teacherLike 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.

My friend and fellow linguist, Sasha Ward, 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 Sasha’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!

About the Author:

Rose Newell is a British-born, Berlin-based copywriter and translator specialising in high end and high tech. Rose works exclusively with direct clients, mostly located in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. This blog is a labour of love for colleagues, not a sales funnel for paid membership groups, webinars, seminars, courses or coaching services. As one of those who has consistently spoken out against instagurus, readers can trust this blog will never be monetised. Truly successful translators have no need for the pittance generated by such activities.

22 Comments

  1. James Price 02/05/2017 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    Well written article Rose. Editing and Proof-reading go hand in hand with each other and dedicated resources with industry relevant experience should be allocated for such a task.

  2. […] The Ethics of Proofreading […]

  3. Nick Block, PhD Translations 02/06/2014 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Rose, for your informative website. Great information for someone starting out, like me! Question: What percentage of your jobs are translation vs. proofreading? Can you explain the field a little more–are there some people who only proofread?

    • Rose Newell 04/06/2014 at 5:23 am - Reply

      These days, I don’t proofread very often. It’s often a bit of a scam – many people try to get an initial translation on the cheap, then have the proofreader clean up the mess for peanuts (a low fixed fee, per-word proofreading rate or a very low hourly fee – which most translators seem to have).
      I’ll proofread if people pay a fair hourly rate and the original was done by a native of some skill. Then it really is just proofreading. But real messes just stress me out. Ultimately, I don’t like criticising other translators, but if I take proofreading jobs, that’s usually what happens. It gets me in a bad mood and is bad for my mental health!
      I think these days it’s probably less than 10% of what I do, including editing of texts written in English first off by non-natives.
      If you do decide to do proofreading, be sure to reject anything that’s clearly machine translation or clearly very poor, as it’ll just stress you out and take ages. Plus, it’s encouraging people to use poor translators, knowing they can get a pro to fix it up. Always charge an hourly fee that matches what you’d earn in an hour based on what you charge the same client for translation. I’ve seen various rates suit various people, but personally find anything below 50 EUR p/h to agencies to be shooting oneself in the foot in my combination. I charge more than that.

  4. […] A discussion of the problem of the over-zealous proofreader and why this often backfires, whereas honesty and fairness pays. This is summarised in a set of ethical guidelines for proofreaders.  […]

  5. […] This is what has made my business. After the initial hit of The Ethics of Proofreading, which was linked to (and plagiarised!) everywhere, my rankings started to climb – not just […]

  6. Sibylle 05/06/2011 at 7:52 pm - Reply

    I came across this article today – comprehensive and constructive! Thank you.
    I learn from every proofreading I perform and like good proofers myself very much.

  7. motaz.jazairi 05/04/2011 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Rose has pointed out basic points in proofreading and I can’t agree more with most of the issues raised.But please allow me to add this:Every language has its own peculiarities and features;phraseology in Arabic for example,is subject to intricate grammatical rules and unless a proofreader is bilingually well versed,he is apt to misunderstand certain figures of speech .Another point is that scientific text is to be proofread by a scientist who can pin point the faults if any.Proofreading is also a field of specialization,or else we can’t be sure that our job is perfect.Objectivity is a prerequisite for all proofreaders.

    • Rose Newell 07/04/2011 at 4:38 pm - Reply

      I think you might have misunderstood the purpose of the post. This post deals with the ethics of proofreading, once a task has been assigned, not how to ensure the best possible proofreading. That would be another post in itself, including points such as those that you mentioned.

  8. Niall Whelan 30/03/2011 at 2:09 pm - Reply

    Good article, old problem. Why do translators have other translators proof read text? A subject matter expert with multilingual skills is our preferred answer. After all, a client is not only looking for language quality, they are looking for best way of conveying meaning often for complex or even new concepts.

    I see the problem as how do translators ensure clients have content reviewed appropriately, but I guess that is another step after proofreading itself.

    whenever I engaged second agency to proofread I found results to be inconclusive and no guarantee of language quality; i.e. a waste of time and money.

  9. […] post is a follow-up to my progressing post, The Ethics of Proofreading. After acid for this post myself on Google, we was astounded to come adult with a few hits that did […]

  10. […] post is a follow-up to my earlier post, The Ethics of Proofreading. After searching for this post myself on Google, I was surprised to come up with a few hits that […]

  11. Gina 11/01/2011 at 1:36 am - Reply

    Rose, very good points.

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    I agree, and I’ve seen this before as well. I even had one editor “correct” my translation which was into U.S. English, changing terms to UK English (sales to turnover for chiffre d’affaires, for example), AND, not only that, but there were actual spelling mistakes in the editor’s supposed corrections! I commented on each of these and sent the document back to the agency asking them to please not send that edited version to the client. The agency actually apologized and I still get work from them.

    • Gina 11/01/2011 at 1:36 am - Reply

      Hmm, this is what I had put in brackets to quote Rose’s previous comment:

      It would be wonderful if the proofreader was always a superior, expert, specialist translator in the field in question. In practice, I’ve sometimes found my translations have come back from the proofreader with “corrections” that actually damaged the quality of the translation, making things that were correct incorrect.

  12. Rose Newell 25/12/2010 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    @Jenn Mercer – Yes, that is exactly what is meant by learning from others. 🙂

    @Hüseyin Mergan – Sorry to hear you had such a particularly negative experience. I hope this post offers some comfort – you are not alone!

