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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (March 2012)


Guidelines for Editing Translations
By Wendy Griswold

One of the most important things to remember in editing a translation is to do no harm. If it is not broken, do not fix it.

With this in mind, I have developed the following guidelines on the basis of others’ edits of my work and feedback I have received about my own edits. Let me be the first to acknowledge that they are subjective. I hope they will generate some fruitful discussion and perhaps provide a basis from which each of us can take a fresh look at some of our own practices.

1. Be very careful about making universal changes. You may have a good reason for changing “contract” to “agreement,” but before you implement that “universal search and replace” you must go through every instance of “contract” to make sure you are not adding awkward phrases, such as “it has been agreed in the agreement,” and that you are not going to end up with phrases such as “the agreementing process.”

2. Talk to yourself. Take this one as literally as is comfortable for you. I keep notes as I move through a document and justify my edits. I am probably justified in changing “personnel” to “staff” if that is what the translator has been using all along, except for one instance. But am I comfortable that he or she did not use “personnel” here in order to avoid some awkward construction or excessive repetition of the same word or phrase?

3. Write a memo. This is especially important if you have found serious issues with the translation you are editing. Take that conversation you had with yourself back in point 2 and commit it to paper. The client wants to know, and the translator deserves to know, where you found fault.

4. Never guess. I have seen editors get into trouble by not checking the dictionary. For example, they will delete the correct translation of radiodifusión as “broadcasting” and change it to what they perceive as the closest cognate: “radio broadcasting”—which, according to my copy of the Oxford Spanish Dictionary, would be incorrect. Likewise, you may want to check with the translator on where he or she found the translation for a given term. Often the translator is right on target. Sometimes he or she is guessing or working from memory. The client always deserves the correct translation.

5. Do not make the translation sound as though it is your own, unless you have been specifically asked to do so. Changing “personnel” to “staff” and “staff” to “personnel” generally serves no purpose except that of leaving your imprimatur on a document. (I will grant you an exception if the subject is Moses and the Red Sea.) Ask yourself how the change makes the translation better. Is it more accurate? Does it resolve a “consistency” issue? Does it make the translation clearer? Less wordy? Are you making a change for the translator (to correct an error or inconsistency), for the reader (to make it clearer), or for yourself (because you prefer “persons” to “people”)? Level with yourself about why you have just picked up that blue pencil. Distinguish between correcting an error and substituting your preference.

6. Sit down and read the document through in the target language. You may be amazed at what jumps out at you: grammar issues, punctuation issues, consistency issues, and—aha!—the meaning of that ambiguous, incomprehensible phrase may just leap off the page if you read it in your mother tongue without the interference that comes with working bilingually.

7. Review the entire document before you start making changes on paper (or in “Track Changes”). This will save you a lot of perspiration if you realize, on page 15, why the translator chose a certain word on page 1. In other words, review all the language in context before you change anything.

8. Do not add errors to the text. I once changed the translation of seguridad alimenticia from “food security” to “food safety,” wondering how such a brilliant translator could make such an obvious error. However, I failed to research “food security,” and in that particular context the translator was 100% right and I was 100% wrong. Do your research. Never assume. If you cannot do the research, you owe it to the translator and the end client to ask where he or she came up with that apparently questionable term.

9. If it looks wrong, assume that there may be an error and research the issue. The translator may have just picked the wrong definition from a long list. One of my favorite obvious examples is translating desarrollamiento as “development” when it means “implementation.”

10. Sometimes, it just cannot be done. Alas, not every translation is professional or satisfactory. It is your job to tell the client that the translation cannot be fixed and that he or she would be best served by having it redone. I generally accompany this bad news with an edit of at least a few paragraphs, so the client can more easily see where the problems lie.

In the best of all possible worlds, the translator and editor would work as a team, bouncing questions and concerns back and forth. In the real world of commercial translation, the process may become compressed and truncated—which perhaps may make it even more important to (a) check with the translator and (b) proceed with caution.

Wendy Griswold is a freelance Spanish-English translator specializing in legal, commercial, and international development documents. She has a BA in Spanish, a master’s degree in public administration, and a graduate certificate in Spanish translation. She completed an internship in translation at the U.S. Library of Congress. Contact: