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The Translator and his Client: Factoring external determinations into the translational activity

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1.1: Introduction

Iheanacho A. Akakuru photoAccording to Antar S. Abdellah(2002:1)1, translation is a vital social activity which "enables human beings to exchange ideas and thoughts regardless of the different tongues used." Though we cannot deny the value of this assertion, it nonetheless obscures the fact that, depending on whether we are talking about the translator's viewpoint or his client's/translation commissioner's, translation may well mean two different things. In effect, in his book, Becoming a Translator2, Douglas Robinson proposes a distinction between the "internal" and "external" viewpoints of translation. The 'internal viewpoint' is the perspective of the translator who sees his activity as a process (i.e. a series of hierarchical steps from source text/ST to target text/TT), while the 'external viewpoint' is that of the Client/Translation Commissioner for whom translation is just the end product.

“Fidelity” for the client may be a pragmatic, rather than an ethical, concept.

A monolingual reader in the target language, who is a non-translator and who commissions a translation job in the target language—a client or a book-buyer—thinks and talks about it from outside the process. He may not know in precise terms how the translation is done, but, (as Samuel Johnson, quoted by Douglas Robinson, once said of the non-carpenter) "he knows a well-made cabinet when s/he sees one"3. In other words, as Pym4 puts it, translation is a 'text' from the perspective of "external knowledge" but an "activity aiming at the production of a text'' from the perspective of "internal knowledge."

Indeed, as Akakuru (2005) points out in "Abstracting Significant Factors in a viable Translator-training programme"5, the translator's main activity consists of rendering a text in one language (source language/source text: SL/ST) into an equivalent text in a second language (target language/Target text: TL/TT) which also achieves the equivalent pragmatic effect. However, this rendition is not always a literal easy-to-do exercise involving only grammars across languages, but often turns out to be a pondered , complex, intelligent activity requiring multi-layered knowledge. This knowledge would imply not only the ability to make linguistic and pragmatic decisions, but also deontological/ethical ones.

A translator who is hired to translate a document receives specific instructions from his client. It may be couched in the usual terms: "Please, get this paper in French translated into English or Igbo or Izon or Yoruba, etc. Sometimes, the instructions may take the form of the casual: "Do me a gist of this piece" or "Do me a summary of what this text says in English." The instructions may even be in the more pointed: "I would like to know what this author/scientist/journalist, etc says on A,B,C or his findings." The nature of the 'order,' the specifics of the client's/commissioner's brief, and the consensual time-frame within which the work is to be done, determine its pecuniary value. This is so because, generally, the more the text is mutually perceived as difficult and the the more the quality of translation sought after is a critical factor, the more the client may have to pay for the job.

In fact, what the client is often prepared to pay depends really on a complex number of factors which include: how reputable/competent he considers the translator; what the translation he is commissioning is likely to yield him in business or research; how far he appreciates the level of difficulty of what is to be done (text type, text length)6, for whom the translation may also be intended other than the translation commissioner, the urgency of the work, the cost of living in the particular city where the translator resides, the professional status of the client, his personal relationship with the translator and, in our own setting, whether the client considers translation as a profession or merely as a secondary skill.7

But the critical question for the professional translator vis-à-vis his client remains—and this is the underlying and defining impetus that ensures the success of his enterprise—what he must prioritize to achieve a text that would satisfy the expectations of the Translation Commissioner/client. In other words, the translator is concerned with hypothesizing, i.e. projecting mentally and creatively, the real-life paradigms by which the quality of his work would be judged by the wo/man who would pay for it. And this is an arduous task that hinges on the real competence of the translator: that is, his/her ability to analyze semantic fields, syntactic structures, cultural difference, sociology and psychology of the reader (i.e. hypothetical reader/client response)8.

We will attempt, in this paper, to see to what extent the form and texture of a translation are determined by the non-translator/client. To this end, we shall translate a source text in French, producing versions in English on the strict orders of the "man/woman who pays." This will enable us to see whether there are implications for the eventual target text both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

1.2: Understanding How the Client views Translation

For the client who pays for a translation to be done, a number of factors weigh significantly on his scale of priorities. These include, readability (TT must be such that reading is easy and comprehension facilitated), accuracy (TT must reconstruct the message and equivalent style of ST with the TT reader in mind) and timeliness (the translator must keep to deadlines). The translation Commissioner just wants a text translated: it may well be to update information for his business, for a research in progress or to improve the quality of his general culture.

