A Crash Course in Proofreading Translations

Martin Boyd

ProofreadingAs 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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”).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

10 thoughts on “A Crash Course in Proofreading Translations

  1. Many thanks for this post, Martin, as I am extremely interested in this topic, and I wholeheartedly agree with you about points 2-4. However, I do feel that when we are revising/reviewing/editing translations, we need to bear in mind that the reason we are doing this is to ensure the end client receives the best rendition possible of their text. As far as I’m concerned, that means making changes even if what the original translator has put is not incorrect and indeed perfectly possible, provided that the changes made improve the translation.
    Sometimes it seems that there is some kind of a power struggle between the translator and the reviser, with both trying to prove they are better than the other. If instead we could all just work together as a team to make a great end product and accept changes to both our translations and our revisions without feeling precious about it, then more people in our profession might enjoy the revision process.

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  3. Thanks, Nikki, for your comment. I understand your point about point 1. I think the problem lies in discerning between what is a necessary change to ensure the best final product for the end client and a change that reflects a purely stylistic preference that doesn’t really constitute an improvement, and may even unravel the stylistic cohesion of the text. Of course, determining the difference will always involve a subjective decision, and that’s where the tug of war between translator and reviser begins. At the end of the day, I would say it’s up to the project manager to specify the degree of “editorial freedom” the proofreader should have, depending on the relative experience of translator and proofreader and the nature of the project itself.

  4. I agree with your points, Martin. There are many factors to consider and more often than not in a very tight time frame. However, regardless of the translator’s level of experience, I think it’s important for him/her to get a chance to approve any changes made, and not in a context of “you’ve made some mistakes, what do you have to say for yourself”, but in a collaborative atmosphere of “do you agree this sounds better, or should we just leave your original version”.

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  8. I found this topic very interesting – I often feel uncomfortable about proofreading, because not only do I correct typos, grammar, meaning deviation cases, but I also correct style, the language flow, when I believe it improves quality – am I wrong? Should I just stick to objective errors?

  9. Personally, I don’t think you are wrong, Ana. Our duty first and foremost must surely be to provide our clients with the best possible rendering of their texts rather than worrying about our colleagues’ feelings if their work is improved upon. If this is done in a spirit of collaboration, then everyone involved in the process can learn something.
    As you are interested in the topic, you might like to read some of the posts on my blog about revisions (listed under the blog category with that heading).

  10. Thanks, Ana and Nikki, for your comments. Ana, I think the answer to your question would be to clarify the expectations of the assignment with the client. “Proofreading” is generally understood to refer strictly to correcting mechanical errors or accidental omissions by the translator, while “revision” or “editing” would be understood to include stylistic issues as well. But this classification is not universally accepted, so clarifying with the client beforehand is probably the safest approach. There are “proofreading” projects out there where the client expects proofreaders to “clean up” issues with a translation: these kinds of assignments should really be treated as editing jobs (involving more work and, logically, a higher rate).

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