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Dear Readers,

Each month, I’m creating a post for you to share your latest projects, goals, challenges, and accomplishments. I hope you will participate by leaving comments and sharing any relevant links!

Personally, I have been inundated lately with a series of “emergency” projects that have required immediate attention. Urgent projects tend to come around when someone else has dropped the ball somewhere. Often you are fixing something that was forgotten, delayed, or seriously messed up.

This happens surprisingly often in the world of translation.

For fun, I will discuss one common problem here.

Many high-level companies use “back translations” to check the accuracy of the translations they order.

For example, let’s say they need a medical questionnaire translated into French, Arabic, Chinese, and a dozen other languages that no one at the company understands or speaks.

Translator 1 translates the questionnaire into Arabic (for example), while Translator 2 translates it back into English. If the second translation matches the original English document, then the first translation is deemed accurate.

On the surface, this seems like a brilliant idea, except that it is fraught with problems.

Let’s say, for example, that you have a sentence that talks about the convenience of using a walker, such as the following:

The word “walker” has two common meanings in U.S. English:

  1. A device to provide support with walking, such as the above;
  2. A person who walks, often for exercise or enjoyment.

An inexperienced translator may not do the research needed to translate “walker” to Arabic, and most on-line dictionaries will only give you the word for pedestrian, or someone who walks in general.

So, let’s say that Translator 1 mistakenly chooses the Arabic word meaning pedestrian. For various reasons that I won’t get into here, this is a very easy mistake to make. Now the questionnaire talks about the convenience of using a pedestrian!

Then when Translator 2 enters the picture with his or her back translation, the word gets translated back to English as “walker,” and the company never realizes that a serious error was made in the first translation. The finalized questionnaire is then sent off to various countries for use in the Arab world, and people are left scratching their heads due to all of the weird questions they are being asked to answer.

It’s bad enough when (confused) human brains are involved, but machine translation is making things even more complicated than what I have described here. Some companies have invested heavily in machine translation technologies, with the mistaken belief that the poor output from machine translated texts can simply be edited, thus saving the costs involved in hiring professional translators from the outset.

To illustrate how ridiculous this is, imagine for a moment that you were presented with the following sentence:

“How convenient do you find it to use a pedestrian?”

A typical editor (much less a regular person) would not have a clue as to the intended meaning of this sentence. He or she would definitely need to invest a bit of time trying to understand how and why this error was made, but even that is not usually what happens. Instead, the work is often further bungled.

And that’s when the experts finally get hauled in.

Because eventually the error will be discovered – and all of the hard work that went into creating the questionnaire will have to be redone by people who could have done it correctly in the first place.

Although I kind of enjoy fixing problems like the above (it’s a specialty of mine), I am also grateful for the more traditional work I receive from clients who understand that translation is fundamentally an art. There is nothing I enjoy more in life than submerging myself into a work of true intellectual value in order to produce an equivalent work in English for people to read and benefit from. It is one of the many allures of translation.

What about you? What do you enjoy most about your work? Do you ever accept urgent projects?

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Amel is an experienced freelance writer, editor, and Arabic to English translator. She started the Muslim Writers Club as a means of sharing useful information about the art (and business) of writing.
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