For the businessman, the requirements may cover a wide range of information. This information may be on the latest electrical/electronic home appliances or equipment made in France (emphasising, say, their performance and durability/ruggedness for the tropics); it may be a text on opportunities for business partners in a French-speaking country (distributors, suppliers of home-made goods, practical training/workshops, etc). Translation for research may be technical-scientific, technical-non scientific or even overtly literary. In some cases, the target text may have to be written in specialized/non specialized register, while for the client who pays for a text in a foreign language be translated for him for his personal use (for pleasure), his original text may be in areas as varied as astrology, history, arts, computing, literature, etc

The diversity of the client's instructions puts different pressures on the translator. On the one hand, the client is not bothered about the intricacies/ niceties of language and the translator is spared the stress of having to contend with literariness involving, perhaps, considerations of cultural modes of expression that have to be concretized and transposed accordingly. On the other hand, especially with translating for research, the order is for a register-sensitive target text which is also conscious of mathematical and scientific accuracy. In the specific case of scientific translation, details of chemical reactions, temperature, color, details on dosage, complex stratified/procedural information on the working of a machine, etc are so critical that mistakes or approximations or inaccuracies may be life-threatening9.

The translator knows that the terms of each assignment elicit from him/her a different disposition, a different relationship with language and the world. In some texts (scientific and technical ones), he has to battle with the cognitive experience and terminology implicit in the specific field of the source text. In others (literary and other cultural texts), he has to pay attention not only to meaning but also to verbal music, to cultural modes of linguistic behavior, to idiolects and other linguistic obsessions of an author. Each of these considerations determines the peculiar details of the source text in the target text in the course of translation: what faculties are activated, what knowledge would be called into play, what supplementary terminological and cognitive research must be undertaken by the translator to ameliorate perceived inadequacies in his knowledge or repertoire.

Yet, for the wo/man who pays for a translation, the desired product is just the translated text that results from translating, not the typological musings that influence subtle choices of words or expressions, not the hierarchical steps of a process as can be gleaned from translation models like those of Nida and Taber, Catford, Ladmiral, Gile, Catherine Barnwell, Douglas Robinson, Peter Newmark, Ukoyen, Simpson, Flamand, etc.10.

In other words, for the paying client, the view of translation, as Robinson Douglas correctly points out, is "external": he has paid for a product not for a process. Like a man who pays for a dress to be made for his daughter within a mutually agreed time-frame: all that matters to him is to arrive at the tailor's on the agreed date and time to collect the dress, no more no less.

But there lies the problem. For, whereas the translator sees his activity from the inside (as internal), requiring him to understand the source text, its grammar (its tense profile), its thematic or information structure, its destination and attendant style, the client, on his part, merely sees translation from the outside (as external). Simply put, the monolingual client is indifferent to the process; he is concerned with the end-product and this has far-reaching effects on the form, texture and tonality of the target text.

1.3: Factoring the Client's Brief into the translation project.

Practicing translators know that they produce different kinds of target texts depending on the instructions they receive. In the course of one of my translation classes, we experimented on the 'client factor' in translation with an original text in French. By placing myself in the position of the client, I gave five different instructions to different groups of students in the same class. Each group was to work on the same French source text (ST) but from the perspective of one of the instructions which included, a literal or direct translation, a communicative or fluent translation, a commentary, an adaptation, and a gist or summary. The results were as startling as they were instructive for we had, indeed, arrived at five different target texts in English. Below is the rather colloquial source text in French (ST) from which the English versions were to be derived:

"Le Nigeria, c'est tout à la fois: c'est tous les Nigerians. Ce n'est pas le nord, le Nigeria! Ce n'est pas le sud, le Nigeria! Naturellement, les Nigerians, appartiennent à des groupes ethniques. Il y a l'éternelle lutte entre des gens qui veulent les réformes et d'autres qui adorent le statu quo. On sait que certains veulent que les choses changent, qu'il y ait plus de justice, plus d'égalité, plus d'équité; d'autres insistent que les choses doivent rester inchangées, que tout va bien dans les meilleurs des mondes et que les protagonistes du changement sont des fauteurs de trouble!"

A rapid mapping/parsing of the source text would enable us to make a number of observations. The first is the gallicist conventional pre-positioning of the definite article "le" before nouns contrary to what is authorized in English11. We also observe obsessive use of "ce" cataphorically as in "ce n'est pas le nord, le Nigeria" ( the pronoun "ce" precedes its antecedent 'le Nigeria'). This repetitive use of "ce" (the demonstrative: this) and 'on' (the impersonal pronoun: one) in the ST in French, marks the source text for colloquialness. The students were allowed to go home with their assignment armed with these preliminary observations and after the details of the instructions of the client had been explained to them. The specific instructions by the client to each of the five groups of students are implied in the titles, in brackets, that precede the target texts below:


TT1 (Literalism/word-for-word)

Nigeria, it is all at once: it is all the Nigerians. It is not the North, the Nigeria! It is not the South, the Nigeria! Naturally, the Nigerians belong to some ethnic groups. There is the eternal struggle between some people Who want reforms and others who adore the status quo. One knows that certain people want that the things change, that there be more of justice, more of equality, more of equity; others insist that the things should remain unchanged, that all is going well in the best of worlds and that the protagonists of change are fomenters of trouble!

TT2 (Communicative/Fluent)

Nigeria belongs to all Nigerians.It cannot be viewed as

North or South, it must be seen as one entity. Naturally,

every Nigerian belongs to an ethnic group. There is

the unending struggle between those who want

reforms and others who are content with the status quo.

We know that some Nigerians want change, they ask for

more justice, more equality, more equity. Others insist

that things should remain the way they are and that

they couldn't be better. For these people, those who

want things to change are trouble makers.

TT3 (Commentary)

Nigeria refers to all Nigerians. It would be wrong to see Nigeria as North and South because that would be divisive and unpatriotic. Like other peoples of the world, Nigerians belong to diverse ethnic groups but that does not justify an ethnic vision of Nigeria. What is really at play and which lazy people fail to see is the struggle between those who want change and greater democratic reforms and those who want to continue to exploit their own people on the basis of nondescript systems.For the conservatives who are afraid that their privileges would evaporate once the democratic space is liberalised and the common man is empowered, those who clamour for change are rabid radicals and trouble-makers!

TT4 (Adaptation)

Nigeria is for all of us. When you hear North and South, You know that politicians want to divide us. Whether you are Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa or Izon, we are all members of the same family. Some people who are enjoying do not want the country to be better. They are the people who are calling the good Nigerians trouble-makers

TT5 (Summary/gist).

Nigeria is one entity, not the North or South taken separately. Part of the problem with Nigerians is that they mistake the struggle for power between Progressives and Conservatives for rivalry between the ethnic groups.


Nigeria is one country, not North or South. The problem is with those who do not want things to be better. They introduce ethnic politics to cover up their greed.

It is evident that in all these versions, the semantic core of the source text (or what Popovic refers to as the "invariant core')12 has remained the same but different superficial target texts have been generated. It would be instructive to look at the different versions in English to discover that, indeed, we by no way take one version for the other. This is because the change of focus, the differences in the linguistic options of particular versions, are not cosmetic but pragmatic choices that are contingent on the client's brief and the consequent desire by the translator to achieve clear-cut communicative ends.

1.4: Deconstructing the Dynamics of Target Text Production

A close look at these target-language (English) versions of the original reveal the following:

TT1: Literal translation. In literal translation, the source text(ST) is over-bearing and dominant and the translator tends to judge the validity of forms in his target text from the point of view of the source language and culture, as if all languages behave in the same manner. Consequently, TTI has merely followed the ST word-for-word as we can see from the following examples which sound unnatural in English:

(i) Nigeria, it is all at once: English words have merely been substituted for the original French while maintaining the same syntactic structures.

(ii) It is not the North, Nigeria: This structure which places the antecedent after its pronoun in the "ce/c'est" construction is common and correct in French even though it marks the sequence for colloquialness. In English, the above sequence infringes on the norm. Persistent cataphoric constructions are not essential to English syntax. Even though, it may mark the forms stylistically, it remains alien to the genius of English. Compare: Nigeria is not just the North, it is not just the South which flows.

