To edit, or not to edit, that is the query

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I would like to start off Letter from Prague with a compliment, a big one. There are a great many Czechs who speak good English, a lot who speak wonderful English, and quite a few that I have met who speak the language almost perfectly. Considering that the Czech language is completely unrelated to English, I think that this quite a feat, and for those who did not have the opportunity to learn before the fall of the communist regime in 1989, this is even more amazing. I truly respect anyone who can master a foreign language to such an extent.

That said, there are many of these Czechs who translate documents, books, menus, brochures, catalogues and the like into English, and while they speak English very well, it's another thing to translate the written word. I myself have translated a lot of documents from Czech into English, and while I feel that my Czech is very good, I would never attempt to translate anything into the language. There is one simple reason for this: no matter how good my Czech gets, I will never be a native speaker, I do not and cannot know all of the subtle intricacies of the language, when certain innocuous phrases or a slight misspelling can alter a perfectly straightforward sentence into something that is either comical, or worse, rude and insulting. This has, in fact, happened to me several times in the letters and other correspondence that I have written in Czech. It simply takes a master linguist to manage to avoid such pitfalls.

There are some Czechs who can do it. I have met a few, a select few who know the English language so thoroughly that they almost never make a mistake. There are, unfortunately, just too few of them around. So many of the people translating from Czech to English in Prague nowadays are Czechs, and not native English speakers. There is so much that needs to be translated that there are just not enough of them to go around. This means that a vast quantity of translations end up being passed to Czechs who, while their English is very good, simply can't do the job.

A great part of the problem is money. There are companies who do not want to pay proper translating rates, and therefore choose Czechs who are willing to accept lower fees. What you end up with in many cases is a mess.

While these people, as I have already said, speak good English, and produce good translations for non-native English speakers, they just can't produce anything presentable, and this is where the nightmare for people like me begins. I started editing translations a few years ago, thinking it would be a good way to supplement my meagre salary, but it soon became the bane of my life.

I have lost count of the times that I have been handed a translation to edit, thinking that it would not take long, and then happily collect my earnings. How wrong I was. The English in these translations is often so mixed up, where the translator has confused one term with another, or has looked up a word in the dictionary and just picked the first definition at random. Or they mix up words, make up terms when they can't find an equivalent, or have even left sentences incomplete simply because they do not know what to put next.

It takes many agonising hours to make sense out of such translations, and it has made me want to tear my hair out many times. Sometimes, however, these mistakes can be funny. Let me give you an example. I was once asked to check a menu for a restaurant in the centre of Prague. They had been using their English-language menu for a year or more, and said that English-speaking tourists visiting their restaurant seemed to find their menu amusing. So, I had a look at it, and sure enough there were many mistakes, quite a few of them hilarious. For one thing, one of the chef's specialities, instead of being 'Chef's Midnight Carp' this meal was translated as 'Chef's Midnight Crap', which I can't imagine many people ordering. There was chicken in wine sauce, which had been translated as 'Chicken in Guilty Sauce', as the Czech words for wine and guilt can be confused by the unwary. That menu was one of the few occasions where I could actually roar with laughter at mistakes that had been made.

For the most part, though, sitting up until the early hours of the morning and sweating over a bad translation is not fun.

What is even worse is when you edit a translation, and then a native Czech speaker edits it again, thinking they know better, which they don't, editing mistakes into a corrected text. They then argue with you about the correct use of English and that just makes me mad.

I think it just boils down to two problems: there are companies who want cheap translations, and won't use qualified Czechs and native English speakers because they cost too much, and to be quite frank, there are plenty of Czechs who think they speak perfect English, when they don't. Once they realise that, then I think things might start to change. At least, one hopes they will.