Perspectives: Taking liberty as a translator

Having been immersed in the deep water of the translation industry for almost two decades both as a freelance translator and a translation company director, I have been constantly confronted with the necessity to set the degree of liberty I should adhere to when translating, proofreading or editing texts of various types, and to supply the freelancers of my translation company with clear instructions regarding the extent to which they can alter the source text.

The extent to which liberty can be taken when rendering a script from one language to another is determined by several factors. Most notably: the targeted audience; the purpose (or intended use) of the translation; the subject matter of the document; the client who ordered the job; the specific instructions received when the order was placed; and my personal preferences and habits as a translator. Even these determining factors have a hierarchy — some override others.

Let me start with a recent nightmare I endured as a translation company director. In August of 2015, I assigned a voluminous English into Hungarian pharmaceutical translation project to a pharmacologist who applied to my company a couple of months before, and who indicated in her résumé that she was a professional life sciences translator. I had used her on a couple of small medical projects beforehand, and her output was great. This is why I decided to assign the 20,000-word pharmaceutical project to her in August. Since our company had a relatively generous deadline, and as I always employ a safety cushion, I gave her a deadline three days before our delivery was due. The nightmare started when she delivered the translation. It was professional medical work, but an extremely unprofessional output in terms of translation industry expectations as the translation was basically a free rendering of the source text. The source was altered at least once in every paragraph, and when I called the translator to request an explanation, she made reference to the fact that she had only worked for pharmaceutical companies directly (as opposed to translation companies), and these companies encouraged her and expected her to correct all pharmacology-related errors and inconsistencies she found in the source text, and localize it to the cultural and medical standards of the target country (Hungary). After I explained to her that the translation industry required faithful translation without deliberate alterations and corrections, she spent the weekend redoing her work, and finally, after two days of agony caused by my uncertainty about her ability, intention and readiness to correct the translation by the extended deadline, she delivered the finished work, which was finally in line with industry expectations and guidelines. Our client noticed nothing of my distress or the troubles we encountered, and was very happy with our translation. However, we parted ways with the linguist after the project was completed and her invoice was settled because she refused to do more work that deprived her of the freedom she had been accustomed to.

With this example, I attempt to highlight how the client assignment (end client versus translation industry client) as well as the intended use of a translation can determine the extent of the liberty a translator is allowed to take when rendering the source-language text into the target language, and the importance of making it clear to your linguist when placing the job with them to what extent liberty is allowed, either by pinpointing the purpose of the translation or by simply listing this requirement among the specific instructions.

However, in the course of our 18-year history, there were numerous cases (especially in the case of website localization projects) when our client specifically requested us to take as much freedom as possible, and adapt the texts to the taste, style, expectations or cultural traits of the targeted readers. When this is not specified by the client, it is imperative to request this piece of information before commencing work; otherwise, there can be misunderstandings and issues with the translation delivered.

While website translation typically allows the linguist a high degree of freedom, there are certain subject matters and certain clients that require the opposite. Let us first look at this type of client, and then let us examine the subject matters that require a faithful translation approach.

Some clients appear to be totally oblivious or outright ignorant of syntactic and morphological differences between individual languages. They make our lives difficult sometimes when pointing out errors where there are no errors at all. It happened to my company that our direct client sent our translation back to us claiming there was an issue in almost every sentence. Such queries, in the case of English into Hungarian translation, typically relate to things like quantifiers, where in Hungarian, the comma and the period are used in the opposite way to English (2,5 is two and a half in Hungarian, as opposed to the 2.5 used in English) as well as compound and complex words, where clients may believe that certain words were either lost or added in the course of the translation. English is an isolating language, whereas Hungarian is both an agglutinating and an inflecting language, and it is useless to look for correspondences in terms of word order or word count. The English source word count is typically 15% higher than the Hungarian target word count because of the morphological discrepancy between these two languages.