(iii) One knows that certain people want the things to change: 'One'(impersonal pronoun) which is common and part of the French genius is not the norm in English even though it has a much reduced currency. On the other hand, English would say "things" (in a generic sense) rather than 'the things' which is incorrect usage in this particular context. This incorrect use would thus betray the non-English origins of this TT or mark the text in which it appears as a translation.

What the above examples show is that, in the literal translation above, ST linguistic flavour pervades the translation: ST syntactic structures, ST graphical norms, ST punctuation, etc. This intrusion of the ST into the TT, which is often referred to as "literalism" or word-for-word, makes the translation sound and look unnatural. This unnaturalness signals to the discerning reader that he is face to face with a translation of an absent original.

TT2: Communicative translation recaptures the message of the original but re-expresses it freely and communicatively so much so that it does not feel like a text not originally written in English. For example, nothing can be more natural than "Nigeria belongs to all Nigerians....Naturally, every Nigerian belongs to an ethnic group" In this version, the stylistic dominants of the ST are not allowed to inspire formal/prosodic decisions in the TT. In this regard, "We know that some Nigerians want change, they ask for more justice (not 'more of justice' as in the literal translation). The translation flows naturally as a specimen of a standard text in the target language and culture.

TT3: Commentary makes "explicit" what is "implicit" in the ST often with more elaborate explanations, extrapolations, analogies. For example, the following highlighted and italicized sequences are not in the ST but are axiological inventions of the translator:

"Nigeria refers to all Nigerians. It would be wrong to see Nigeria as North and South because that would be divisive and unpatriotic. Like other peoples of the world, Nigerians belong to diverse ethnic groups but that does not justify an ethnic vision of Nigeria. What is really at play and what lazy people fail to see is the struggle between those who want change and greater democratic reforms and those who want to continue to exploit their own people on the basis of nondescript systems. For the conservatives, who are afraid that their privileges would evaporate once the democratic space is liberalized and the common man is empowered, those who clamor for change are rabid radicals and trouble-makers"...."

The active involvement of the reader's cultural and intellectual background in the re-creation of meaning—which the strategy of the "implicit" sets in motion—is destroyed and the suspense and force of the ST is lost to a loose and verbose prosaic style. This is because there are extrapolations and so much extraneous and polemical material. This version is clearer and more pedagogical even though it has a higher degree of emotivity than the ST. This TT goes beyond the communicative approach which Lederer13 canonizes and takes on the trappings of a "commentary"

TT4 (Adaptation) adjusts the language of the original to suit a less sophisticated readership. Note the commonplace "Nigeria is for all of us" instead of the "Nigeria refers to...." in the commentary version above. The conative stance of this version is more evident. This explains why the impersonal tone of the ST "One knows that..." becomes "You know that.... (we, us, you, etc) and these personal pronouns increase intimacy with the reader, who is, thus, taken into confidence. The colloquial tone enhances reader-identification with the problem raised in the original. The target text is re-contextualized in line with the target reader and the reference to localizable ethnic groups(Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Izon) gives the target text(TT) a more personal and conversational flavour as contra-distinct from the source text that sounds impersonal.

TT5: Gist or summary is a condensed/abridged form of the ST. It overemphasizes the cognitive content at the expense of the literary or stylistic features of the ST. It does not leave out any of the points of the original but it does not accompany the facts with a corresponding "clothing": the skeleton has no flesh and what we have is a gist or a summary of the source-text (ST).

It is evident that, arising from the empirical analyses of the translated versions above, the question may arise as to whether in some of these versions the source text (ST) is not vitiated. This is particularly critical because it bothers on the reliability and the responsibility14 of the translated text (TT).

What is significant, however, as we have observed in the five different versions in English, is the claim that the original message has remained the same even though the different instructions from the client have generated five different target texts in English and this number could be more depending on the number of clients and the nature of their briefs.

1.5: Conclusion

In spite of the conscious analysis of the five versions above, the question may still remain whether in any of them the source text(ST) has been vitiated. This is particularly critical because it borders on reliability of the translated text(TT) which is, itself, a function of the client's instructions. For, as Christian Nord reminds us:

"The initiator(client) starts the process of inter-cultural communication because he wants a particular communicative instrument: the target text"15

Sometimes, the client's instructions define reliability to mean that the translation should reproduce the exact nature of the source text, meticulously rendering details of every aspect of the source text that is relevant for the client's action. Sometimes, reliability may simply point to summarizing certain paragraphs of lesser importance while painstakingly doing close readings of other paragraphs of key importance.

