We often hear about translators saying they love languages, and that this is why they chose this profession. What we don’t often hear is that translation entails an enormous amount of responsibility, regardless of the type of translation we are dealing with. Perhaps this could be the reason why so many non-practitioners think that translating is easy. After all, “you just need to learn a little about the language”, “any person can translate and do it well”, “it’s word for word” and “what we don’t know we can look it up in the dictionary”.
When it comes to translations likely to be used as legal evidence, attention to detail is of the utmost importance. A small “linguistic nuance” can make a big difference, compromising all our work, reputation, and, who knows, even our career. When translators work with such sensitive and detailed information, they need to protect themselves and their clients. But how?
1. Be professional
First and foremost, you must be aware of your skills and limitations. A good professional should not accept a job without first knowing what he/she is undertaking to do – contents, difficulties, deadlines, etc. If you are offered a project for which you feel you won’t be able to do a good job, either because of the deadline or because of its technical nature, refuse it! You’ll be protecting yourself and the client.
2. Know your certification options
That said, you should know that nothing binds you to certify anything. Often the certification request is made only after you have completed the translation. While it is frequent for the translator to translate without knowing that his/her work will be certified, it is even more frequent to translate without knowing that the translation will one day serve as proof in court. It might seem common sense, but it cannot be stressed enough that certification is not compulsory. I myself have come across situations in which translators have refused to do it, and had every right to do so.
a) Imagine you have little time in which to do the translation. You alert your client to this and he/she asks you to get on with the work as best as you can because he/she only wants to have an idea about the contents of the document. Suddenly, your client asks you to certify the translation.
• Does it seem reasonable to you to accept it?
• What if you find that changes have been made to your translation with which you do not agree? Does it seem sensible to you to certify the new final version
Discuss with your client the best way to settle the issue, either by not accepting it, or by setting the terms for a possible revision/change, but always remember that you’re not bound to anything except to being professional. Whoever signs the certification will have the final say as the translation will be the sole responsibility of that person.
3. Think “straightforward”
If you’re translating a tourist guide, you might have some leeway to embellish the text, adapting it to different target audiences. For instance, you can convert any measurement references (metrical system, Imperial system or others) to adapt the text to the target reader’s context. However, this expertise is neither expected nor recommended for translators of documents likely to be used as evidence in court. In this case, the translator should be as “straightforward” as the original author and should not aspire to adapt, embellish or omit anything, or even correct the source document. After all, if he/she did that, the translation could benefit either the prosecution or the defence. The best he/she can do is point out the errors in question or, if appropriate, add minor clarifications, for example, in footnotes. The client may then choose to keep or delete them. At this stage, a conversation between you and the client may also be important to elucidate a point or clarify any misinterpretations in the translation.
4. Choose your references well
In legal translation, you should be very careful when choosing the sources for your work, whether they are similar documents or previous translations for the same client. It is perfectly normal and even shows that the translator is professional to use sources that can help him/her deliver a good job. However, you shouldn’t forget that it is your obligation as a translator to find the best match between the source text and the target text. Just because there is a previous translation it doesn’t mean that it is foolproof; so, if you don’t agree with it, don’t let it influence you. Often enough, whether you’re translating websites or contracts, the translation jobs are done by secretaries or other staff – people without proven translation experience. So the best policy is to read the reference materials only after you’ve finished drafting the translation, as you won’t run the risk of being influenced. If you’re in doubt, follow your instinct, as, ultimately, you’ll be held liable to it. Moreover, if you have to reuse a substantial part of a previous translation you’ve done, remember to ask permission of the previous client.
5. Protect yourself and your client
By being professional, the translator is already protecting his/her client, translating and delivering the best work possible. On the other hand, it is up to the translator to observe the confidentiality that bonds him/her to the client. The translator should therefore be very careful about what he/she discloses. Disclosing that you have translated for a specific company implies a breach of confidentiality. Remember: the translation may have been a one-off act, but the commitment is permanent!
6. Translate “under oath”
In the specific case of Portugal, to certify a translation you need to go to a notary’s, lawyer or solicitor, who will issue a declaration stating the contents of the translation and the competence of the translator; in other words, a sort of solemn declaration. Because it is not up to the translator to draft the certification statement, just to sign it, first make sure you read it and agree to it. Confirm that all data is correct.
7. Avoid acting on impulse
We often receive feedback on our translations with suggestions for corrections, clarifications or other. As a professional who can be reached at all times, you might feel the urge to immediately reply. If possible, don’t! They are often apparently minor suggestions of style, yet a small word could have the opposite effect to that intended by one or the other party in court. In short, it’s best if you let the client wait a bit longer for a reply, so that you won’t say something that you may regret later.
8. Keep copies
Isn’t it fantastic how the e-mail, computer hard drive or external drives work? The possibilities are endless. All you need is to be organised. To protect yourself, save all the conversations you’ve had with your clients and fellow workers, as well as anything that might be useful to justify a translation choice. If someone contacts you about a translation job done years before, you can always compare the work to know if you’re really talking about the actual job you did.
9. Protect yourself and… relax!
The risk potential inherent to the translator’s profession is all too often ignored. However, it does exist! While, on the one hand, we need to be aware of it, on the other hand there is no need to overreact or lose any sleep over it. It’s good to know that a number of protective measures are at your disposal. Respect them, respect yourself and respect your client. Do your best and… move on!