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ADVANTAGES AND RISKS OF PARTIAL TRANSLATIONS

By José Lázaro da Silva

I have worked as a professional translator for over twenty years in São Paulo, Brazil, and sometimes I feel that the translation work is not what it used to be.

In the good old days, a translator would receive a full text of a report, article or communication and would try to produce an exact version of the piece in the other language. By having the entire original, the translator would be able to understand the matter very deeply.

In the case of a contract, he would know whether the translation requestor would be the seller or the buyer, and would know whether the contract was to be used in a single transaction or would be a template for all customers. The translator would be able not only to produce the most convenient translation considering those differences, but also to send useful suggestions to the requestor about changes to make the contract more advantageous, or at least less prone to misinterpretation.

This situation of having a full text to translate, fortunately, has not completely disappeared from our reality. I sometimes get a full text and have that satisfaction of being able to do a good, or even excellent, job.

But this ideal situation is becoming rare. What is happening now is that each translator usually gets only a fraction of the original.

Why is that happening?

Sometimes it is a matter of urgency, and the final customer cannot wait the time it takes a translator to produce 100 pages, and then 10 translators are called to do 10 pages each.

The result will come ten times sooner, but I hope the customer has been duly forewarned that the quality will be somewhat lower. Each translator may have translated in a different way that highly important document name, process name, or project name.  The reader (if nobody has made nomenclature adjustments for the entire translation) will wonder whether chapter one and chapter two are talking about different matters or the same thing.

Splitting an original to various translators, in my opinion, is not the worst source of problems, however.

In this age of high-speed computers and cheap memories, agencies are storing huge numbers of words and expressions and their translations into several languages.

The result is that agencies feel that they no longer have to pay translators to translate full texts. They command computers to translate everything they can, and send to human translators only what their systems cannot handle.

I have noticed this development occur with an agency for which I had worked for many years.  They started sending me isolated paragraphs, sometimes loose sentences, instead of full documents.

Translating partial texts was more troublesome, due to the lack of sufficient context, but most importantly because the small pieces had a high rate of rare words and difficulties in general.  The only thing I could do was to tell them that, to translate uncontextualized sentences and phrases, I would have to charge more. They offered to triple my per-word rate. With computers doing the bulk at virtually no cost, no wonder they could make me that offer.

Of course I accepted the triple-pay offer, but sometimes I wonder whether all the small translated pieces really match the texts they will be inserted into. I do my best to guess the contexts but, without reading the entire original, I can never be sure. Language is something unpredictably varied, and grammar, as well as meaning, are aspects that play important factors in correctly matching loose bones to create a skeleton. If the matching of the little pieces is done by a clerk, not a skilled linguist, mismatches will occasionally be visible to the readers, and that can be sufficient reason for the final client to start looking for another translation agency.

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