Dealing With Clients: The Top Five Ways to Deal with Bad Source Language

Here you are.

You’ve got your first translation client.


He sends you the original and you’re ready to go.

You open it up, take a look, and… crap.

It’s bad source language.

It’s terrible.

It makes no sense.

You know your subject matter, but this stuff is full of grammatical errors, bad punctuation, and incomplete sentences.

Now what do you do?

You could send it back.

But unless the original is truly incomprehensible, this isn’t the best option most of the time.


You can still make bad source language a positive experience for you as well as turn it into a teaching moment for a life-long client.

But it’s not easy.

It takes time, patience, and a plan.

Most of the time, it will turn out positive.

First of all, though, you might not think it matters.

“A bad source language is the fault of the document author.”

Well, yes, but look at it from a different perspective.

Who gets blamed if a translated document turns out badly?

Here’s one from NPR:

From NPR

Here’s another one from the world of sports:

bad source language

And finally, another one from the world of medicine:

bad translation

Read these newspaper article titles again.

But first put yourself in the shoes of a non-translator.

If you had to choose, who would you say was at fault in each of these circumstances?

Most people would automatically blame the translator.

They wouldn’t even think that the problem could be bad source language.

And that’s the problem when dealing with a subpar original.

You will be the one to get blamed for producing a subpar target language text, even if that’s how you received the original in the first place.

Before you get a bad source language document, though, you need to know which of the five ways is going to be the best way to deal with it in that particular circumstance.

And that’s going to depend on three factors:

  • How bad the original is
  • The amount of time you have
  • How much latitude you have with the translation

I’ll discuss these in the context of the first two options, as they don’t really play a significant role in the last three.

Option #1: Use Your Own Judgement

It’s not the most common response when confronted with a bad translation.

But if it’s easy enough to desire the author’s intent through the bad original, it might be the most practical.

Say you’re translating informal communications like email or letters.

A lot of times, people don’t use correct pronunciation or accent marks when writing. This inevitably creates a poor original document.

But most of the time, it’s still relatively easy for a translator to decipher the intention of the author. In this case, there’s no need to ask the client for clarification.

Let’s look at the three criteria for choosing this option.

How messed up is the translation?

If you’re going to make a judgement call, the translation can’t be messed up that badly.

Grammatical errors are fine.

Bad sentence structure is OK.

Words can even be missing.

But the intention and meaning of the original author needs to be fully clear and completely understandable.

If there is any ambiguity or doubt, this step isn’t going to work.

How much time do you have?

This is the fastest way to resolve a bad source document.

You notice an error, you fix it, and then you move on.

There’s no need to drag out the whole process, going back and forth between you and the original author, for example.

How much latitude do you have?

This is something that you might not know for sure unless you know the client well.

The client simply wants to you to translate his document.

But when you accept the translation and speak with the client, you can often get a feel for how much latitude you’ll be given as you translate.

This can often be dictated by the type of translation you’re asked to do.

If you are doing a medical translation, for example, you’re going to have much less wiggle room in your translation.

However, if you’re translating an advertisement or marketing material, you’ll be expected to more creative in your translation, and you’ll have more freedom in how you translate.

Option #2: Ask the Client

Most translators think this is the first option when dealing with a bad translation.

But it’s actually the second.

Sometimes there’s too much confusion in the original.

So the only viable option is to get clarification from the client.

If there is any doubt about what was meant in the original, it does you no good to try and guess the meaning.

There’s nothing worse than mistranslating something because you were too proud to clarify the meaning of a word or phrase.

How messed up is the translation?

For you to ask the client for clarification, the translation needs to be significantly confusing.

You don’t want to ask about small and insignificant issues.

They need to be something you truly don’t understand.

Besides confusing text, this could be something like abbreviations or units of measure that are unclear.

How much time do you have?

Asking the client for clarification is a longer process than using your own judgement.

If you’re in a different timezone than your client, you could wait a day or more for an answer to your question.

If you end up with multiple questions, you could add a significant delay to the translation timetable just by waiting for answers.

Here’s my suggestion.

When you first get a translation project, look it over.

Maybe even do a rough translation.

See if there’s anything that stands out that needs clarification.

Write it down.

Make a list of your questions.

While doing the final translation, send the list of questions to your client so he gets them all at once.

Then you’re just asking once instead of over and over again.

How much latitude do you have?

Most clients are OK with you contacting them with questions.

Just make sure at the very beginning of your relationship that they are comfortable with you reaching out to them.

You can specify at the beginning that it won’t be a continuos thing.

Most clients I’ve dealt with are more than happy to answer questions. They want a good translation just as much as you do.

Option #3: Follow the Original

Another option you have when dealing with a bad source language is to simply follow the original as close as possible.

This is especially true when dealing with ambiguity, especially syntactic ambiguity.

Here’s a whole host of examples:

translation and syntactic ambiguity

Now granted, with most of these, it’s easy to figure out the intention of the headline.

But there are many times when the ambiguity is too tricky and you’ll either have to go back to the original or guess.

The other option, though, is to translate the ambiguity.

Maybe the author wanted the ambiguity there in the first place.

If so, you’ll have to keep that ambiguity in the translation as well.

Option #4: Be Literal

Sometimes, the best course of action with a a problematic original is to translate the original as literal as possible.

If you do this, you’ll lose any “flavor” of the writing, and your translation will seem problematic to the people reading it, the same way that the original seems problematic to you.

This is a last resort option, though.

You obviously don’t want people to associate you with bad translations, and if they don’t see the original, they won’t know that your translation was done that way with purpose.

Personally, I’d avoid this option at all costs, unless directed by the original author.

Option #5: Add a Translator’s Note

Here’s how this would work in the field of interpretation.

I attended a conference  once where the speaker told a joke.

The joke didn’t translate well into Spanish so the interpreter just explained that the speaker was telling a joke and that the audience should laugh at a specific time.

It worked out well for the audience, the speaker felt like his joke had gone over well, and was a good move by the interpreter.

Translators often will add translator’s notes to the translation at a problematic point or to explain a particular cultural or historical reference that would be lost for the new target audience.

And that, my friends, are some ways to deal with those problematic originals.

Until next time.

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