Tuesday, 19 March 2013

A proof-reader has torn your translation to pieces. Is it ok to freak out?

Picture this. You are assigned to do a translation. You do your research, you do your best to complete it by the set deadline, you proof read it several times. You are happy with the results when you decide to send it. It is not, after all, the first time you are working on a similar text and you know your client very well.

Twenty-four hours later you receive an email from your client. The proof-reader has some suggestions to make and could you please check them and agree to accept them or not? You open the document and...get a heart attack, right on the spot! The proof-reader has corrected every single line of your precious translation, in BIG bold red letters visible even from the other side of your flat. Panic! Cold sweat! Self-doubt! You pretty much know at this point that you are not getting another translation project from this client ever again.

And then, you have a closer look at the corrections in your text and realise that they are all about style. In other words there are no grammar or syntax mistakes. There are not even any terminology mistakes. The proof-reader has corrected your decision to place an adverb at the beginning of a sentence and not at the end or your choice to go with a certain noun and not with its synonym, or the fact that you chose to use a noun instead of a verb to say the exact same thing, etc.

Is it ok to make such corrections in a text?

It is my understanding that if you make grammar and syntax mistakes, in a translation, you should (assuming you translate into your mother-tongue) go back to school at once, learn your language all over again and decide later whether you want to become a translator or not. And if after all that, you still want to work in translation, you need to get some extra training. If you make terminology mistakes on the other hand, you ought to be working on easier/different texts or you need to be doing some serious reading. Lots and lots and lots of reading to learn all about the text's "inner guts".

But who decides which style is correct and which isn't? Don't get me wrong, I know that some texts DO require special style and formatting. The E.U., for example, issues its own style book for translators and writers. I am obviously not referring to this kind of style and I am not referring to the use of correct tone either. I am talking about the small details that make my translation different from yours. As a proof-reader, I have never fallen into the trap of changing/"correcting" an entire sentence, just because to MY ear, it sounds better, (remember, most of the times your PM will not be speaking your language, so all s/he will be left looking at is red, red, red  - and that's when the Clash of the Translators begins) and believe me, as a writer, I have been tempted many times.

What do you think? Do you agree or am I overreacting?

Natali Lekka, is an EN & FR into EL freelance translator and the owner of Worlds of Words 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. No self-doubt EVER! I guess that the main thing about being good is knowing what you're doing. Yes, a text can be seen through many eyes and points of view, and even though your post is somewhat a catastrophy scenario that I have never heard of, if it would happen to me I'd read it first and then decide if the proofreader was just being too strict or simply has no qualification to call himself a proofreader. I always revise my work, whatever the scope, and then proofread it myself objectively. Grammar typos and mistakes are things that I cannot afford, both for professional and personal issues of course. Nice initiative Natali, I hope it gets what it deserves. :)

    1. >too strict or simply has no qualification
      Yesss!! Very good point. I was in similar situation and exactly this thought was the last.
      Finally, we have called the third party editor and resolved the situation.

  3. Dear João,

    Thank you for your comment. You are the first to comment on this brand new blog :) . Yes, I agree this is a catastrophy scenario and luckily it has never happened to me either to that extend. I was inspired by a colleague's experience to write this post - although I may have exaggerated a bit for the sake of making a point.

  4. There are some professional "error finders" out there. I was asked to "find errors" in a colleague's translation. I found none and said, sorry I could not have done this any better, and was told "there're always errors in texts".

    Also I did a translation into French where the word "money laundering" came up (blanchiment d'argent in French). The proof-reader sent it back corrected "blanchissement d'argent" and other similar idioties. The French make the difference between "whiten" and "launder". The proof reader did not even know that.

    This really annoyed me. The proof reader had absolutely no idea about legal French and replaced all the legal words with pretty literary ones.

    Unfortunately many language students study languages, not because they have a talent for it, but because they are too stupid to do maths. This applies 10fold to literature students.

  5. I don't understand why anyone would ask you to do that? It is almost as if they asked you to "create" errors out of thin air!

    I hate it too when a proof-reader replaces all your good terms by the wrong ones and you have to go through the text again and change them all back!

  6. Problems can exist when the proof reader doesn't speak the source language and when their knowledge of the target language is different. In my case both were true.

    I translated a historical text from Hungarian to English (UK) under very tight time pressure (working all night), as I was told it was urgent. A week later I was sent the 'corrected' version of my text. It had been proof read by an American who took out all the past and present perfect structures, for no reason. Worse still, s/he had massacred the rest of the text on stylistic grounds. They had never seen the original, as they don't understand Hungarian.

    I simply read the 'corrections' and shrugged. I was extremely annoyed I had lost a night's sleep unnecessarily and the tight deadline had obviously been a fiction, but what was I to do?

    I never wrote back and continue not to accept work from the client. Life is too short to deal with such idiots. It would have taken far too much effort to 'explain' the source of the differences.

