On reviewing other people’s translations and having my own reviewed by others

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I started reviewing other people’s translations and having mine reviewed by others about thirty years ago, while working at the translation department of a major public bank in my country, Argentina.

We used to translate financial agreements and bank-related stuff mostly, but legal papers and different types of technical texts as well, including patents and manuals.

We worked the old-fashioned way– face to face, in groups of three or four, on “real” pieces of paper, using “real” black pens. There weren’t any computers, Internet resources or electronic dictionaries. No translators’ fora on which to ask “difficult” questions. No CAT tools or translation memories to share. No DTP resources either, just simple, ordinary typewriters.

There was, yes, a wonderful collection of dictionaries in the office, and, when our own resources failed to fit the bill, there was the possibility of browsing the well-provisioned library of the Ministry of Economy, just two blocks away, crossing the sadly famous Plaza de Mayo Square, and the U.S. Lincoln Library (at the time located on Florida Street, about a block away from Plaza San Martín).

We used to have hot discussions over the meaning of a word, over the convenience of using one grammatical structure or another, over whether we were respecting the original or not… until we would come to an agreement (or go with the majority opinion).

Sometimes, all this was not enough and there was the need to ask for expert advice. So, depending on the nature of the translation, we would resort to people from the Legal Department, the Project Development Team or Architectural Services, for example, and we would pester them with questions and doubts, paper and pencil in hand.

The pile of paper sheets would grow over days… or weeks. And a glossary for the whole project would be developed at the same pace. There being no word processors, we had to go back and forth uncountable times in our manuscripts, making corrections here and there, when we finally found out the meaning of those problem words that repeated themselves all over the translation.

Then, each of us would check his or her own translation against the original for accuracy and completeness, make consistency adjustments, and correct any spelling mistakes (spell-checkers in 30 languages were still science fiction). Finally, we would put all the pieces together and hand them to the lucky one who would review the whole thing.

My first reviews taught me a lot about my colleagues’ personality and particular ways of approaching a translation– the extent and success of their research efforts, their ability (or inability) to keep consistency in a long text and to maintain attention to detail after long hours of work, the swiftness with which they would take things for granted… I felt at the time, and I still feel today, that such a “dissection” of someone else’s work is a unique opportunity to see how other people work, how they organize their thinking and work, how much they understand and like (or dislike) a certain text and the translation task in general.

Whether it was me or someone else in the team that reviewed the group’s work, we always followed not only an established working procedure but also certain “good fellowship” criteria. We had our differences, but, in essence, we were all friends. And were there to help each other do the best possible job.

Today, I don’t have the opportunity of being part of “physical teams” as I did in the past. I work with e-colleagues from distant places in the planet, and I somehow miss the closeness I shared with my old workmates. But the lessons I learnt while working with them will always stay with me…

#1 – I always respect the original translation. I may like it or not, I might have done the whole thing quite differently, but if the translation is correct, I leave it as it is. (In some cases, I write comments on how I’d have solved a certain problem posed by the source text, and many translators have been grateful for these.)

#2 – I never undertake to review a text when I’m not familiar with the subject matter. In a similar fashion, I try to have my translations reviewed by the “right” people.

Some time ago, I was asked to bid for the translation into Spanish of some mutual fund reports. I had to translate a sample text, which was short but full of twists and turns. I immediately called Javier, a good old friend of mine, who’s an expert in stock markets and mutual funds and, on top of that, a very good translator. I translated the sample and sent it over to him for revision– an hour later, when I got the text back, I couldn’t recognize it. Not that he had changed “my style”, but apparently I had chosen all the “wrong” terms. I submitted the translated sample rather dubiously… but they happily gave us the job. Javier and I worked together for the following month. Every time I finished two or three of the reports, I forwarded them to him. I’d receive them back the following day, all red-marked at the beginning. In the course of the month, I learnt a lot about that specific terminology and, by the end of it, Javier just had to make minor adjustments to my texts. We would discuss, argue and even quarrel, but finally came to agreements. It was kind of stressing, but everything went just fine.

#3 – Whenever possible, I reserve the right to have my translations reviewed by people I like and respect, people who will respect my work but who won’t overlook my mistakes, whether big or small. If, after working once or twice with somebody, I find out that he or she is not the “right one” for me, I just won’t ask them again.

In short, the relationship between translator and reviewer should be based on trust, friendship and genuine teamwork. And, of course, “genuine teamwork” is not possible when the translator feels the reviewer is out there to criticize and prove his or her point, and not to help out.

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