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The Customer is Always Right

Years ago, when I was working as a junior salesgirl in a clothing store, we were taught that the customer was our number one priority – “the customer is always right” was the motto.

Now many years later working as a translator from Bahasa Indonesia into my own language of English, there are times where I am confronted by this little proverb. As a native speaker of English, I believe that I know my own language better than my clients. So, when a client questions my translation, it is hard for me to come to terms with the customer always being right.

Here are a few examples of how I have dealt with these situations.

A common example for me involves the translation of Birth Certificates. In many instances Indonesian has a different word order to English. A literal translation of the main part of the Indonesian Birth Certificate reads: On the date of 1 January 1911 was born George Albert Brown.  This is not a grammatical English sentence; I change the word order to read: On the date of 1 January 1911 George Albert Brown was born.

Some clients want me to keep the Indonesian word order, rather than use the English word order. As a translator I feel that I must always try to use grammatical English sentences. I respond briefly giving some other English agent-less passive sentences as examples. These sentences always have the passive verb as the last constituent of the sentence. I have found that when using an argument that is based on grammatical grounds the clients have been willing to accept my translation.

"As a translator I feel that I must always try to use grammatical English sentences."

For me grammatical arguments are quite straightforward. What I find more challenging is the area of vocabulary, none more so than when translating Academic Transcripts. Often clients have English translations of their subjects which were translated in their home country. Sometimes the English used is not what we use here in Australia but usually American English.

As a translator I have always believed that my translation should reflect the English used by those who will be given the translated documents, that is speakers of Australian English. However, I have found that this is not the perspective of the clients who want to use what they believe is the prestige dialect of English – American.  An example of this is how I translate a compulsory subject studied at several Indonesian Institutions – Kewarganegaraan. Warganegara means “citizen” so I translate this subject as “Citizenship studies”. For me as an Australian I am completely unfamiliar with what the content of such a subject might be.  On one occasion a client would not accept my translation and wanted me to change the subject name to “Civics”. I had never come across this word before. I resorted to my much-used Macquarie Australian Dictionary and found no such word therein and I informed the client of this. I received a response refuting my claim which referred me to American dictionaries – whereby I found that this is the name of a similar subject studied in America. In this case although I had my doubts about a transcript which contained American words, I changed the translation to suit the client’s wishes.

Another more problematic instance was in a transcript where the student had been given the grade of Biasa which means “usual” or “normal”. I translated this as “average”. I received a rather sharp response from the client that I should have translated this as “Ordinary”. The school concerned was using a system which to some extent followed the British model of “O levels.” However my own research showed that O or Ordinary level referred to the type of subjects studied and that Ordinary in the British system was not used for the students’ grades. Further, I consulted with some friends who are teachers. Their response was that they would never use the word “Ordinary” on as the student’s grade. For my dialect to use this word was almost an insult but for the client the use of this word had prestige dialect status. In the end although it went sorely against the grain, I changed the student’s grades from “average” to “ordinary”. This was what the client wanted.

As a translator I do not wish my translations to sound “foreign”. However, in the examples I have given where for the client Australian English does not have prestige, I need to lower my Australian flag and remember that “the customer is always right.”

About the author: Christine Maree Berry is a NAATI Certified Indonesia > English Translator based in Melbourne.

Ms. Berry has a Masters Degree in Linguistics from La Trobe University. She has worked as a linguist, in women’s literacy and health in remote communities, and also as a TESOL teacher and translation principles teacher. Currently she is a freelance translator, with a special interest in medical and financial documents.

When not translating Christine divides her time between gardening, finding new Indonesian recipes and her grandchildren.

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