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Good Proofreaders / Bad Proofreaders

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Pham Hoa Hiep photoYour translation often needs to be checked to ensure its good quality. A person who checks a translation done by someone else can be called a reviewer, an editor, a proofreader or simply a checker. In this article, by the term ’proofreader’ I mean the one who is usually hired by a translation company to check a translation against the source text for accuracy, completeness, linguistic and stylistic appropriateness, grammar, and spelling, although I am aware that some experts in our field may contend that a proofreader is only expected to check the spelling, grammar and style of the target document while an editor is expected to do more.

During my career as a freelance translator, in many cases I have had my translations checked by experienced and professional proofreaders to whom I am always grateful, since they help a great deal to enhance the quality of my work. However, like any other established translators, I realize that in other cases, my work is corrected by bad and unfair proofreaders. These proofreaders often waste the time of the project manager, of the translator and even of themselves. They also bring about unpleasant feelings for both translator and the project manager. In what follows, I attempt to discuss what I believe a good proofreader tends to do in contrast to a bad proofreader.

Attitude and role

A good proofreader has a cooperative attitude towards the translator whose work he is handling.
A good proofreader has a cooperative attitude towards the translator whose work he is handling. He is aware that the purpose of checking is to enhance the quality of the translation, and thus his role of the proofreader is like a concerned colleague who can help identify the translator’s weak points and the errors he may have made. In contrast, bad proofreaders tend to have a condescending attitude. Many inexperienced proofreaders assume an air of superiority in the process of proofreading. They falsely believe that they have more experience than the translator and are granted the authority to criticize a translation, or to downgrade the translator. In reality, it is true that some proofreaders are more experienced than the translator, but this is not always the case. Many translation companies often conduct peer reviewing, which means the person who is hired to review or edit a translation is not necessarily more experienced or professionally better than the translator.

Correcting approach

The job of a proofreader is to correct a translation, but good proofreaders and bad proofreaders have different approaches to doing it. Except spelling or typo issues that require immediate changes, a good proofreader will hesitate to change anything until he is sure that the change will serve a purpose, such as help clarify a certain meaning, fit the client’s style sheet or terminology, avoid misunderstandings or enhance the naturalness of the message. A bad proofreader usually hurries to change anything that he thinks does not match his own stylistic preference. Many bad proofreaders even tend to rewrite everything in their own words, falsely believing the more changes they make, the more competence they can show, at least, to a project manager. While a good proofreader tends to focus on errors that can obfuscate the clarity of meaning or result in misunderstanding of a text, a bad proofreader often concentrates on the minor details. Needless to say, a good proofreader often reviews all the changes he makes before submitting the edited work to the client. A bad proofreader does not review changes or does this in a careless way. Not long ago, I received back an edited version of my translation in which I realized that the proofreader used the ’find and replace’ function so carelessly that he replaced many correct terms including the original name of company and its original website address!

Making comments

Good proofreaders usually use the "track changes" function and insert comments which explain why a certain change is needed. The comments they give should make sense and be useful to translator and client. Typical comments of good proofreaders can be "I think the translation of this word as X is correct, however, for this particular target audience, I would suggest the use of Y in instead of X, or "I don’t think that this word choice is appropriate in this case, I would suggest Y instead." Many good proofreaders are so tactful that they use questions in their comments rather than giving an order, for example, "this term might sound odd to some speakers of the target language, would Z be a better word choice in this case?" Bad proofreaders tend to overcorrect things, but rarely insert comments or explanations. When they do give comments, their comments tend to be abrupt, vague, or authoritative but not convincing. Typical comments of bad proofreaders can be things like "not accurate," "wrong translation," "bad word choice."

When sending back track changes files, good proofreaders often write a short note to the project manager, which gives an overall evaluation of the translation they just worked on. Except for the cases where the translation is too poor, a good proofreader does not forget to praise the translator for the good aspects. A good proofreader would also summarize the changes suggested, and give a short explanation why these changes need to be made. Typical notes that I often receive from good proofreaders are: "In my view the original translation is very good and accurate, but there are some minor instances of word choice and style that I believe need to be changed to ensure the clarity of meaning," or "Most of the corrections are only to make the meaning of the sentences clearer. Only a few instances would I regard as mistranslations."

Dealing with bad proofreaders

What happens when a translator gets back his translation which is full of the red corrections which he believes are unfair and wrong? As a matter of fact, feelings of anger will ensue. But a professional translator needs to keep calm. He needs to review the translation and the changes carefully and get back to the project manager with an email explaining in details why the proofreader’s changes are not acceptable. Since the project manager often does not know the target language the translator is translating into, examples of target texts, if given, should come with English equivalents possibly in brackets. For example, a translator might write a message like this " I have looked closely at the proofreader’s changes and in my view he just wanted to create an impression that the translation is poor by making many unnecessary and absurd changes, for example: "A" to " B" (synonyms for "website"), "C" to "D" (synonyms for "please"). Note that the more concrete examples you can give, the better you can persuade project managers, particularly new and less experienced ones, that you are right and reasonable, and that it would be justified to hire another proofreader to check your work.

Published - December 2011

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