ATA 2013: Why Do Translators Make Simple Mistakes?

Why Do Translators Make Simple Mistakes?

This is a summary of the JLD session “Why Do Translators Make Simple Mistakes?” as presented by Gregor Hartmann at the 2013 ATA Conference.

In his experience editing subcontractors, proofreading for agencies, grading translation tests, and refereeing translator-client disputes, Gregor had encountered many of the same simple mistakes over and over again, even with experienced and competent translators, which was his inspiration to give this presentation.

In the first part of the presentation, he classified these mistakes into three basic categories: (1) terminology errors, (2) dictation errors, and (3) omissions.
Next, he explored the potential neurological explanations for why translators make these simple mistakes, as described below.
  1. Inattentional blindness: According to this theory, there is so much information around us that our brain has to be selective in what it perceives. To demonstrate this, Gregor showed participants a picture of a man with red dots in the foreground and asked them to count the number of dots. Most participants correctly guessed the number of dots, but when asked if there was anything odd about the picture, only one was able to point out that the man had six fingers.
  2. Inattentional amnesia: Unlike inattentional blindness above, this theory posits that we do see extra information, but cannot readily access that information. When we stop looking at something, the information is lost within 10ms if we do not concentrate. To demonstrate this, Gregor showed participants 16 different drawings of a penny and asked them to identify which was a real penny. Very few were able to do so.
  3. Cognitive tunnel vision: This phenomenon occurs when we have looked at the same thing for so long that we cannot come up with a better explanation. It is common in medicine as a doctor who spends a long time determining a diagnosis may neglect to consider alternatives. One way to avoid this pitfall is to have your opinion confirmed by a nonbiased third party.
  4. Biased competition: According to this theory, our brain attends to important events and ignores non-important ones. Some translators work by building a sentence framework and then “decorating” it with clauses, but this process could lead to omissions due to biased competition.
  5. Cognitive load: This signifies the amount of things that we can focus on at one time. For example, when driving in traffic, you are probably paying attention to other cars and not the scenery. When there is cognitive overload, our eyes will simply stop responding.
  6. Working memory contamination: This theory somewhat contradicts the concept of inattentional amnesia, and posits that previous information that our brain has received, even in brief glances, can influence our thought processes. One experiment on this phenomenon had two groups of subjects identify a certain type of dot. The first group had been shown the dot for just milliseconds in the context of other pictures, while the second group had not. Even though they were unaware that they had seen the dot before, the first group was able to identify it more quickly.
  7. Saccadic suppression: This term derives from the French word “saccade” and signifies the short, rapid eye movements (of about 30ms) that occur when we read. We can only see a small amount of text with precision during “fixations”, which are the points when our eyes focus (for about 300ms), and become essentially blind during saccades. Thus, it is easy to lose track of text when skipping lines.

Gregor then took questions and comments from participants. He had previously discussed an example of incorrect terminology where he read トラクション too quickly and translated it as “transmission”, only realizing his mistake after several repetitions. Many had suggestions as to why he realized the mistake, such as that the word did not work in the new context or that there was a line break before the word in that instance, but no definite conclusion was reached. Someone also brought up that cognitive load was an important issue for interpreters as well due to their need to balance listening with talking.

In the final part of the presentation, Gregor described self-editing techniques that he and other colleagues use to minimize the likelihood of simple errors. He went over Charles Aschmann’s basic strategy, which is to (1) get the document in an electronic format, (2) translate in a TM program, and (3) proofread the full document and use TM proofing tools such as number, spelling, and vocabulary checks as needed. He also quickly overviewed strategies used by Market Burkeitt and Gerry Peter. Some other tips Gregor suggested included enlarging the font of the source document, proofreading from the last paragraph to the first to avoid working from memory, and changing the font.

After the presentation, Gregor asked participants to give any advice they had about editing. Many people offered suggestions such as “change the colors of parts of the text,” “use split screens,” “highlight sections of the source and target text to ensure no omissions,” “take enough breaks—look 30 yards away for 30 seconds every 30 minutes,” “recognize when you are working while tired and proofread those sections extra closely,” “read the translation backwards,” and “check for your own unique mistakes such as ‘medial’ for ‘medical.’”

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