Personal Document Translation: What If I Can't Read Something?

The last post of the month is about a topic that's not very glamorous, but can be quite lucrative: personal document translation. Oftentimes, linguists shy away from it because dealing with non-businesses can be time-consuming and it's happened more than once that you don't get paid. We avoid this by kindly asking for pre-payment for personal document translations. We've translated hundreds of documents for dozen of government agencies around the world, and one of the most frequently asked questions we get from new colleagues is: what do you do if you can't ready something? Allow us to share our thoughts.

  • Ask the client. The beautiful thing about working directly with individuals who most likely are the owners of the documents in question is that you can easily go to the source. This is important for handwritten documents where say, the place of birth is noted but it's a small province in a country you are not familiar with. In these cases, we do think it's perfectly acceptable to ask the client, as they would obviously know where they were born.
  • When to put [illegible]. While there are no hard and established rules on this, we would never guess or fill in the blanks (more than a letter or two) if the portion we cannot read is typed but either too faint to read, cut off, etc. In that case, even if the client could solve it for us, the issue is readability of the document (rather than sloppy handwriting), and in such cases, we usually put [illegible]. Most of our colleagues have tended to handle it this way, but of course there are other approaches.
  • Requests for changes. You'd be surprised how often clients have asked us to change their birth date (because it was incorrect on the original or for other, significantly less legitimate reasons), name (because they have since gotten married or divorced), or simply asked us to translate parts of the document and exclude others. However, that gets us into the dangerous territory of document falsification, and you want to steer as clear of that as humanely possible. Since these document translations are almost always certified and notarized, we never change, add, redact, etc. anything at all -- no matter how small. Explaining to the client that document falsification is a crime in which you will not participate usually does the trick.
  • Certifying other's work. This is a bit off-topic, but still related. Oftentimes clients will say that they "just translated this themselves since they speak both languages" (we can see the collective eye roll from here!) but that they want a "real" translator to certify their work. We gently point out that we cannot say the work is ours when it isn't.
What about you, dear colleagues? Do you handle this in a similar fashion? We would love to hear your thoughts. Just leave a comment below!


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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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