Can it ever be wrong to point out a mistake?
What should you do when you see a factual error in a text you are translating? How far are we responsible to the authors of the texts we translate? Is a translator’s responsibility different from that of an interpreter?
These questions were on my mind last week after I translated a academic historical text containing what I was sure was a factual error. I did what I always do in such circumstances: I translated the original faithfully, but added a comment in the Word document explaining that I thought a mistake had been made. This is the way I have always dealt with such problems and I’ve sometimes been thanked for it, particularly when working directly for authors.
In this case, though, I wasn’t working for the author of the text. My customer was a fellow translator: someone, I should say (and not merely because she might recognise herself here), whom I like and respect. So I was surprised when, after politely thanking me for spotting the issue, she told me that in this case she wasn’t going to pass my comment on to the author. Her reasoning was that if he had written his text that way it must have been for a reason, and it wasn’t our place to question his decisions.
I understood what my customer was saying. There is a danger, when pointing these things out, of coming across as a clever dick. But I wasn’t trying to look smart or win brownie points, I was thinking along more practical lines. What if, for example, the author had been editing his text and had unwittingly allowed the error to creep in (something we’ve all done from time to time)? Wouldn’t he be grateful to be given another chance to check his facts and to avoid looking foolish in front of his peers? I thought so, and I still do, although I’d be very interested in other opinions, which is why I’m writing this post.
To me it seemed so obvious that an author would prefer to be asked to look at the text again rather than continue in ignorance of a possible problem that I wondered why my colleague and customer was taking a different view. And the conclusion I came to was this: maybe it’s because she works mainly as an interpreter. I’m not saying this because I think interpreters have lower ethical standards, simply because their view of correcting factual errors is likely to be different from that a translator who works exclusively with written texts, as I do. Why? Because if my interpreter colleague hears that kind of error when working, I think she’ll be quite right not to correct it. All she has to go on is what the speaker has just said. Maybe her inkling that he might be wrong isn’t correct anyway, she hasn’t got time to check. And so she translates what he says and moves on, having done her job perfectly. And most of the listeners, if they do pick up the mistake in whatever language, accept it as a slip of the tongue or a momentary lapse and forget all about it.
The translator’s responsibility, I would say, is different. We do have time to check. I certainly wouldn’t raise this kind of point with a customer unless I was 100% sure of what I was saying. We also have the luxury of being able to go back to the author to see what he wants to do about it, something the interpreter can’t do. I certainly wouldn’t argue with an author who, after having had an error pointed out, decided that he didn’t want to make any changes, but nor would I feel I’d done my duty to him if I hadn’t pointed that error out in the first place. After all, an mistake in print – irrefutable and there for everyone to see and refer back to – is a lot more damaging than a verbal one. Surely our responsibility as translators is to do what we can, to the limits of our knowledge and experience, to avoid all possible errors, whether they are the author’s or our own.
In the end I pointed out to my customer that I didn’t agree with her view that we shouldn’t tell the author about the error and supplied her with a reference in case she changed her mind and decided to warn him about it. That way I felt happy that I couldn’t have done any more. But I think this could be a very interesting debate, so I’d love to know what you think, either about the ethical issue or about the possible difference between the way a translator and an interpreter would view the problem. Please feel free to leave your comments.