Regarding the subject matters or fields that prescribe a faithful approach, it is enough to think of the description of medical devices or a hospital discharge report or for that matter most technical and legal texts, such as user’s manuals or patents, agreements and contracts. Obviously, in the case of such documents, alterations made by the translator vis-a-vis the source text would bring about serious and possibly disastrous unwanted consequences, such as patients being maltreated or criminal cases being affected in a major way, which might even result in claims of compensation filed against the translation service provider.

What other fields are there, besides website localization, that warrant the linguists having a high degree of freedom? Love letters are a typical example. The reasons are numerous and each, alone, would warrant a high degree of creativity on the part of the translator. One of these coincides with the reason why website localization is a creative process: the cultural difference between the countries where the source and target languages are spoken, as well as other country-specific traits that necessitate the altering of the source text to make the target text sound natural and consumable for its readers. Another important reason is that typically, a translator is endowed with more highly-developed writing skills than the client who composed the love letter in the source language, and the client is usually aware of this. The composers of love letters (and in general, the composers of most genres of writing, such as letters of all sorts that are not meant for publication) are not professional writers, often do not even hold a university degree. Their objective is to put their message through in the most effective manner, and they realize that they, in many cases, should not only entrust the language professional (that is, the translator) with the task of rendering their letter from language A to language B but to improve it as much as possible in terms of style and wording to carry the intended message through in the most emphatic fashion. My company often translates private and business letters from English into Eastern European languages, and many of our clients expect us to improve the rhetoric and flow of their composition according to the best of our ability. It even happened that a client authorized us to introduce new ideas in the text at our own discretion as long as the target text conveyed their intended message. Our work is often more copywriting than strict translation.

There is another, less theoretical (and rather pecuniary) aspect of taking the liberty as a translator. When the basis of the remuneration is the target word count (which is often the case in the translation industry) it is in the interest of the translator to achieve as high a target word count as possible. While most of our translators do not take this into consideration when working for our company, it has happened on several occasions that a linguist produced a target text with an unjustifiably higher word count than the source. This is another type of unauthorized liberty that should never be tolerated. Applying a source word count-based calculation of the translation fee is a solution to this issue, by means of which this fortunately seldom-occurring phenomenon can be prevented.

I have always deemed it vital to list all expectations and requirements related to the project ordered in the instructions section of the e-message in which I order the given translation. This way, the level of freedom is clearly specified for the translator. They know who the targeted audience is, what the intended use of the target language document is, and what exactly the expectations of the end client are along the axis of creative translation versus the strict rendering of the source into the target language. The requirements detailed in the instructions sent by the end client, and forwarded to the linguist, override in all instances the default preferences and habits of the translator performing the translation project. This requires a certain amount of flexibility, which, however, can reasonably be expected of language professionals.

It happens that the client’s instructions contravene the general expectations concerning the translation of the subject matter at hand. For instance, the end client may stipulate that his love letter is to be translated faithfully, almost word for word into the target language. In this case, the end client’s instructions override the general field-specific expectation governing the degree of liberty justified, which means that the end client’s instructions outweigh and override this factor as well.

In the realm of medical and pharmaceutical translation, there is a specific factor involved in setting the degree of the liberty the linguist is expected to take: whether the targeted readers are medical professionals or potential patients without any formal training in medical parlance. Our best medical translators always request this information prior to starting work, and our clients need to provide the answer each time.

If a hierarchical order of the factors influencing and determining translation faithfulness versus creativity was to be established, it would look like this — starting with the most decisive and overriding factor, and advancing toward the less decisive ones:

end client’s instructions

specific intended use/purpose of the target text

project-specific targeted audience/readers

subject matter/field-specific general industry expectations and standards

personal preferences/translation habits of the linguist

A detailed purchase order providing all pieces of relevant information can prevent the occurrence of miscommunication in regard to exactly what is being expected of the linguist, and they should always be encouraged to ask questions if they are uncertain as to the degree of liberty they can adopt while performing the given task.