Editing Translations: Tips for Cultivating a Collaborative Mindset
Most translators I know also work as editors. There seems to be an industry assumption that translators do both by default. This makes sense, of course: the translator-turned-editor knows the source and target languages and is also an excellent reader and writer. However, revising one’s own work is different from revising someone else’s. And without training or clear expectations for the role, editors might misunderstand their task to be aligning the translation to what they would have done as translators. Competitiveness may even come into play; an editing task can seem like a chance to prove you’re a better translator by catching all the errors. Unfortunately, this mindset damages the translator-editor relationship and prevents healthy collaboration.
Since 2016, I have had the privilege of working with a translator collective, in which the members translate and edit each other’s work. This structure has allowed me to improve my own editing process over time and think more about the editor’s role in the translation industry. Transparency in editing has also challenged me to move past the “gotcha” mindset and start viewing the process as a collaboration. Effective collaborations result in better quality, which is something language professionals are always striving for.
So, throw on your editor’s hat. Whether you have an established transparent translator-editor partnership or you are editing translations by an anonymous person or someone you’ve never worked with before, here are some tips and reminders for nurturing that partnership:
Be a team player.
With every edit you make and every comment you leave, remember that your job as an editor is to improve the text. You are working with the translator to create a text fit for the client’s purposes.
If you frame yourself in an adversarial role, as someone who is just fixing what the translator did incorrectly, you might let that negative tone inform your communication with the translator. Understand that you and the translator have the same goal.
Clarify the brief.
Some clients only want you to correct objective errors and may give you a chart. Other clients want the text to sound like it was written in the target language. It’s important to clarify with the client, especially if it’s a first-time client, what kind of editing is needed. Clients have different quality expectations for different text types. Typically, if a translator receives an editing task, they are being asked to do the following:
- Revise: Compare the source and the target and evaluate the accuracy of the translation.
- Copyedit: Make sure the translated document (target document) adheres to a particular style and check spelling, punctuation, grammar, and usage.
There are other types of editing, like structural editing and content editing, but clients should be explicit if those types are expected. Also keep in mind that terms like editing and proofreading are used differently outside of the translation world. In publishing, proofreading is checking the document after it’s already in its final format. Some language service providers might ask for a proofread and be referring to a light copyedit for mechanical errors.
Justify your changes.
For the revision aspect of an editor’s role, remember there is often more than one way to translate a word or concept. Ask yourself, is this really an error? Or is this a preferential change? Take a look at the error categories for the ATA certification exam (or a chart that the client has provided) so you can point to a specific reason if asked.
When copyediting, if you find yourself making changes because “it sounds better like this,” consider some additional copyediting training and read up on principles of grammar and style. It’s also important to familiarize yourself with some style manuals. Chicago Manual of Style is my personal favorite, and I also use the American Medical Association Manual of Style for some clients. Some clients also have in-house style guides or preferred date and time formats, so make sure to ask the client before you start editing. Professional associations such as ACES: The Society for Editing are also great resources for editors.
Don’t be a snob.
This is a reminder I tell myself all the time. I’m constantly trying to unlearn the prescriptivist tendencies of my high school days when I would gleefully correct people’s grammar to feel that thrill of superiority. I know it’s part of your job as a translation editor to align the text to spelling and grammar conventions, but it’s not helpful to come across as a know-it-all or make a sentence sound awkward because you refuse to end a sentence with a preposition or use the “singular they.” Depending on the text type, the goal is often clarity and readability. Keep that end in mind, and be gentle and helpful if you must be pedantic.
Focus on feedback.
Many translators want to receive feedback on their translations. Constructive feedback enables translators to improve their craft.
Put your translator hat back on for a second. The initial gut-response to feedback for many translators is defensiveness, with good reason: we have often spent many hours (days! months!) on certain choices, so it’s difficult to accept that there may be room for improvement. Try to push through that emotion and recognize, again, that editors and translators have the same goal: to improve the text. Also remember that you’re allowed to disagree with your editor. You may have a very specific reason for your translation choice. Learn to tell the difference between feeling possessive and being confident.
Editors, back to you. Here are some tips to keep in mind when leaving feedback.
- Positive feedback is nice to hear! Did you think the translator had a particularly clever way of rendering the translation? Are you impressed that they worked cattywampus into a text? Tell them so!
- Limit your comments to the work itself. Do not venture into the territory of calling someone a bad translator. Maybe the translator is a newbie, in which case your edits may be very helpful and constructive to them. Or maybe the translator is having a bad week. I think we can all relate to the struggle of producing quality work in the midst of difficult times. Assume that all comments will get back to the translator.
- Review your comments before final delivery. If you’re feeling particularly cranky after changing the same error type for the umpteenth time, it’s possible you let your mood affect your tone along the way. After you finish editing, take a break! Come back after a break and read through the comments before delivery. Keep your comments clear and professional.
I’ll never forget one of my first translation assignments for a translation agency. I translated a text for which I was out of my depth, using all the wrong terminology and register. The marked-up text I received back from the editor was…comprehensive. I doubt any of my original translation was left untouched. But I distinctly remember that the comments were polite, straightforward, and helpful. The editor included a couple resources and advised me on accepted terminology in the field. They may have been fuming. They may have shaken their fist at the screen and questioned why I was allowed to be working on this text type. But whatever their personal feelings about my translation, they improved the text, and they came across as helpful and professional. I strive to do the same. I hope you will, too.
ACES: The Society for Editing: https://aceseditors.org/
ATA Explanation of Error Categories: https://www.atanet.org/certification/how-the-exam-is-graded/error-categories/
Brian Mossop. Revising and editing for translators (London: Routledge, 2020).
This blog post was edited by Emily Moorlach of The Savvy Newcomer team
Victoria Chavez-Kruse is an ATA-certified Spanish to English translator and editor specializing in the medical and life sciences fields. She holds an M.A. in Spanish Translation from Kent State University and a B.A. in Spanish from Malone University. Victoria is a member of the Northeast Ohio Translators Association, the American Medical Writers Association, and ACES: The Society for Editing. Victoria is also a founding member of the Black Squirrel Translator Collective, a collaborative group of translators providing comprehensive Spanish to English translation services. She has been working as a freelancer since 2013. You can find her on Twitter or immersed in a novel.