Translators and the Editing Tightrope

Dianne Kirk

Translators with a few years’ experience, reasonable writing skills in their native language and perhaps some expertise in a particular subject area are often asked to carry out work which may be variously described as “editing,” “revising,” “proofreading,” “native check,” “QC,” etc. Ideally, this occurs after the translation has first been checked for accuracy against the source text by a native speaker of the source language. Essentially, it involves “polishing up” a translation produced by another translator to provide a higher quality final result.

While this sounds relatively straightforward, the process can be fraught with difficulties. First is the question of what exactly is being asked for. Unfortunately, this is often not well defined by the client, requiring the editor to use their own judgment or to seek clarification. At a minimum, it requires ensuring that the translation is grammatically correct and is not expressed in ways that are awkward or difficult to understand for native speakers of the target language.

However, beyond this basic standard, what other types of changes should an editor make? One problem is distinguishing between your own personal preferences (and prejudices) and changes that genuinely enhance the quality of the translation. Another is ensuring that any changes you make don’t introduce inaccuracies into the translation or lead to inconsistencies with parts that you haven’t amended. This requires checking against the source language document and careful reading of the translation after editing.

The process may be complicated by the further problem of time constraints. Editing is likely to be the last stage of a translation project before final delivery to the client, meaning that there is often very little time available for finishing it. Thus, an editor may be forced to deliver a product, under pressure, that they have not completed to their own satisfaction.

Another problem is being faced with a poor quality translation that requires a large amount of work, and even partial or full retranslation. This can obviously be a very stressful situation. In such cases, the first step should be to contact the person who has sent it to you and negotiate higher payment rates and further time if possible, or perhaps even to withdraw from the work if these requirements are not met.

Finally, there are ethical considerations that should also be taken into account. These include the need to limit any criticisms to substantiated, objective comments about the translation itself, and avoiding the making of too many unnecessary changes.

All of these elements can make work that initially seems quite straightforward and even simple into the proverbial “can of worms.”

Having said all this, editing can also help you to improve your own translation skills. It gives you opportunities to learn from other translators, and can show you new ways of translating words and expressions that you’ve never thought of before.