(Note: This article is the sixth in our “Cardinal Sins of Translation” series. If you missed any of the others, you can find them all here!)

When I contacted the author of the most recent book I translated, one of the first things she said was that she was excited to work with me because there were some “errors” in the original French text that she wanted to fix: a minor character was referred to by two different names at various points in the book, and she wanted to change the numbering of the footnotes in one chapter.

In addition, throughout my translation process, I found a few more errors that she was surprised to learn about, but was happy for me to “fix.” For example, the French word flamboyants was used to designate a type of tree in chapter one, but then refers to birds in chapter two. In another place, I changed some technical points in a discussion of poetic meter. I was also able to make some additions to the book’s appendix and index that were missing in the original version.

This experience made me aware of an important question for translators: How far can a translator go in correcting “errors” in the source text, such as grammatical or factual mistakes, contextual inconsistencies, or other aspects that the author or translator may feel the need to “correct” in the text’s transformation into a new language?

In my case, the novel I was translating had so many historical and cultural references that I thought any inaccuracies would detract from the way in which the book uses elements of history to tell a compelling fictional story. More importantly, I was able to ask my author about each one of the “errors” I found, such that she could confirm they were errors and agree for me to find ways to correct them.

But what if you can’t consult with the author to ask about an “error” you think you’ve found?

After all, something you assume to be an “error” might actually have been intended by the author. For example, grammatical errors in a character’s speech could reflect something about his or her background. Perhaps a “historical” novel mixes fact and fiction in such a way that historical inaccuracies are meant to blur the lines of fiction and reality. Or maybe your text is experimental, such that any inconsistencies or oddities could potentially be on purpose.

In sum, whether or not you can consult with the author, any “errors” you perceive in the text you’re translating are ultimately up to you to interpret, based on whether or not they fit with the integrity of the overall text. However, if you’re unsure, you can discuss the issue(s) with fellow translators or editors, who can confirm or disagree with the errors you’ve found. But above all, at least in my mind, the author is the best person to ask if at all possible.

Why might correcting “errors” in the source text be a translation sin? Some translators may approach the text as a sacred object that they don’t have the right to change. But in reality, ignoring errors may be doing a disservice to readers by affecting how they perceive the integrity of the text and its overall message. So don’t be afraid to “correct” such errors in the way you see fit!

How do you feel about “errors” in the source text? Have you ever come across any errors in a text you were translating? What did you decide to do?

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Christiana was drawn to literary translation through her love of reading, writing, and the French language. Her passion is for experimental writing that seeks to create new kinds of literature, such as the works of the OuLiPo. She received an MA in Literary Translation (French-English) from NYU in 2013 and is currently working on a PhD in Translation Studies from Binghamton University. Her first book-length translation, One Hundred Twenty-One Days, a novel by Michèle Audin, came out in 2016. She lives in Raleigh, NC. You can find Christiana online at www.christianahills.com
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