Don’t get upset when your translator sends you a translation containing simple writing errors — it could actually be a good sign!
What you’re paying for and the translator’s most important job
The translator’s most important job is to create a decent piece of writing in another language, which is not always as simple as it sounds and always involves more than just replacing words.
To stick faithfully to the original message, translators often have to stray off the path of literal translation, which requires — apart from fully understanding the original — expertise in the target language and the subject matter (which is why translators just about always only translate into their native languages and specialise in certain fields and even types of documents).
They understand the document you give them and know what it should look like in the other language, and the most important thing you’re paying them for is this transformation — the bridging of the linguistic and cultural divide.
Of course, as writing professionals, translators should provide you with an error-free text — free of translation errors but also free of any typos or other simple errors of writing, which I would define as missing words, wrong words, grammatical errors, etc.
However, while translation errors are an indicator of poor quality, writing errors and typos (except spelling mistakes, for which there can be no excuse now spellcheckers are everywhere) shouldn’t be something you get too upset about. It may even be a good sign.
Why might a typo be a good sign?
Why? Because simple errors may indicate the right focus, which has to do with the nature of the translation and creative processes and the translator’s main priority (hopefully, to produce a smooth and effective piece of writing that accurately renders the source text and message).
Let’s look first at the translation process. Mine is more or less as in the text box below, regardless of whether I send it on for extra proofreading (which includes when I collaborate with colleagues or agencies):
While stages 1, 2 and 3 are easily distinguishable, 4 and 5 often cross over as the difference is about focus rather than activity.
Often, for instance, when I think I’ve already taken care of stage 4 and am looking mainly for small errors, I’ll come across a patch that needs rewriting. This is, of course, part of the nature of the creative process; there usually is a bit of trial and error and toing and froing that requires coming back to something you’ve put down earlier.
As part of the process, it must be accepted and expected. As you’ll remember, my main priority as a translator is to get the text into target-language shape, so I’ll switch focus and slip back to stage 4 as often as I need to reach that goal of a well-written document.
However, by doing so and making changes at what is ever becoming more last minute, I risk introducing typos and other simple errors of writing. Spelling mistakes will be caught by the spellchecker, but, as the deadline draws nearer, there will be less opportunities to catch other types of errors.
Of course, when time and money are less of an issue, this is less of a problem. I just keep repeating stage 4 until no more major reworking is required, and I have a document ready for stage 5. Under such circumstances, getting a 99% error-free text isn’t a problem.
What’s more important?
We do, though, usually have constraints of time and money. When this is the case, what do you want your translator to focus most on: producing a) a well-written text that doesn’t read like a translation or b) one that’s first and foremost free of typos and other small errors?
If I were the buyer, I’d expect both but insist on the first, which really is the difficult part and the one I might not always be able to fix up afterwards. And if I can fix it up later on, it will usually be more costly than getting rid of small errors of writing, which wouldn’t even be too out of place in authentic texts anyway.
Of course, we’d like to have both a) and b), which is quite often achievable, but I’d suggest there’s always trade-off between one and the other in the translation-revision process. A good translator will get the balance right but should always have a bias towards creating a felicitous text over weeding out typos, which may result in the occasional writing error in an otherwise near-perfect translation in terms of faithfulness and how it reads.
So, don’t get upset with your translator if you find a couple of simple errors of writing in your translation; get mad when you get back something that reads like a wobbly chair.