Note: This article was written in 2010. In 2022, I avoid “proofreading” as a term for revising another’s translation, and have long stopped working with translation agencies. Still, this is a very popular blog post, and colleagues may find it useful. It was certainly the most plagiarised blog post I ever wrote! So here it stays.


Like many translators, I also proofread the work of other translators.  Like many translators,  I have had at least one negative experience when having my own work proofread. Is it a coincidence that this was for an exceptionally large translation (21,000 words), and that the translation was also offered to another translator, who I nipped to the post and who was then assigned the proofreading? Probably not…

I was somewhat suspicious of the proofreader’s motives behind describing my translation as “shoddy”, despite the very small percentage of errors on this highly technical text, and some of those being from the translation memory itself. Was it for self-gain? Perhaps this proofreader, resentful that I had been selected for this valuable job, wanted to prove their superiority by expressing my inferiority? Not a very ethical approach, but I wondered if it had worked.

A friend once worked as a project administrator for a large translation agency. I described my situation and suspicions to him. I asked if he thought it happened a lot in the industry, and whether it was a problem noted by translation agencies. He replied, “Yes, all the time!”, “We had to get rid of loads [of proofreaders] for being too picky.”

Being careful and thorough is important, but when does this become “too picky”? When these criticisms cannot be backed up. When I criticise another translator’s work, I want to be sure the project manager or client concerned understands why. I include examples of errors made and the corrections necessary. I also try to offer some form of explanation and am careful to consider and mention other circumstances that may have affected the translator’s performance – everything from inexperience in that subject matter to the complexity of the text itself. Above all, I think it is important to be fair to our fellow translators. We should not unjustly criticise in an attempt to gain more work: as my friend’s statement confirms – a too critical proofreader will only damage their own reputation. Similarly, we should praise the work of a good translator. This is not only the morally right and fair thing to do, but it offers a positive service to your client and shows that you are both fair and honest. Most clients prefer to work with people that are fair and honest.

If you receive a translation that is of good quality you should still check it thoroughly unless otherwise instructed by your client. Do not just hand it back unchanged and provide a vague estimate of how long it would have taken you to do the job had you actually done it. Yes, it may sound like an absurd thing to do, probably to anyone reading this blog. Believe me, however, that it does happen. I have re-examined my proofread translations before only to find they have been returned with no changes. This makes me a little suspicious, and lo-and-behold, I found a glaring typo or redundant word that, whilst not instantly obvious to the original translator (hence the need for proofreaders in the first place), it should have been very obvious to any diligent proofreader. Always be thorough. If you aren’t thorough, an end-client may complain, and you may lose that end-client or severely damage your relationship with that contracting agency.

So what are the essential ethical issues to consider when proofreading?

  1. Be flexible. Remember that other translators have different styles to your own. Don’t change anything unless it will really enhance the quality of the document. You aren’t there to impose your own stylistic regime on the rest of the world.
  2. Be thorough. Similarly, do not rest on your laurels if a translation seems to be of great quality. Check the entire document properly and do not be tempted to hand in a job without checking it thoroughly.
  3. Be honest. If a translation is great, say so. Your client will respect your honesty.
  4. Keep your client informed. If a translation is of particularly poor quality, inform your client. They may decide to give the translator a chance to correct their work. Such a situation could dramatically affect the amount of time it takes to complete (and the ability to meet a deadline), and their budget.
  5. Provide a short summary of the translation quality. This may not be appropriate for direct clients (especially where the client is a somewhat sensitive translator of the original text!), but will usually be appreciated by agencies. Even if you only write a couple of sentences, it will provide added value that your clients will appreciate. This is a chance to show why it was worth hiring you. But do remember the next point! Keep your comments to a couple of lines, unless it is an exceptional example of poor quality.
  6. If you have to criticise, don’t be mean or exaggerate. Using words like “shoddy” or “terrible” are only really fair for the very worst of translations, usually the kind by semi-literate non-natives of either language, or Google Translate (we’ve all had them!). Be critical, fair enough, but don’t get personal.
  7. Be understanding. If you are aware that it was an incredibly technical text, short deadline or difficult to read .PDF, show some understanding and highlight this to the client if you think it explains some of the problems the translator may have experienced. Of course, the translator should have allowed for these things when accepting the job, but like you, they are only human. Showing honesty and a little humanity will endear you to your client.
  8. Back up your criticisms. If you are saying the original translator’s word order was round the bend, then quote an example sentence or two.  If you think the translation was the hard work of Google Translate, then run a sentence or two through that to prove your point. If you found multiple translations for the same term in the same context, list them – as well as your preferred option. This is especially vital if the client wishes to register a complaint against the original translator and/or renegotiate the rates they are to be paid
  9. Be open to learning from your colleagues! Proofreading is also a great chance to observe the work of others. Perhaps you always translate one phrase a particular way, but maybe this translator expressed it in a different, more succinct manner. Be open to learning new tricks and styles from your colleagues. Similarly, be careful to avoid repeating their mistakes. Every job is a chance to learn and build on your experience!