  7. Proof-reading a translation without having read the source text first is as unprofessional as it gets. In this case, it was probably the agency's/client's fault. They shouldn't have given your translation to a proof-reader who doesn't understand a word of the source text!

  8. Yes, the style is in the eye of the reader, I´d say, yet in many opportunities I´ve found myself in both sides of the job, and I always appreciate good criticism, and believe one that proof-reading is harder than translating because you must be capable of substantiating any correction/edition you make. But I must say that the main problem resides when agencies o PM trust any native speaker to do this job. In many cases, they just are not as thorough as they should be, or have no idea of the area of expertise.
    A good thing to do is always review the corrections made and classified them by its nature, if most are just a matter of style then I believe that the translation is good and there are other ways to express the same idea.

  9. It would also be ideal if both the translator and the proof-reader could work together (for once!) for the sake of making the project better. What happens though is that translators tend to see proof-readers as rivals and vice versa. Is that justifiable? Maybe it is.

    Either way, I am happy to be working together with another translator for one specific client. I translate, she proof-reads, she translates, I proof-read and when we have doubts about each other's work, we skype each other. I wish all translator- proof-reader relationships were like that, of course!

    On one other occasion, I was offered to translate 10,000 words in 3 days. I turned the project down because I knew there would be no way I could deliver a good translation in only 3 days. I turned the project down although the rate had been really tempting. It turns out however that there was another translator who could deliver 10,000 words in 3 days, so the client asked me to be the proof-reader instead. When I received the text, I immediately knew that the translator had outsourced or shared various pages with various translators in order to meet the deadline. How? Different style of course! All translators involved were pretty good, but as a proof-reader , I tore the text to pieces anyway, because we had to follow one style and one translation. We couldn't have one word translated in 3 different ways, in the same text!

    When I delivered the proofed text to my PM, I told her "Before you get a heart attack, let me just explain to you what happened here." Later, I found out, through my PM, that the translator never admitted to sharing the translation with other people. Yeah, right!

    1. Dear Joao,

      I got your message. Could you please email me your cv at cv@worldsofwords.com, so I can keep you on file? Thanks!

  10. Natali,

    oh there is the neverending "battle" between translators and proofreaders!!

    I tend to change what I see wrong and nothing more! When proofreading, we need to keep in mind that a translator has actually put some time to finish the project but we also need to be true to the source text. Some translators do not pay respect neither to the source nor to their target text and the latter simple seems to be a whole bunch of word-to-word replacements. Sometimes it does not make any sense. In such a case, yes, I too will make changes like there is no tomorrow! Only necessary changes! Well done writing your first post! Cheers to the next one then!

  11. Thank you for your comment Konstantina.

  12. Good point, Natali!
    Just an hour ago I was in similar situation. My old good client was upset, as their customer was unsatisfied by translation.
    They wonder why I have used the words I used, the phrases was ugly, the style was terrible.
    The answer was simple: I did my job - translation. But only this, no more. And thing what they wanted was to draw some phrases as primary plan for someone could write creative and impressive speech for them.
    Yes, actually they wanted copyrighting.
    But I knew this later. And the first moment was shock...

  13. Well copy-writing deserves an article of its own, I think. Thank you Leon for your comment. I think your client should have clarified you what the needs of the project were, that way you would know immediately if you could handle it or not.

  14. I agree that you should not go overboard when editing/proofreading someone else's translation. However, I am often asked to check translations for publication purposes e.g. tourism leaflets, marketing material. Quite often I DO correct the style because unfortunately sometimes the translators use awkward phrasing or translate far too literally, and what the client wants is a target language text that does not in any way read like a translation. So yes, if I can think of a better way to put it, I suggest it. However, if I proofread a more formal or legal text, I only change what is really necessary.

    I translate into English and when my own work is proofread by other translators, I do not usually have a problem with the improvements they suggest. It's when the non-English native speaker client starts to decide they know English better than me that the problems start! :)

  15. Thank you for your comment Lydia. I agree 100% with you. There is a fine distinction between translation and transcreation (sometimes not so fine), that as translators we ought to know and respect.

    Speaking of proofreading, I recently proofread a translation from hell. Terminology-wise, it was good, but grammar and syntax were all over the place. I made several corrections in an effort to make the text sound Greek and flow naturally. Unfortunately, it was one of those cases where the proof-reader's suggestions have to go back to the translator who will eventually accept them or decline them. Unfortunately, the translator accepted a very small percentage of my corrections. The final text reads very awkward now; it's an embarrassment. If I had that translator in front of me now, the first thing I would ask him/her would be: "Are you really Greek? Because if you think that what you wrote was Greek, then we must have gone to different schools!"

  16. I think we've all experienced these problems. I learnt how to ignore these so-called "corrections" and educate my clients about the style of writing. I don't think we should be worried too much about proofreaders trying to show they're needed. They are, but one has to see the difference between a mistake and a preference.