    @Maija Haavisto – I wonder if this has something to do with the nature of the text being translated, too? I see from your website you are a creative sort, so would it be right to assume you translate more literary works? I also notice we also have something else rather special in common. I’ll send you an email. 🙂

    @Karin – I totally agree!

    Thanks to everyone for your comments. Keep them coming!

    Feel free to follow me on twitter (lingocode) or the RSS feeds (click the orange RSS button at the top) for further posts. 🙂

  13. Karin Aisicovich 22/12/2010 at 8:53 pm - Reply

    Thank you! I agree completely! Proofreading is a very responsible job on both directions – the client and the translator.

  14. Maija Haavisto 22/12/2010 at 3:28 pm - Reply

    Whoa. I’m not sure if this has ever happened to me. I often find myself making lots of corrections when I proofread. Usually just for a better flow and more idiomatic use of Finnish.

    However, I have never given negative feedback for a translation, as I’ve never needed to. The way I see it, primarily being a journalist/author, is that even the best writers get edited. Famous authors and journalists get edited. Often a lot. When I wrote a medical textbook it was full of corrections after proofing. The editor still noted that she taught I write much better than most non-fiction authors.

    I am actually more worried to get a proofing job where I _don’t_ have to change anything (or the changes I make are only early in the document) and the client will think I didn’t do anything! Luckily that has never happened.

  15. Hüseyin Mergan 22/12/2010 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Unfortunately I also had the same experience. I think this was for self-gain. It is unmoral as well. From optimistic point of view, those proofreaders think that the proofreader seems to be more reliable when she/he find tons of errors. Their intention is not to make the text perfect. They are just error hunters. They just read to find error. Their aim is not to revise. What is worse, they send their comment to the client who is not native speaker of the target most of the time. Once I refuted all the “claims” of the proofreader with examples and excerpts from TM and references. The client and proofreader did not even apologize although they accepted all my responses to the correction.
    And they do it in LQA report which is accepted as objective… People do not consider subjective nature of language.
    I wish reliable proofreaders to all translators…

  16. Jenn Mercer 22/12/2010 at 1:16 am - Reply

    Very good points. I have been on the receiving end of an overzealous editor and it has made me quite sensitive to the difference between stylistic preferences and outright errors. It takes longer to proofread with a light hand, but it creates a better outcome for everyone. The original translator receives valid instruction on his or her errors and the project manager receives a fair assessment of the translator. The proofreader however, benefits from seeing the art of translation from a different angle. I rarely take on a proofreading role, but the experience of asking myself _why_ a specific translation choice feels wrong has helped me to improve my own translation.

  17. Rose Newell 21/12/2010 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    @ Claudio

    Thanks for your comment.

    re: 6 – By all means, a bad translation needs to be labelled as such. The key point here is do not make up criticisms that you cannot back up.

    re: 7 – Yes. As an example, I have sometimes advised an agency to keep a translator, but not use them for this sort of work. Other times I have made it clear that I think the translator is a fraudster, and should be struck off their list.

    re: 8 – Yes, they are valuable tools, but should not be absolutely relied upon without any editing. Sadly, I have been handed translations like this more than once. A dead give-away is when the same term is translated in different ways, even within the same sentence.

    re: 10 – It would be wonderful if the proofreader was always a superior, expert, specialist translator in the field in question. In practice, I’ve sometimes found my translations have come back from the proofreader with “corrections” that actually damaged the quality of the translation, making things that were correct incorrect. (e.g. one document was changed to have German hyphenation patterns with split nouns, but worse than that, a hyphen after the word ‘and’!)

    I think some very technical, very important texts are best going through two proofreaders – one native in the target, one native in the source.

    • Charles Ek 03/03/2011 at 8:59 pm - Reply

      Rose,
      I just now discovered your wonderful writings and I’ll be on the watch for more. Your suggestion to employ both target and source language proofreaders for the same technical job resonates with my own experience in doing translations, back translations and proofreading of pharmaceuticals documents.

      I am hard pressed to find ways to improve on what you’ve said here. 😉

  18. Claudio Porcellana 21/12/2010 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    1 Be flexible
    yes and no
    I can change the style if I don’t really like it, but certainly I don’t bring it to attention, unless the customers want that I document all changes, and in that case I clearly advice him

    2 Be thorough
    agree

    3 Be honest
    agree

    4 Keep your client informed
    agree

    5 Provide a short summary of the translation quality.
    agree

    6 If you have to criticise, don’t be mean or exaggerate
    yes and no
    it depends by the quality level: if the translation is clearly produced by an ape or a monkey, I cannot conceal it
    besides, a professional should know when it’s better give up his turn to somebody else

    7 Be understanding
    agree, but as above: a professional must know when it is better give up his turn to somebody else
    AND
    a serious LSP should not give in a hurry a high technical job to a newby

    8
    agree
    but using GT or other MTs isn’t negative in itself: it’s using it badly that is really an own goal

    9
    agree

    10
    I think that proofreading should be carried out by specialist proofreaders, i.e professionals with a superior knowledge of the matter, preferably with a specialized degree: for example an engineer for engineeering proofreadings and so on

    It happened regularly when I translated professional reference books for some publishers, where proofreaders were Professors

    unluckily, most LSPs use simply other peers to do this job, or even the same translator that revises itself (it happened to me), as real specialized proofreaders are simply inexistent and/or they rates are rightly prohibitive (considering that they are in the firing line)

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