It is possible to generate other slightly different versions under the same subheadings. We could even arrive at extreme options if we have instructions to produce an adaptation of the ST in English for children or, in line with "Skopos Theory"16, to produce a totally estranged TT in English with only pragmatic links with the ST. The versions so produced would be as valid as others as long as the purpose of the source text is maintained in the translations.

What this really points to is that 'fidelity' for the client may be a pragmatic, rather than an ethical, concept. The critical factor may well be that the instructions are understood in terms of the language level and usage the translator must maintain, the cultural adaptation/transpositions to effect, and the selective details and general atmosphere "to carry across" into the target text.

It is problematic for practitioners and theorists to decree arbitrarily "validity scales" for one or the other version without relating these to the client. After all, as we have seen in the versions above, validity cannot be an abstract, neutral term. For, as long as the translator has to be paid for his work, he cannot on his own determine what should be delivered to his client. The decision to produce any of these versions must be the direct result of his client's instructions but may also be the result of the translator's perception of the target readership and the other uses to which his translation may be put.

But what should a professional translator do if s/he is paid to transgress the original text, i.e. if the translation Commissioner insists that the translator s/he pays must distort/vitiate the integrity of the source text through translation and consequently undermine the original ideological project of the ST author? In such extreme cases, s/he may have no other viable option but to withdraw his/her services, unless the lure of the money involved and his low ethical standards encourage him/her to betray the original text and sacrifice the translator's professional deontology.

This is why the translator must weigh carefully the full briefing for the job s/he is being offered. S/he must state his terms and his/her professional stand as clearly as his tariffs. He must not mince words and must speak frankly. Once s/he has accepted a job, he cannot afford to let his client down. For, it would be irresponsible for a translator not to defend a position that he has accepted as professionally tenable and pragmatically moral with regard to his client's instructions and for which he has signed a contract of translation.

Notes and Reference

1 Antar S. Abdellah(2002) "What every Novice translator should know" in Translation Journal Vol. 6, Number 3,, p 1.

2 Douglas, Robinson(1997) Becoming a Translator: An Accelerated Course (London: Routledge. p. 6.

3 Quoted by Douglas, Robinson(1997)Becoming a Translator, p.6. We have made exhaustive use of some of the ideas expressed by this author.

4 Anthony Pym(1993)Epistemological Problems in Translation and Its teaching: A seminar for Thinking Students. Calaceite(Teruel), Spain: Caminade, pp 131, 149-150.

5 Iheanacho A. Akakuru(2005)"Abstracting Significant Factors in a viable Translator-Training Prorogramme" in Trends in the study of Language and Linguistics in Nigeria,pp.207-217 (Festschrift for Professor Phillip Akujuobi Nwachukwu), Ozo-Mekuri Ndimele(ed)Port Harcourt: Linguistics Association/Orbit Publications and EmhaiPress).

6 The level of difficulty/stress quotient of a particular source text arises not only from text-type but also from text-length.Generally, text-length is a critical factor in pricing/tariffication. A long text implies longer hours of translation and this should be paid for. If, in addition, the text-type (which has to do with diction, formal/prosodic and graphical characteristics associated with genres/texts in a language) also requires considerable terminological research, the tariff per page is significantly higher.

7 Until recently, even in our universities, translating was not considered a special skill involving specialized training or practice. So strong was this received idea that colleagues casually requested you to translate long texts without any reference to remuneration.

8 Reader socio-educational level, skopos of the ST, formal resources exploited in the source text and the attendant cultural adjustments that these occasion in the translated text, are aspects of the translator's concerns. Fidelity to the ST is not only semantic. This is what Enani(1997) reminds us when he affirms that "Translation is a modern science at the interface of philosophy, linguistics, psychology and sociology. Quoted by Antar S. Abdellah Op. Cit.

