages sentences have different structures. English sentences are usually shorter and words in them are joined by hyphens, while in Spanish connectors, commas and parenthesis are more common. In English, full stops should be inside the quotation marks (“London is the capital of Great Britain.”), while in Spanish they should be placed outside (“Santiago de Chile es la capital de Chile”.).
— Can you share your experience with the worst translation you have ever had to edit?
Eric: It’s hard to say! The first that comes to mind is when I had to deal with the “editing” a client did on a 3-minute song I translated for their company. The project was a collaborative artistic work for YouTube between big Russian stars in the entertainment world (Timati even had a verse!), and the client simply did not understand that translated poetry often looks drastically different from the original. The density of content in poetry is sometimes astounding, and unravelling it in one language to be reassembled in another assumes the translator focuses only on the “guiding spirit” of the work, not the letters themselves. Needless to say, the client crossed out 80% of my work because they were stunned to not see 1–1 equivalencies between the two texts. But I learned an important lesson: sometimes what translators see as obvious needs to be explained to people who don’t work in our industry. Everyone understands that words can be translated, but not everyone gets how imprecise this can sometimes be.
Paz: As most English speakers know, in English thousands are separated by commas and decimals with points. In Spanish, on the other hand, it’s the other way around. There was this translator who didn’t bother with that, which led to a child almost being poisoned due to a badly mixed dose of medication.
— What a tragic mistake! Any comic ones you remember though?
Eric: When a specialist makes a mistake on a test I don’t typically find it humorous (as an evaluator, I have to try and stay completely neutral). But here there are still three things worth mentioning: First, in a legal document that includes numerical values (“this agreement is valid for 30 (thirty) days”), the numerals should ALWAYS come first! This error escapes language and falls into the realm of common sense. The word “thirty” is meant to clarify there’s no typo in the numeral. So writing “thirty (30)” makes no sense! Second, unlike in Russian, in English the names of companies are never, ever written with quotation marks. For instance, Торговый дом “Дары океана” should be written as Trading House Dary Okeana. And third, again, this is not about language itself, but the funniest part of test translations for me is seeing a specialist’s unprofessional email address. Some are just downright inappropriate! If you want to be taken seriously by your evaluator, stick to Mail.ru or Gmail accounts with just your first and last name. That email account you made when you were 15 has got to go!
Paz: The funniest one I can remember involved machine translation. There was a list of companies the client was working with. It read: Entel, Movistar, Of Course and GTD. I was struggling to figure out what “Of Course” was supposed to mean until I realized it was Claro, machine-translated! That client hired me to proofread their texts and, therefore, negotiated a lower rate, but when I found that he had used Google Translator he ended up paying for the translation of the entire document.
— What advice can you give to the beginner translators who take their first test? What are the dos and don’ts?
Eric: Do check your completed work with two established professionals before submitting it: one native speaker of each language in the pair. This step is invaluable for any client, but all the more so if they are offering you a decent rate. One of the main problems in the freelance translation industry is a lack of communication among professionals, but being evaluated by your peers is often more important than what the client has to say. After all, the client is most likely not a professional translator themselves. In short, translators need to make sure their work is accepted by the professional community before they can be confident enough to defend it in front of a client. And use a professional email address for your contact info! Otherwise it can and will invoke laughter in anyone evaluating your work. Also, tests should as a rule take longer than the average project. This is because you should first have it evaluated by several specialists you trust. Never try and translate a test without seeking a second opinion, because nobody is perfect and mistakes are part of the job. Leave comments in the text. Translators often try to show they “know it all” by never asking any questions, but in reality projects that don’t require at least one question are very rare. It’s a bad sign for me if I get a test and there isn’t a single question or comment from the translator.
Paz: You should prepare well ahead of time. If you know what company it is, the area and all, study, research, use the internet and go beyond the second page of results, use Google Scholar, ask people on forums, get involved, watch TV and YouTube videos and write everything down! This job requires us to always study, investigate and update our knowledge. Don’t ever stop doing that, don’t think you are an expert who makes no mistakes at all. We live in a rapidly changing world and it’s part of our job to keep up with it.