Handling factual errors in the source text

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  • What should translators do when they find obvious factual errors in the original documents they are translating.

What to do when factual errors are found in the original?

The alternatives

  • When translators find one or more obvious factual errors in the original documents they are translating, they have several alternatives for dealing with them:
    • Correct the text in the original (if editable) and also in the translation
    • Correct the text in the translation only, and notify the client
    • Translate as is and mark it with [sic]
    • Translate it and list the errors in a separate file
    • Ignore it, and translate the text as it stands
    • Contact the client before submitting the translation, point out the errors, and suggest correcting the translation.

What to do?

  • If there is time enough for communications with the client before the deadline arrives, and if the client is approachable, getting in touch with them, letting them know about the error, suggesting the correct information and asking for instructions regarding how to proceed sounds like a reasonable and risk-free approach to the problem.
  • If for some reason it's not possible to reach the client before the deadline, the actions to be taken depend greatly on the purpose of the translation being performed.
    • At one end of the spectrum, the translation of an exhibit in a court case needs to reflect the original text as closely as possible. In this case, and in other certified translations, the document should be translated as it is and the translation of an error in the original should be marked with [sic].
    • At the other end of the spectrum, when translating publicity material any factual errors will reflect badly on the company that is publishing the material, so the translator has a duty of care to correct any gross, obvious errors. In such cases the corrections should be highlighted and reported to the client.
  • There is agreement that the translator should not modify the original document. It is up to the client to do so if necessary.
  • Some colleagues keep a second, uncorrected version of the translation and offer the alternative of changing back to this version if for some reason the client wants it just the way it is.
  • Other colleagues go even farther along this path and send both versions with the appropriate explanation, so the client can make their decision upon submission.

How to mark the errors?

  • In some cases errors are highlighted for instance by means of a different background color.
  • It is normal the use of [SIC] for this purpose, but some translators dislike it, considering that it could be misunderstood as having been inserted by the author of the original document.
  • Other ways of marking errors are by the use of translator footnotes. These footnotes have the advantage of allowing the client to easily find them and correct the text or not as they see fit.
  • Still another alternative is by adding a table of errors and comments to the submission email.

Being sure that errors are errors

  • It is important to be absolutely sure about the error before correcting it and reporting it as such. It is a good idea to provide references and/or links to online resources to support the statement.
  • If your research leads the translator to the conclusion that something is probably an error, but he/she is not completely sure, instead of correcting the translation he/she should include a note to the client reporting the suspicion that there is an error, providing the suspected proper content and the relevant supporting information. This makes the client aware of the problem and they can change the information if necessary.

To report or not to report?

  • Some cases require judgment and some common sense. If for instance the error was in a quote of what someone said, it is probably better not to change the translation, because the person did say that. It would be a good idea to include a note to the client pointing to the possible error anyway.
  • It is generally agreed that the identification and report of errors in the original text is a value added service from the translator that usually is well appreciated and contributes to building customer loyalty.
  • Some state that since translators are supposed to be the discerning readers, they should pay attention to the recognition of original mistakes and their handling as part of their quality control process.

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