Quite the opposite, in fact.
Just in the course of the past few weeks I’ve had two very different experiences. Opposite, really. And the mixed feelings I was left with in one case, compelled me to share.
While translating two medical texts on behalf of two agencies, I ran into issues.
In one case, I encountered a terminology issue, where the English might have lent itself to two different interpretations. Lack of context (a classic, in the small project scenario), and some imprecise QA info that had come as part of the assignment, prevented me from confidently making an educated decision. So I researched thoroughly, and ultimately formulated a question, which the QA lead passed on to the end-client. The answer came back to me accompanied by the following message: “By asking your question you pointed out an issue and saved us from delivering something with discrepancies! As always, thank you for your diligence.” A happy ending for the translator (always nice to have one’s efforts recognized), for the end-client (he walked away with the text translated correctly the first time and a rectified source), and the agency (it will not have to deal with complaints about this particular translation at a later stage, and it earned extra brownie points with the client).
In the second case, I located a discrepancy between two files relating to the very same procedure. A simple, single word in a key spot seemed to be missing from one of the files, allowing for the wrong interpretation (to the extent that the agency’s QA person and myself were both fooled by it initially). In the course of my translation efforts, I was able to determine with certainty that the word was indeed missing in the source. I pointed it out to the PM, suggesting they ask the end-client to reevaluate their source and provide input, and I asked for authorization to update the Italian translation as to eliminate any possible ambiguity. As a response, I received something along the lines of “We are not asking the client questions at this time. Please just mirror the source.”
Considering that errors in the source may cause erroneous translations (which can be quite costly to correct at a later stage, not to mention the other possible implications), ignoring a translator’s questions is at best an unhealthy practice.
There is, however, still a lot of reluctance, it seems, to ask questions. Why? Because less experienced translators and eager-to-please project managers fear losing a client due to presumed incompetence. Equating questions to incompetence is an enormous fallacy in the translation world – but sometimes translators, agencies and clients alike fall victim to it. A client should expect questions; in fact, a client should welcome questions, to the point that the absence of any questions at all should even raise suspicion. Translators should not blindly breeze through their client’s texts to just get them done, mirroring the source without further thought. Translators should be willing to take the time to look at a client's texts under a magnifying glass, and become aware of all inconsistencies, potential pitfalls, and possible sources of discrepancy or issues that might ultimately cause an error in translation, and ask the right questions to sort everything out and produce a correct translation right off the bat.
Working alongside the translators on solving these types of issues is a key role of any client, one which is often overlooked. We, as translators, must ensure that a text reads correctly, that we understand it correctly, so that we may translate it correctly. Which is why we approach the text with an open, and most certainly inquiring, mind. And this is why our questions don’t make us incompetent – they simply make us thorough.