Posted by: Steve Vitek | September 16, 2011

How Effective Are Proofreading Methods Currently Practiced by Translation Agencies?

Every few months or so I receive an offer to proofread a translation of a patent or another document from Japanese, German, French, or Czech to English from an agency that found my name in the American Translators Association (ATA) directory. I still accept translation offers from agencies, but I don’t proofread translations that were done by other translators for translation agencies anymore. It is just too much of a hassle for me. For one thing, I have no idea whether the translation will be very good, pedestrian, passable, horrible …… And you can’t really charge much for this kind of work because proofreading is generally paid quite poorly. So why bother.

I think that translators who still accept this type of work are mostly beginners, or occasionally perhaps also more experienced translators who are going through a slow period. Incidentally, the last time when I was still accepting proofreading assignments from agencies, for 30 dollars an hour, was when Ronald Reagan was the president and the word Internet would be completely incomprehensible to most people.

I think that there are probably some translation agencies out there that really know what they are doing and have a well designed workflow, which would include also a well designed proofreading method. These would be translation agencies, mostly very small ones, that specialize only in certain languages and certain subjects. But from what I have seen, I think that these agencies are in a minority. Most translation agencies that “specialize” in every language (including every language direction) and every subject, which would be the majority of them, use the following method.

Let’s say that an agency receives a document from a law firm in a “language of limited diffusion” such as Czech, Norwegian, or Croatian. Most of the time, the person handling the translation will have no idea what is in the document. It could be a patent application, but it could be also for example a new law.

One option a translation coordinator has in such a situation is to find a translator for this language online. Relatively few translators have their own website, but many have for instance “a page” on Proz or on Gotranslators. Many translators based in US are listed in the ATA database. I have a listing there too and I usually receive one or more offers of work from this listing a week (although this will usually result in only a few jobs a year). Some coordinators send the same e-mail about a prospective job to several translators so that whoever answers first ( a “first responder”) and has an acceptable rate gets the translating job, and another translator (a “second responder?”) is offered the proofreading job.

Since the agency really has no idea whether the translator who was picked from a database and who got the translating gig is any good, proofreading by another translator seems like good insurance in such a case. The problem is, the agency has no idea whether the person who accepted the proofreading gig is any good either.

Let’s assume that the first translator was very good. There was nothing to correct in her translation, not even one typo or omission. She’s a regular genius. And let’s say the proofreader is not too bad either, but not as good as the original translator. What is he supposed to say? “I did not change anything because the translation was excellent, I could not even find a single typo. Here is my invoice for 150 dollars for 3 hours of proofreading.”

Is he going to get paid now “for nothing”? Maybe, but why take the risk. The proofreader will probably try to change something “to earn his keep”. A smart proofreader would make a few unimportant changes here or there without causing too much damage to an excellent translation to make sure that he will get paid. But some damage is still possible, or even likely. A not so smart proofreader could mess up the translation considerably. A really dumb translator will turn a good translation into a FUBAR production. Since the agency coordinator does not understand the language of the original document, she has no idea whether what the proofreader is saying is correct or not. So sometime they try to run the proofread translation by the original translator one more time and the original translator is asked to “accept” or “reject” the changes. The original translator is expected to do this for free of course. It happened to me a few times and every time it made my blood boil (I am easily excitable when somebody tries to change something in my translation. It’s one of my many personal flaws).

“Don’t you want to know what the proofreader thought about your translation?” said an agency owner to me once. No, I don’t. I don’t know the proofreader from Adam. The chances are he is a total nincompoop if he has to work for the low rates that agencies are willing to pay for proofreading.

If we try several combinations of translators and proofreaders who are at a different skill level, the following equation should also make sense: a poor translator + a good proofreader =  a much improved translation. This could certainly happen, but given that most experienced translators don’t like to waste their time on low paid proofreading gigs, it is not a very likely scenario, although not an impossible one.

I think that a much better method is a method that is based on real knowledge and experience instead of the all too common “first responder” + “second responder” concept. A coordinator from a small, specialized agency (who is usually also an experienced translator) is much more likely to find a good translator for a given project, even in a language that this coordinator does not know. Let’s face it, the kids who work for large agencies as coordinators don’t really know anything about anything, and they will be gone soon anyway once they learn something, either running their own agency or doing something completely different.

A person who happens to be an experienced translator will proofread a translation that was done by another translator very carefully, but there is no pressure on him to change anything at all if it is a really good translation. And he will only make changes that need to be made.

