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Burgundy, Dark Red or Maroon?

The Other Side of Preference in Translation

(Originally published November 2015)

When you enter these three colors into Google, you will see, along with others, the three colors above. It’s up to you to name which is which. Whichever way you choose to name these colors, I promise that someone will disagree with you. I use this example to illustrate preference in language.

Translation is fraught with disagreement. Why? Because rarely do two people express themselves exactly the same way – this is why translation is, amongst other things, an art. Most of us in the language world consider preferential changes as fixing something that isn’t wrong. Yet, I am constantly surprised at how much acrimony surrounds preferential changes. Most everyone seems to have not only an opinion, but such a strong sense of their own “rightness” that it is sometimes comical, and sometimes unequivocally hostile.

There is a clear difference between “non-standard” (the MW euphemism for wrong) and "preferential." I think that most of us would agree that “misunderestimate” (e.g. “Most people misunderestimate me”), coined by our very own Commander in Chief, is, incorrect. Another example – and apologies here for those of you who believe otherwise –  is “irregardless,” which is also wrong (really). But those aren’t what I’m talking about. Here I reference "preferential changes" as changes in word choice, word order, writing style, synonyms or adding and deleting content. Perhaps one is more straightforward, one more eloquent, certainly one is more consistent, but very few actually improve the piece in any way at all. So why is it done? Firstly, because it can be. Many bilingual people who are presented with a review option will change something. Secondly, because language is an individual expression and different people express language differently. And while you can do it, I want to offer some reasons why it might not be a good idea.

1) Consistency

Lots and lots of work goes into maintaining term bases and creating glossaries containing a client’s important terms. Preferential changes can affect not only the current project, but many other subsequent ones. Eventually, the important word can morph into 3 or 4 other words which can cause a lot of reader confusion and eventually damage a brand (we’ve seen it happen).

2) Delays

Most translation work is done on a deadline. When someone introduces preferential changes, the project grinds to a halt while linguists consult the term base, discuss the options, determine how best to tell the client that they didn’t improve the piece, and construct the reply (which is really a rebuttal). Then, the response has to be reviewed on the client-side and someone has to decide who “wins”.

3) Hurt Feelings

As I previously said, I am constantly surprised at the vehemence with which people apply righteousness to changes to language that are mostly useless. At the risk of exacerbating hurt feelings, let me be clear: I cook, but I am not a chef. I play the piano (Book II), but I am not a pianist. I love physics, but I promise you, I am not a physicist! And, you can be a (pick-your-language) -speaker, but you are likely not a linguist. You haven’t had years of special training and hundreds of hours of practice. When preferential changes are arbitrated, someone “loses” and while you mightn’t admit it, feelings get hurt. No good outcome, there.

4) Introduces Other Errors

Believe it or not, many preferential changes introduce errors into the piece. Often this is because the reader didn’t understand the source text completely or because they didn’t understand the ramifications of the change in the broadest usage of the term. As a result, repeat #2.

5) Preferential Changes Can Increase Costs

I was an observer once on a case of a seemingly innocuous change in French where the client’s sales rep changed a translation on a user guide. When we replied to the rep, he in turn called the entire Canadian sales department on to a special call where the phrase was hashed out – for over an hour (most of it was them debating internally)! Six people, plus our linguist team lost over an hour of productivity and opportunity (they were in sales after all) and we billed that client for the time. The end result: the original translation prevailed and the client was very apologetic and angry both at the money and the lost time and productivity of his staff.

Am I saying that translators are never wrong? No! Translation should be done by humans and humans make mistakes. But I do assert that the next time you are faced with making a change to a translation, ask this first: Will this change make a significant improvement to the piece? If so, then do your best, but if not, leave it be. If you’re not sure, make the change in the margin. Then walk away. Come back to it in an hour. If you still feel as strongly about the change as you did when you made it, send it on.


-Staff Writer

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