How far does a translator’s responsibility go?

How far does a translator’s responsibility go?

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.




  1. I agree completely with what you say, Simon. I think errors (be it factual errors or any kind of mistakes) should be pointed out to the client. In the end, it is their decision whether to do something about it or not, but I feel that if we spot something, we should let them know.
    From my experience, they are usually grateful. Sure, there will be some that will simply ignore our comments/suggestions, but I have never come across a client who would get mad if we pointed put errors.

    • Thank you, Alina. That’s what I’d always thought, which is why I was a little surprised at the idea that "it wasn’t our place" to correct the author on matters of fact. Surely if we have some expertise or specific knowledge we should use it to help achieve the best possible results in all languages.

  2. I agree with all your points Simon, and almost always do this myself (time permitting and provided the customer or agency hasn’t issued a disclaimer to the effect of ‘We know it’s full of mistakes; just ignore those’ or something to that effect). I point out typos and grammatical errors too, particularly if I know the source text is destined for publication on a website or elsewhere that will be subject to scrutiny. Most of the time it’s a small effort that can go a long way.

    • Thanks for your comment, Allison. In this case, as it was for publication, I really thought I was doing the author a favour, which is why I was surprised at the idea that it "wasn’t our place" to raise factual inaccuracies.

  3. Simon, I do the same as you: translate what it says in the original but mention the error to the customer (whomever that may be).
    One piece of advice: do not add a comment in the Word file but add a separate document (e.g. translator_remarks.txt) with your comments and mention that file in your delivery email. I also zip the translated file and comments file together. This way the client can never claim (s)he did not receive it.
    The chances of the comments getting noticed are thush better.

    However, the thing to watch out for is the way how to mention these presumed (and often factual) errors. There is little respect being gained if one is too blunt.
    Therefore, I always start by saying ‘To the best of my knowledge…’ or ‘As I see it…’ or ‘I believe that…’ etc. You get my drift.

    In my experience, if one politely states that there may be an error (yes, ‘may be’, not ‘is’) in the source text, no one will ever consider you to be a clever dick, but rather as a helpful and above all professional service supplier.

    • Thanks for your comment, Herman. You give some useful advice. When I put in comments, I always mention it to the customer to make sure they don’t go unnoticed. And I quite agree that tactful phrasing is important.

  4. I don’t think it is our responsibility to explicitly look for errors in a text which we’re only supposed to translate. That type of review should be done separately, by someone well versed in the subject matter, and for more money than is usually paid for just translating. Of course we can take on this task as well, if we are qualified with respect to the subject, and get paid separately for it. That said, if by accident I <i>do</i> stumble on a factual error while translating, I always notify the author, so that s/he can do whatever s/he pleases with it.

    • Yes, I agree with you, Judith. We’re not responsible for finding this kind of error, but I think we are responsible for drawing them to the author’s attention if we do spot them. Ideally, texts should be proofread in the source language before they ever get to us.


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