When the original is wrong…


A headline from an article in the 31.5.2010 edition of Hot Money

(Click image to read the original article.)

What should a translator do when the original text is wrong? There are several choices. If the text is a propaganda piece which differs from the facts on the ground and you feel strongly enough about the subject matter you could refuse to do the translation. If you think this would damage your prospects of getting more work, you could develop a sudden illness or tell the agency that your grandmother has died and you need to go to London for the funeral.

To take an example at random, look at this text published on 17 March by money.pl – click the link for the whole article.

Prąd z atomu jest najtańszy

Niezależnie od tego, kiedy w Polsce popłynie pierwszy prąd z siłowni jądrowej, to nie ulega wątpliwości, że energia wytwarzana w ten sposób jest najtańszą.

This is directly contradicted by the following two quotes from an article published on 20 May in the on-line edition of National Geographic.

…because electricity prices have dropped—particularly due to new, abundant supplies of natural gas… building new nuclear plants does not make economic sense now.

…the abundance of relatively cheap natural gas—the result of new technologies that allow for production from hard geological formations called shale—had fundamentally changed the economics.

The money.pl article is economical with the truth – there is no mention of nuclear waste processing and storage costs. If you feel strongly that Poland does not have the business ethics and safety culture to build and operate a couple of giant 3,000 MW reactors (typical USA reactors generate 1,000 MW and French reactors 1,600) you could develop a debilitating cold or go on a trip to visit your grandmother. However, before you phone your translation agency, think. If you do not do the work someone else will. Perhaps in the longer term it might be more effective to do the job, stay in the loop, and write about what you feel so strongly about. You could write to the newspapers,  leave a comment on one of the media, write your own blog – or even do all three!

There is another kind of mistake with which translators are familiar. This time there is no moral dilemma. This is the case when the facts in the text are internally inconsistent. Click on the header picture and read through the article on unemployment in Poland. You will read that –

W kwietniu tego roku, podobnie jak w marcu, bez pracy pozostawało 9,9 proc. Polaków… To nieco więcej niż średnia dla Unii Europejskiej, która w kwietniu wyniosła 9,7 proc. Najgorzej radzi sobie jednak strefa euro: tu stopa bezrobocia przekroczyła poziom 10 proc.

Clearly, whoever wrote the headline –

Bezrobocie w Polsce jest wyższe niż w całej Unii

– did not read the whole article! Just quietly put it right –

Unemployment in Poland exceeds the EU average.

If the agency objects, be firm. Tell them that a straight translation would make the author seem like an idiot and offer to explain this to the client yourself. That should shut them up. If the agency persist in pressuring you you could always let of steam by writing to us – szczurekikret[at]02.pl. Happy translating!


One Response to “When the original is wrong…”

  1. 1 Steve

    Surely (Shirley?) the normal answer to ‚What should a translator do when the original text is wrong?’ is ‚translate it’. If the translation is of something that is published in the source Polish, there is nothing else to do. If it is an original work for which you think the author has made a genuine mistake and would welcome comments, then point out the errors, but since such a circumstance will be extremely rare, the answer again will normally be to translate it.

    A translator is not intended to be editor or moral judge, but simply a translator. You will not be making the author seem like an idiot: he has done that her/himself. You are just helping more people know about it. Take satisfaction from your superiority and be happy. Although I have sympathy for someone wanting to censor documents that they have strong moral objections to, it must be remembered, at least when working for an agency, that refusing to do the work is completely a matter of self-satisfaction. It will be done by someone else and no one apart from you will care about it or even know your concerns if you make excuses. If you really care, do the job and use it in some way that opposes the line taken – donate to Friends of the Earth or whatever. Fight the article using its own money and get your self-satisfaction at the same time.


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