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Translation: who's responsibility is it anyway?

While there is such thing as translator’s responsibility, legal cases over translations are very rare in Hungary. The usual means of settlement in the case of mistakes, dissatisfaction or disagreement generally involves reaching a mutual agreement, often with a discount thrown in.

Mistranslating a poem usually lies in the bounds of “translators’ artistic freedom” and, even for mistakes in a novel there isn’t much more punishment than long days of internet mockery, as in the case of Hungarian translation of 50 Shades Of Gray where the band Kings of Leon became Lion King. However, a mistranslation in a legal document could cause serious problems between the contracting parties and, potentially, damages beyond enumeration.


So, while translating sitcoms or novels might be a good second job or provide some pocket money for linguistic students, legal translation require a full committed specialist with in-depth knowledge. Knowing the language is not enough. 


“Translating a legal document is perhaps the hardest of them all,” said Kinga Hetényi, partner at law firm Schoenherr. Without a law degree, the task is almost impossible to fulfill as in legal practice words have very specific meanings. “When a legal translation has to be very good and accurate, there are two possibilities. Either we lawyers translate the text, or we assign the work to a translator and then we verify the result,” she explains.

“However, the verifying process, unless it’s a very good quality translation, is long and wearisome work. We have to check the original text, translate its meaning, than verify if the translated phrases mean the same. We have too think over the whole text in two languages simultaneously. Altogether, it’s not necessarily true that a translation is cheaper or quicker using a translator and then a verifying lawyer.” Hetényi added, however, that she had never heard of a client suing a translating agency or independent translator.


Lajos Énekes, managing director of the Reflex Translating Agency, said it was clear where responsibility lay. “Of course, there is such thing as translator’s responsibility, and the service provider is always liable,” he explained. “If our translating agency makes a mistake and hence causes damage to the client, our company is responsible exclusively, as we signed the contract.”

If a customer was to sue the agency, it would go after its subcontractor or employee who made the faulty translation. But the problem rarely goes to court; Énekes has never heard of someone actually suing for translation liability throughout his career. “These cases always finish with mutual agreement: the translation agency corrects the mistake at its own expense or the client cancels the order,” he said. “First of all, we examine, if the complaint is justified or not,” he explained the Reflex approach. “If yes, we fix the problem for free, and top it with a discount. Sometimes the client doesn’t want to work together with us any more. In these cases, we lose all the money and of course, our translator doesn’t get a penny. However, sometimes the complaint is not justified, for example, the customer seemingly wants only to reduce the costs of translation. In these cases, if the sum is high enough, we will start a trail, and one or two years later we get our money legally. In these cases, of course, the innocent translator gets all his allowance. Finally, preparing for the worst, we have a liability insurance for a claim of up to HUF 25 million, but we never had to used it,” he added.


Freelance contract translator Ákos Müller explains that “As far as I know, translators are liable for the results of their work up to the sum of their allowances.” However, fields and boundaries of responsibility are always detailed in the contract between the agency and its subcontractor. Moreover, there is a fine method to dodge responsibility regarding legal texts: such documents usually contain a clause in which the original and authoritative language is determined. 


Besides mistranslations, confidentiality is also an important issue in terms of liability, since translation agencies and their translators often have access to highly sensitive client information in the course of their work, said Dániel Bodonyi, managing partner for language services at Helpers Hungary Ltd.

Quite a different problems comes from the fact that, although most major universities in Hungary offer specialized translator training programs, translation quality has been decreasing due to a lack of well defined, widely accepted quality standards and increasing price pressure in the market, which has caused some agencies to reduce wages to levels unseen since the late 1990s.


“The quality of the written word appears to have become less important for society in general,” Bodonyi said. “It is not rare even for major Hungarian news sites to run articles with spelling and grammar mistakes in them, and a significant number of otherwise highly competent professionals are often unfamiliar with basic spelling rules. Despite the increasing adoption of ISO and other quality assurance standards and a few general recommendations by the Association of Hungarian Translation Companies, a lot remains to be done in terms of the precise definition and large scale adoption of translation quality standards and procedures to enable the industry’s further development,” Bodonyi added.