No More than Necessary

by Doreen Simmons

Aunt Eva shows us how to work around the pitfalls of working with someone who seems bent on giving you more than you need.

Dear Aunt Eva,

There’s this translator our agency uses. He’s been with the agency a long time, since before I joined several years ago. He translates accurately, but his writing style is heavy, plodding, and verbose. Much of the work we send him (advertising copy, sales promotion material) requires a lighter, more upbeat style, so we have to heavily edit everything he does, which takes time that we simply don’t have. By way of comparison, we have two other translators doing the same type of work. Their translations require little editing, but these people are not always available.

The project managers send him appropriate reference materials with each project, which he either ignores or simply cannot comprehend. I’m at the point where I’m ready to stop using him, but before this decision is made, is there anything else we should first try in order to get his performance closer to what we need?

Wanda Wattadoo

Aunt Eva answers:

Dear Wanda,

The problem of working with people like this is not yours alone; but there are several possibilities for the man’s inability to modify his style. One explanation is that he has tunnel vision and sees nothing but what is directly in front of him. Another is that his mind is so clogged up with information that it is unable to accept any new ideas or instructions. Yet another is that he is a Japanese in Japan, and therefore permanent, whereas you are a foreigner and therefore (in his mind) by definition a transient; all he has to do is stick to his guns and you will eventually move on, leaving him serenely swimming with the flow once more.

Aunt Eva had a similar problem in her early days as a subeditor. Every year her company farmed out a couple of dozen translations of Japanese White Papers and the like to four or five Japanese translators; the translations eventually arrived on her desk. Rewriting each one into natural English took about a week, with interruptions for rush jobs. If the translator showed any particular undesirable tendencies, Aunt Eva wrote a page of explanation of what was really needed, and she also left permanent instructions with the publications kachō, or section chief, to send together with the new Japanese text the previous year’s printed English version to be used as a model.

Each year the new crop of translations demonstrated clearly that she was not communicating. Each one, from each translator, was in exactly the same style as his or her first.

Let’s take an example. This is part of a translation of a public opinion survey as received:

Asked what level of living the respondents think they are in comparison with that of the people in general, those who answered ‘the middle part of the middle level’ exceeded half of the respondents with 51.8%. This reply was followed by ‘the lower part of the middle level’ with 29.4%, ‘the lower level’ with 8.6%, ‘the upper part of the middle level’ with 6.4%, and ‘the upper level’ with 0.2%. (70 words)

It was rewritten as:

‘Among the classes of society in general, at what level do you rank yourself?’ To this question, 51.8% replied ‘middle-middle,’ 29.4% ‘lower middle,’ 8.6% ‘lower,’ 6.4% ‘upper middle,’ and 0.2% ‘upper.’ (32 words)

The rewritten version follows the Japanese original very closely; it was the Japanese translator who had put in all the extra verbiage. When we consider that he was getting paid according to the number of words in English rather than the number of characters of Japanese, the padding makes sense from his point of view but not from anybody else’s. He was putting in twice as many words and being paid for them, after which Aunt Eva spent another week reducing the text to the original level.

On an even better scam was the ‘elegant variation’ expert who inserted a different verb with each reply:

As for the feeling of friendship toward China, the percentage of the respondents who stated that they do have friendly feelings toward China at 71% of the total (26% of the respondents who stated they entertain friendly sentiments toward the country plus 45% who stated they, if anything, feel friendly toward the country) was far outstripping the percentage of the respondents who answered they don’t feel any friendly feeling toward that country…and so on, and so on.

This bright spark didn’t miss a trick—he milked it for every possible word the text could be expanded into. The Japanese original had ‘friendly feelings toward China’ only once, at the beginning, but he managed to use it five times (and counting…). He even expanded ‘they have’ to ‘they do have.’ For comparison, Aunt Eva, who was not getting paid by the word, reduced it to ‘Asked about friendly feelings toward China, 71% replied positively (26% ‘friendly’ plus 45% ‘fairly friendly’); far more than the 20% who answered in the negative (13% ‘not really friendly’ and 7% ‘not friendly at all’).’

The watershed in this case came with the near-simultaneous arrival of a competent new section chief, a demand for budget tightening, and Aunt Eva’s tenth year in the job. Double figures carry weight; the foreigner is no longer a fly-by-night but a solid presence. A request to drop the translator who in ten years had never modified his unsuitable style led to some huddled script conferences, an ultimatum from the new kachō, and a translator sweating as he had not sweated in thirty years. This kind of ultimatum may prove to be the solution to your problem, Wanda; but it is important to collect specific examples of the problems you are talking about and produce them to show exactly what you mean. Don’t give opinions; give examples.

There is an opposite problem: the in-house Japanese employee who has all day, every day, to putter about, painstakingly taking apart translations commissioned to an outside company and done by competent native speakers. When the part-time checker comes in, he proudly hands over 12 pages of native-speaker translation with 45 to 50 of his footnotes objecting to the English.

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 102 (July 2003)