9 Scientists know what results you get when you instruct students in a college laboratory to "add drops of water into a jar containing Sulfuric Acid" rather than "add drops of sulfuric acid into a jar containing water." In the former case, the student may probably have part of his tender face charred by the sudden upsurge of heat; in the latter, the temperature rise is gentle' The cases of over-dosage in the intake of drugs resulting from mistranslations have been fatal. Scientific translation is critical in industries, research centers, pharmacies, etc.,

10 Translation is a problem-solving activity involving reading/analysis and comprehension as the first stage. This is where strategic decisions and decisions of detail are taken. The translator becomes aware of the text-type and texture and assesses what, in the source text, he must consider as essential to his target text and what is merely secondary or peripheral detail. This decision is compounded by the client's instructions with its ideological, pragmatic, cultural and linguistic implications.

11 The definite article in French has a regime that is radically different from its use in English except in defining certain nouns. It is instructive tonote the following examples which are indicative of the differences:

French Literal translation and appropriate English translation
L'eau (the water) water
La femme (the woman) woman
La vie (the life) life

12 Susan Bassnett-McGuire(1988: First published 1980)Translation Studies London and New York: Routledge

13 See: Seleskovitch, Danica and Lederer, Marianne(1993) Interpréter pour Traduire. Paris: Didier Erudition

14 A reliable translation is one that can be used by the client, one that keeps to the terms of the brief. A responsible translation is one that respects the critical features of the source text while conforming to the constraints of the target language and culture.

15 Christiane Nord(1991) Text Analysis in Translation: Theory Methodology and Didactic application of a Model for Translation- Oriented Text Analysis, p.8 (Translated from her earlier book: Textanalyse und uberseten 1988)

16 Skopos Theory: see Vermeer, Hans(1978, 1989a) "Skopos und Translation"- Saustrag Heildelbeg: Institute fur uber. Translated into English and reproduced as "Skopos and Commission" in Translation action- Andrew Chesterman, in Chesterman(ed.)pp.173-187. Skopos(derived from Greek) is a technical word that defines "purpose" of a translation. This theory, founded by Hans Vermeer, draws inspiration from communication theory, action theory, text linguistics and text theory as well as reception theories in literary studies(See: Iser, 1978).views translation, not as a process of transcoding but as a specific form of human action. The first thing here is to define the purpose before translating: this is a prospective attitude as against the retrospective action adopted in theories which focus on prescriptions derived from the source text(equivalence, fidelity, etc, with ST as paradigm).

Select Bibliography

Abdellah, Antar S. (2002). "What Every Novice Translator should know" in Translation Journal, Volume 6, Number 3

Aire, Victor (2002) "Achebe in translation: An Evaluation of the French versions of Things Fall Apart and A Man of the People" in Selected Essays and Reviews on African Literature and Criticism. Jos: St Stephen Inc Bookhouse,

Akakuru, Iheancho A (2005) "Abstracting Significant Factors in viable Translator-training Programme" in Trends in the Study of Language and Linguistics in Nigeria. Festschrift for Professor Phillip Akujuobi Nwachukwu. Ozo-Mekuri Ndimele(ed.) Port Harcourt: Linguistics Association of Nigeria/Orbit Publications and Emhai Press,

Akakuru, Iheanacho, A, and Chima, Dominic, C (2006) "Reflexions sur la litterature africaine et sa traduction" in Translation Journal Vol. 10, No. 3, July.

Bassnett-McGuire, Susan (1988: First published in 1980). Translation Studies. London and New York: Routledge.

Hervey, Sandor and Higgins, Ian (1992). Thinking Translation: A Course in Translation Method: French to English. London and New York: Routledge.

Newmark, Peter (1988) A Textbook of Translation. London and New York: Phoenix ELT.

Nida, Eugene and Taber, Charles (1969) The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: E.J. Mill.

Nord Christiane (1991) Text Analysis in Translation: Theory, Methodology and Didactic application of a Model for Translation-Oriented Text Analysis. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Pym, Anthony (1993) Epistemological Problems in Translation and its Teaching: A Seminar for Thinking Students. Calaceite (Teruel), Spain: Caminade.

Robinson, Douglas (1997) Becoming a translator: An Accelerated Course. London: Routledge.

Seleskovitch, Danica and Lederer, Marianne (1993) Interpreter pour Traduire. Paris: Didier Erudition.

Published - September 2010

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