Because he knows that once you have found the right kind of translator for the right kind of job, although you still have to proofread it slowly and carefully looking for typos and omissions, if it was a good translation, you don’t need to change anything at all.

The best proofreading method is a method that is based on finding a really good translator first. How likely is it that a “first responder” who charges a “very competitive” rate (lower than what an experienced translator would charge) is a really good translator?

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  1. [...] the original: How Effective Are Proofreading Methods Currently Practiced by … Share [...]

  2. Interesting that you should post about this subject, as I have just recently (1) had my translation proofread with “corrections” sent back to me for comments; (2) been asked to translate something and if I’m not available to translate tonight, can I proofread it tomorrow instead; (3) been asked to review the changes from a different translator-proofreader duo — an “accept or reject changes”-type job.

    In the case of (1), like you, I had a hard time keeping my reactions civil. I was especially annoyed when the reviewer charged me with not using terms from the term base, when I had been explicity told by the PM that there was no approved glossary for that language pair (because I asked!). In the case of (2) I usually say no to proofreading if my translation quote is not accepted. It means that the agency is going for the cheapest or first responder (an apt term, because it usually is an emergency), and this often means someone translating out of his or her native language into English. Sometimes these are decent efforts, but agencies do not allow enough time to review the translation properly, not even for good translations (not for me, at least). And in the case of (3) — just last night, in fact — they wanted to pay less per hour for such work. But all my hours are worth the same to me, so I refused, especially as this was to be due in less than 24 hours. Not only that, but I could see right away that the reviewer felt strongly about certain formalities, and so made changes that had nothing to do with the substance of the text itself. It was clear to me that neither the translator nor the reviewer had been given adequate instructions, since these were style-related decisions, like putting a period after Mr or Dr — better decided by the PM in consultation with the client than by a third translator.

    Translation review (or editing) is actually an extremely interesting and challenging (in a good way) assignment, especially when the reviewer and translator work together. It can be a real collaboration, where both parties learn from each other and the resulting text is improved by the review. Unfortunately, as you state in your post, many translation agencies are implementing the process of quality control without investing the necessary resources in the quality part.

  3. The big problem with the “first responder” (translator) -> “second responder” (proofreader)” method is that the translator is usually the person who quotes the lowest rate.

    The assumption is that the proofreader can fix problems if there are any, which there usually are – there is a reason why some people work dirt cheap.

    The result is often a mediocre translation or a really bad translation, because fixing a bad translation is about as easy as fixing a poorly built house. It is often cheaper to tear the house down and build a new one.

  4. Agree 100%. This has been my experience, and it’s why I rarely take proofreading assignments from certain agencies.

  5. Excellent article, pattenttanslator, and very good comments, dbaplanb. My question would be: what will happen now, when progressively more translation work is being done by machines or by humans with large “assistance” from CAT tools? An entire and HUGE profession is growing by the day, basically that of editors of MT/CAT generated translations. We can think whatever we want about this type of translations, but they are a fact of life and an industry that is growing by the day. I started translating at a time where we were considered “high-value intellectuals”. Today, almost any bilingual person considers himself/herself a translator, and the LSP are hiring them left and right due to the 22% annual increase in the demand in the language market worldwide. So, the trend is here, and is here to stay. Personally, I decided to STOP working on translations because of all the reasons you have mentioned, and mostly because CAT tools (at least for Spanish) are now a MUST, and I don’t want to make the investment or waste my time with it (I’m working translation only for very few clients who understand quality and mostly working on interpreting and interpreter training). But I can take this extreme position because I don’t rely on translations -today- for my substantial income. I would not be able to do it if I needed to be commercially competitive. Same for edition. The problem, as I see it, is that in 5 or 10 years, the core of the industry is going to have to be more on “editors” than “translators” (at least as we used to understand the term). What then? How do we solve the problem? The LSP will continue going for the bottom line of savings at all costs, what then? I don’t have the answer. I don’t even have an opinion. I just want to participate in the conversation. You make very good points. They are worth discussing.

  6. Those are good and valid questions and different people will answer them differently.

    My answer is to obviate the need for LSPs (I call them agencies since that is what they are) on the part of the translator. I used to work only for agencies for the first three years or so of my freelance career (from 1987 to 1990) because it was simple, quick and easy. But when my children were born, I realized that I will never make any money if I continue working for brokers and now I work directly, mostly for patent law firms. I only have one regular agency client (a guy who pays me good rates and within a few days).

    So it’s not true that translators have to work for agencies or only for agencies, many if not most do, but quite a few don’t.

