Monday, May 24, 2010

"Harmonizing" -- A Waste of Translators' Talents But Clients Pay

This item was sent to me by a professional translator who specializes in medical documents. She and several other translators needed to grapple with less than a dozen questions in a survey. Her experience sheds light on some common myths about translation. One is that you should hire only a "native speaker" to translate into their native language. See what you think after you read this brief item!

Recently, a large pharmaceutical company, seeking to expand sales internationally, contracted a dozen translators, all residing in the same city, to translate a patient survey consisting of less than ten questions. The original survey had been written in US English.

After each translator had completed his or her work, the agency asked them to attend a session called a harmonization meeting. The goal: to be sure that each translator had rendered the English questions accurately into his or her native language. The first question that should be occurring to anyone familiar with translation or anyone with common sense should be: How can each translator possibly help the others if they are all working into different, mutually incomprehensible languages? The only common language around the table will be English.
 What became clear was that the translators had been a bit confused by the English, to varying degrees and depending on the passages. Since none of them were native speakers of English, except for the monolingual moderator and me (native bilingual of English and Tagalog), I next had to wonder what reliable insights into English these non-natives of English were going to be able to give to each other.

Everyone was very friendly, had a great time meeting each other and talking about the questionnaire. In a few cases, the feedback revealed that the composers of the original had used a bit more slang than they probably should have, but for a translator who really knows American English, this did not present a problem, since it was meaning, not style, that needed to be conveyed to the readers in the target languages. But nothing happened around the table that would enable one translator to suggest the wording of the other translator’s target text.

In order to ensure the proper translation of a text and perform quality control, there are three things a company must bear in mind: First, select a translator who can comprehend the source text. Just because a person is a “native speaker of language X” does not mean that he or she will be able to translate a text from your language into the other. The more technical the topic, the more the translator needs to have a track record of translation in the given industry. Next, the company needs to trust the translator and be accessible to answer questions about the content, preferably with the writer of the original. This can create a very healthy symbiotic relationship. In some cases, the third thing a company might do is have a quality control expert (QC) who is a native speaker of the target language look at the translation – and communicate with the translator.

Some may wonder why this QC expert shouldn’t do the translation to begin with. The reason has often been demonstrated. A doctor whose native language is, say Spanish, may have great difficulty translating a document about his or her field of expertise, but can easily judge its medical accuracy when presented with a document.

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