By Hans Leander
I recently sent the following message, with the topic “Who is responsible for a translation?”, to one of the discussion lists I frequent (text slightly adapted to this blog):
I did an editing job for a customer that I have worked for a few times in 2004 and 2005. I delivered the job with some comments, questions and suggested changes (in MS Word/Track) for the translator. Below, please find an exchange of messages between the agency’s Project Manager and myself (Hans).
Project manager (after one day): I have not heard back from the translator on your comments. Please make any final decisions that need to be made, accept any and all changes in the files, turn off track changes, and deliver them to me.
Hans: You know, I made comments that the translator really should consider, and I made suggestions that the translator should change globally in the file (that is, I did not change in every single place, because I did not know what the translator wanted, neither do I know as much about the job as the translator). I cannot believe that the translator is not responding. Well, I will deliver the file tomorrow, but I really hope that the translator takes responsibility for his/her job and does respond.
Project manager: We usually expect the editor to make global changes if he/she makes a change in one spot. That is not the translator’s responsibility. As far as you not knowing as much about the job as the translator, that concerns me. I sent all the information to you that I sent to the translator and the expectation was that you would go over all three files. Why do you feel that the translator has more information about the job than you do? I am attaching our editing checklist so that you understand our definition and expectations of editing. Very rarely do we send the editor’s files back to the translator. The editor is expected to finalize that document on his/her own.
Hans: Different agencies have different policies. Let me tell you about my policy. The translator is the main person in a translation project. The translator is supposed to research the topic, check the client’s website for information, research the terminology, ask the agency (which asks the client) about uncertainties and potential errors, and tell the editor if there are things that are not clear in the translation (for whatever reason). The translator sometimes gets feedback from the client and/or the agency, and often, this info is not forwarded to the editor. For the time spent on the above, and because the actual translation takes longer than editing, the translator is paid 3-4 times more than the editor.
The editor is supposed to check the translation. It is not very effective to have the editor do the same research about the job as the translator. Most editors are not paid enough to do this anyway. The editor most often does not know why the translator has done things in a certain way. For these reasons, the editor often only points out a possible change at the first instance, leaving it up to the translator, who has more knowledge about the job and his/her choices of terminology, etc., to make the decision to change or not to change (thus saving the translator to go through umpteen numbers of changes that he/she does not want to make). Assuming that the editor is to take over responsibility for a translation job is, in my view, misguided. Some translations are good, some bad, and I usually do not complain, because it evens out in regard to the time I have to spend editing. However, if a translation is very bad, I speak up and tell that it will take longer than a normal edit, and that I will charge more.
In my experience, some translation agencies (not yours!) use very cheap (and thus, often, quite bad) translators, and then expect the much less paid editor to fix the translations. But even when this is not the case, it is, in my view, not the editor’s responsibility to ‘fix’ translations. It is the translator’s responsibility. Now, the issue of responsibility is very seldom discussed, but my stance is that as an editor, I do not take over responsibility for any translation, good or bad. The translator can not just do a first translation and then forget about it.
* * * * *
Later the same day, the project manager got back to me and told me that the translator had sent the updated translation and that I did not need to do anything. I have no idea what changes the translator made.
There were a number of responses to my question about responsibility, and I will summarize them below. I will then discuss the issue, and end by drawing a few conclusions.
A few respondents said that they had stopped accepting editing/proofreading jobs because they were not paid well enough for the work involved, and because some agencies use cheap/bad translators (or even deliver machine translations for editing) and then expect the less paid editor to fix the translations. Some respondents said that they expected additional pay for fixing bad translations.
A number of respondents held the opinion that the editor was the party having the last word and being responsible for the final translation sent to the agency, and that the editor should do the additional research necessary to make corrections and other changes, even in the case the translator has not done a thorough enough job. Some said that they did not send any changes back to their translators, and if the agencies did so, it was their business. One respondent said that the translator is “the main person in the chain”, but added that final responsibility rests with the editor.
A few respondents did not like being bothered with editors’ changes (but would like to know if they made some major errors), especially when the edit was bad or ‘nitpicky’.
Then, there were some respondents who felt that both the translator and editor should be responsible and that they should work together to produce the end translation.
Finally, it was pointed out by some that agencies should spell out what is expected by translators and editors, and that once this was done, it would be clear who was responsible for what.
MY TAKE ON IT
I will start with a reminder: we are assuming that translators and editors deal with an agency in this text, not with direct clients. However, I do not think this makes any essential difference.
Then, I want to point out that there is a clear difference between who has the last word on a translation and who is responsible for it.
As for responsibility, it is clear that the agency is solely responsible for the final translation vis-à-vis the client. Some agency-vendor (TR/ED) contracts have clauses that implies that the vendor is responsible to the end client for some items, thus implying a business relationship between the vendor and the client, but such clauses should, in my view, be firmly rejected.
The translator and editor are both responsible to the agency for at least their part of the job. If the editor is asked, and agrees, to be responsible for the final translation vis-à-vis the agency, he/she is. However, this does not relieve the translator of responsibility for his/her part.
The translator can also be responsible to the agency for the final translation in cases where the translation is not edited, but sent directly to the client.
Now, what about the case where either an agency asks the editor to be responsible for a translation or it is praxis that the editor is responsible? (Note that it is of no consequence whether the editor tacitly “assumes” responsibility for a translation as long as it has not been spelled out in a “contractual way”, such “assumed responsibility” is not a legal responsibility.)
In this case, the editor would have to not only make all the changes (the decisions and mechanics of which take quite a lot of time), but also do considerable research to make sure that the translator has made the correct choices. However, one should note again that translators are usually paid quite a lot more than editors. This makes sense in cases where the editor only reviews the text and makes obvious changes and otherwise makes comments and suggestions for the translator to consider. But it would not make sense if the editor takes over responsibility for the translation, because the time difference between translation and editing is then not very large.
Would agencies take the consequences of this and pay editors more, perhaps much more, than they normally do? While one or two respondents to my original question indicated that they were paid well for such editing (perhaps by direct clients), it is my opinion that most agencies would not consider this a viable option, and I think they would be absolutely correct.
Both my translation and more general experience, as well as common sense, dictate that the translator is the creator or the translation, the major expert on the subject, and thus the one with the main responsibility for the final text. If this is true, the translator should get the editors’ changes, comments and suggestions back for finalization, and should be paid quite a lot more than the editor. There would in this case not be any doubt about who is responsible for the translation vis-à-vis the agency (the translator), but the editor would still be responsible for her/his part.
However, an agreement that the editor would do a greater part of the translation work at the editing stage (because, for instance, the editor is more knowledgeable about the topic in question), thus allowing the translator to do less research, would be quite okay in my opinion. But the editor should in such a case be paid more and the translator less than in the other case. Will this happen? Not very soon in my view.
The responsibility problem goes away for agencies, of course, if they use one vendor for both editing and translation. However, while the problem goes away for the agency, it is only passed on to the vendor. And, contrary to the situation with a separated translator and editor, the agency has, in these cases, a real problem checking whether any editing has been done at all. But that is another story.
I will finish by drawing two conclusions:
– editors that accept responsibility for translations can only afford to do the extra research needed to protect them from legal jeopardy if they are paid quite a lot more than normally for editing;
– the existing fee differential between translators and editors implies that the translator should be the party responsible for the final translation.
Hans is an English-to-Swedish translator in the Cleveland, Ohio area, who
specialises in the medical and technical fields. His e-mail address is
Guest blogger: Who is responsible for a translation?
By Hans Leander
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