    Because I don’t work for agencies, I don’t use CAT tools either. Just like you, I don’t like them and I think that they are mostly useless in my field (patent translation), as well as counterproductive.

    So this would be my answer. I think that one solution for many translators is to stop working for large agencies that are turning translators into robotic, CAT-wielding slaves. Each translator has it in his or her power to become a small, highly specialized “agency” that provides a much better value than the LSP factories in which according to one vision of our industry, armies of translators will be sifting through the detritus of CAT tools and machine translations, working for peanuts to make sense out of zillions of words created by machines so that the translation owners could make mucho dinero.

    But it takes a lot of work and thinking outside the box to make the alternative concept work, of course.

    We can’t really ask translators to use their own brain to try to figure out how to become truly independent of agencies, can we?

    That would be asking too much of them. Instead, they are busy trying to figure out new Trados software and how much they will still be able to make after all those compulsory discounts for full matches and fuzzy matches.

  7. I think you’re preaching to the choir.

  8. I think that some of the people who somehow end up on my blog never really thought about these things this way.

    Maybe even most of them.

  9. [...] new policy? ProZ-TAUS ‘Great Translation Debate’: Not So Great and Not Really a Debate How Effective Are Proofreading Methods Practiced by Translation Agencies? Working as a freelance translator, Part VI: Requirements to start your career  No or low cost [...]

  10. [...] It is interesting how different things are all of a sudden when the tables are turned and the translator is now the agency. I try not to bother translators with stupid questions and fix everything that I consider a problem by myself. Although just about every translation has a few minor problems, most of the time there will be only typos, wrong numbers and omissions in a good translation. If I have to fix more than that, it means that I picked the wrong translator for the job. I also believe that it is important to respect the choices that the translator has made and change as little in the translation as possible. I believe that changes should be made in a translation only if they are absolutely unavoidable, as I write for instance here. [...]

  11. [...] mentioned several times on this blog that I am frequently asked by translation agencies to proofread and edit patent translations that were done by other translators who are probably less experienced than myself. I always turn [...]

  12. I understand your intention to write this post and agree on . However, your words bellow are beyond that intention and a bit too categorizing and discriminating: ““Don’t you want to know what the proofreader thought about your translation?” said an agency owner to me once. No, I don’t. I don’t know the proofreader from Adam. The chances are he is a total nincompoop if he has to work for the low rates that agencies are willing to pay for proofreading.”

    There are agencies picking proofreaders elaborately from their experienced translator pool and paying quite good rates to proofreaders/QA reviewers. Leaving humbleness aside for a moment, I am one of those since 1989.



    Translator/Proofreader/QA Reviewer (ENG-TR)

  13. “Leaving humbleness aside for a moment, I am one of those since 1989.”

    If I were a proofreader, I would change quite a few things in your comment to make it sound more like English as it is normally spoken.

    For example, you cannot “agree on.” There is something missing at the end of the sentence.

    And I would change the last sentence to “Humility aside, I have been one of those since 1989″. Humbleness exists as a word mostly only in the dictionary.

    What kind of a “Translator/Proofreader/QA Reviewer (ENG-TR)” are you if you write like this?

    It seems to me that you have just provided further evidence that agencies are not “picking proofreaders elaborately”, which is why I don’t want to hear from them.

    Even if your native language is Turkish (why we are supposed to what TR means?), I don’t think you know English well enough to be able to proofread competently translations from English into any other language.

    • I guess you have a lot to learn on manners. I sent you a polite comment and you replied with impertinence. If you cannot bear any criticisms, you can deactivate the “posting comments” feature at your blog. You put on the fake mask of “madness”. Yet, madness should incorporate wisdom. Yours is arrogance and fake eccentricity.

      I do not want to go for a long polemic. I will not reply any further.

      By the way, you can look up for “agree on” at the following link:

      And you can watch any of the following TV series to come across the daily usage of humbleness: Ashes to Ashes, Leverage, Hustle, The Good Wife.

      Another big mistake of yours: I do not have to be “prone to any mistakes” in a language which is not my native language. I am confident you are not, either.

      I just inserted a friendly comment into your blog and you declared a war on my competency in English.

      Now I am pretty sure that you are not to judge that. I guess any one of my dozens of multinational client would have complained on that “incompetency” so far.

      Furthermore the sentence “(why we are supposed to what TR means?” is an indicator of covert racism. Why don’t you ask the same thing for “ENG”?

  14. Why do I get the feeling that you sound like somebody who does not want to hear from proofreaders?

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