Editing translations – a response to an ACES webinar

Dear ACES and Sarah Grey

Many thanks for your webcast on editing translations. It contains much of value. (I also enjoyed Sarah’s excellent online course on inclusive language, not least the lavish resources list; I now feel I have a very good grounding in that subject.)

I am an editor and a translator (from Italian to English) and a Fellow of the UK Chartered Institute of Linguists, and there are a few points I would like to add, if I may, to qualify and complement the “Editing Translations” webinar content.

The phrase “literal accuracy” was used. We must be careful not to confuse a literal translation with an accurate one. Often, the literal does not convey the meaning faithfully at all.

The impression was given that it is common for translators to get word order wrong or be far too literal or use too many articles, not enough Saxon genitives, etc. Errors like this are absolutely inexcusable and are not common at all among qualified, experienced, conscientious professional translators. A number of translation agencies, sadly, especially some of the largest/cheapest, have not always been sufficiently rigorous about the quality of the translators they hire. There is also a perception in wider society that anyone who knows two languages can translate between them, but that would be like claiming that anyone with two hands could perform brain surgery. No translator worth their salt should use the basic building blocks of language incorrectly.

All translators should also edit and proofread their own work to make it crisp, natural and precise. Even the best translator can benefit from a critical edit, it’s true, but if your translator is effectively sending you drafts, then find another translator.

The webinar suggests that it might be a problem if the translator lives outside their native-language community. This need not be the case at all. Some of the best translators in the world live in their source-language country. Translators need to keep in close touch with both their source and their target languages (as well as their markets), and there are ways of doing so regardless of which nation you live in.

If a translation requires such a basic level of editing as to ensure that there are no omissions, that names and numbers have come through correctly, etc., then it is preferable to get another translator-editor to edit it (first). If you don’t know the source language to professional standard, then you are very limited in the value you can add with your editing. How can you spot mistranslations, apart from one or two glaring kinds like missing names? Many years ago, I once attempted to edit a translation from Romanian, a language I don’t speak, and it’s not an experience I would repeat. There are so many things you cannot be sure of (precisely because you don’t know the source language) that either you have to wave most of them through and hope for the best or you have to raise numerous queries with the writer/translator; neither approach is satisfactory. When editing a text translated from Italian or written by an Italian, on the other hand, I can often work out what unclear or unnatural passages are trying to say, because I can see how the thought process began in Italian. This can be confirmed explicitly with the client/author where necessary.

The webinar slides contain an unfortunate typo in the slide about interpreting, which as Sarah correctly emphasises in her audio commentary, relates not to written but to spoken language.

A cautionary note: treat the WordReference and ProZ resources with a pinch of salt. There is some value in it to start you off, but it is not very nuanced. Although some of the contributors there are very competent, the overall quality is rather uneven; some of it is actually rubbish.

Thank you for recommending that editors consult translators. But please use proper professionals – e.g. qualified members of the ATA, ITI, CIOL and other national translator institutes and associations in various countries – and not cheap dilettantes (of whom, sadly, there are many).

There is no need to edit culture-specific references out of a source text in order to prepare it for translation. A proper professional translator will understand them (doing additional research, if necessary) and will know how to include appropriate culture-specific references, idioms, wordplay, etc., that convey the intended message or image in the translation. When a translator meets an unfamiliar metaphor in the source text, they work out what it means and then find a metaphor or idiom or at least a natural expression in the target language that expresses the same thing – or, as Sarah says, they might give a direct translation to maintain the flavour and add a gloss. There are various approaches. You don’t just translate it literally and leave it at that.

A good translator will have the judgement and sensitivity to know when to smooth out glitches in the source text and avoid perpetuating the same problems in the translation: if the purpose of a text is clearly to impart life-saving information, for example, then any ambiguities in the original must absolutely be resolved in the translation. (And fed back to the author/client so they can fix the source text, too.) If your translator can’t do these things, find a better translator.

Many thanks again to Sarah and ACES for another useful webinar.

All the best