As with all forms of professional writing, proofreading is an essential element in translation, as a second pair of eyes is often able to pick up minor (or sometimes major!) errors in the translated text that translators can miss in their own work, even when they’ve carefully proofread their work themselves. Unfortunately, most translator training programs dedicate very little time to instructing translators in how to handle proofreading tasks, which may end up involving a large proportion of their work as freelancers. With this in mind, based on my own experience as a translator, proofreader and translation project manager, I have developed a kind of “crash course” in proofreading translations, which basically consists of the following four simple rules:
- Don’t correct for the sake of correcting: Proofreaders sometimes feel a kind of implicit obligation to find something wrong in the translation, if only to justify their proofreading fee. After all, if you return a translation with no corrections at all, how will the translator know you really proofread it? This feeling, while quite understandable, needs to be repressed. Be sparing with your corrections, limiting yourself only to those where you have detected grammatical or typological errors or a serious deviation from the meaning or register of the source text. Remember that too many corrections can slow down the final review process, as the more changes there are to the translation the more time the final reviewer will have to take to review them; unnecessary changes can thus cause delay that could otherwise have been avoided.
- Remember that in translation, there is never a single “right answer”: The assertion “I never translate it that way” is not a valid argument for a proofreading change. It is of course a truism in translation that there are many different ways to translate any one sentence, all of which may be equally valid, but this is something that translators sometimes forget when proofreading. For example, in legal documents the Spanish term “Registro Civil” is often rendered literally in English as “Civil Registry”, a translation choice supported by the extensive information in English on the web about this institution of many Spanish-speaking countries that employs this literal translation. On the other hand, some translators argue that it is more appropriate to apply one of the terms used in English-speaking countries for the type of institution that fulfills the same functions as a registro civil, such as “Vital Statistics Office”. Both of these options are perfectly valid and as proofreaders it is not our job to impose our preference, unless of course a glossary for the project has specified one or the other. If you doubt the validity of a particular translation choice, add a comment, but don’t change it unless you have researched the translation chosen and found it problematic, for a reason that you can support (other than “I never translate it that way”).
- Check your facts: Never make a grammatical or spelling correction to a translation unless you are 100% sure that your “correction” is correct. I recently had a case of a proofreader who “corrected” an English sentence that employed subject-verb inversion (e.g. “On the edge of the river sits a quaint little cottage”, which would be “corrected” as “On the edge of the river a quaint little cottage sits”), and added a comment scolding the translator for failing to recognize that “verbs ALWAYS follow subjects in English!”. Oh, do they? And what about questions (like “do they?”, for example?). Needless to say, I didn’t hire that proofreader’s services again. It is a serious concern that a professional proofreader would not know that there are in fact a range of cases in English where subjects and verbs can or should be inverted, and even more worrying that when coming across such a case, the proofreader wouldn’t stop to investigate it before “correcting” it with an awkward construction that was actually no more correct than the original.
- Be diplomatic: Many translators have worked as language teachers (myself included), and when proofreading we can easily fall into “teacher” mode. It is important to remember, however, that when proofreading a translation that the translator whose work we are proofreading is not your student, but your colleague or client. As such, it is important to adopt a diplomatic tone in comments, suggestions and explanations of corrections, and remember that as proofreaders we are not being asked to offer a lesson in English composition, but merely to check for errors. On one project I coordinated, a proofreader diligently “corrected” the capitalization of all titles in a very long document, annotating them with the comment: “Please inform the translator that it is standard practice in English for all words in a title to have the first letter capitalized, except for words with three letters or less.” Of course, the fact that this little composition lesson for the translator was actually incorrect – in fact, capitalization of words in titles in English is governed not by the number of letters the words have, but by whether they are “content” words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) or “function” words (prepositions, articles, etc.) – made it even more obnoxious (once again, remember to check your facts!). But even if the proofreader had been correct, the tone of the comment was more appropriate to a correction on an English exam than a proofread of a professional translation.
Proofreading by a second translator is a vitally important part of any translation project, but if not handled appropriately it can prove counterproductive, slowing down the process and even causing tensions between translators. In light of its importance to the industry, proofreading really needs to be given more emphasis in translation training programs than it currently receives. But in the meantime, I hope my little “crash course” may be of help.