Like most people who run a small translation agency, I proofread a lot of translations that were done by other translators, in addition to proofreading my own translations. I consider myself to be a translator first and foremost, and a specialized translation agency owner (or greedy middleman, if you will) second.
I generate about seventy to eighty percent of my income from my own translations. Twenty to thirty percent I generate by cunningly exploiting other poor, defenseless translators. This ratio has remained more or less constant for the last twenty years.
Most of the time, my first impression of a translation of another translator that I am proofreading is mixed and often more on the negative than on the positive side. It could be also said that the most common feeling is disappointment. I can usually understand both the source and the target languages quite well because I specialize in a few languages—namely those that I can understand—and I generally stick to one field because I translate mostly patents, either myself or using other translators.
But I realize that my initial negative impression is mostly due to the fact that the translator did not translate everything exactly as I would have translated it … and really not much else. As I continue proofreading the translation, I often realize that the way another person translated the text makes good sense and that it may even in some ways be better than if I had translated it, and that I can learn something from the different approaches of different translators.
Since insanely repetitive formulations are so frequently used in patents, it cheers me up a little when I find out that even the highly formulaic language used in patents can sometimes be translated in a slightly different way.
Problems with Proofreading Translations In-House
Corporate translation agencies often try to do proofreading in-house the way I am doing it, although sometimes they send translations out to have them proofread by a second translator, especially when they have no idea what the translation really says, which is often the case.
I see major problems with both of the proofreading methods, namely proofreading in-house, or sending translations out for proofreading, as they are practiced by some translation agencies, although obviously not all of them.
When translation agencies, especially but not exclusively large agencies, proofread translations in house, it is often done by the project manager.
The problem is, since agencies try to translate every language and every field, the project manager is not qualified to proofread the translation, because he or she does not understand both the source and target languages, and usually doesn’t know anything about the subject or field of the translation, especially if it is a highly technical field, which is the case with patent translations.
Even under these circumstances, proofreading can be done in an intelligent manner at an agency if project managers know what they are doing.
But some of them don’t seem to know what they are doing. They may mistakenly think that the initial negative reaction to a translation, which is an instinctive reaction that is not necessarily based on the reality of the translation, means that the translation is not good enough and therefore needs improvements “to make it sound better”. If they don’t know what is in the original and know little or nothing about the specialized field, they start pestering the translator with what I call “stupid questions”.
I call them “stupid” because I know that if the proofreader knew both languages, there would be no need to ask these “stupid questions” as the answers are clearly provided in the source language that the project manager, who is supposed to be able to handle all languages, is unable to read.
Translators sometimes waste a lot of time answering these “stupid questions”. If they want to get paid, they can’t just say “Hey, stop bothering me with your stupid questions, you moron”, although that may very well be what they are thinking.
There is a smart way to ask a question, even “stupid questions”, and then there is also a stupid way to ask them, because the questions do need to be answered.
A smart way to ask translators questions is when the person asking them respects the translator, which includes respecting the translator’s skills, as well as his or her time.
The worst method for asking questions is by using the “drip, drip, drip, drip” … Chinese torture method, for example by asking five or six questions over a period of several hours, when the translator may be busy working on another project.
In the good old days, before translation agencies started calling themselves “Language Service Providers”, most agencies understood that time is a very valuable commodity for translators and this precious commodity should not be wasted by other people, such as project managers.
If you have five or six questions because you don’t understand something or are unsure about some words in a translation, why not write all of them down first and send them all to the translator so that they could be answered all at once in a single email?
A simple thing like that shows that you, the monolingual and perhaps inexperienced project manager, value and respect the translator’s time.
Ask only questions that need to be asked. For example, if you can see that an obscure name that is spelled in the original text was misspelled, or a number was written incorrectly by a translator, why rub his or her nose in it, like you would do to a dog who pissed on the carpet in the house?
There is no need to ask anything the translator, is there? Just correct the spelling or the number for God’s sake! We are all humans and we all make mistakes, including translators.
All translators make mistakes, especially in stupid numbers, names, decimal points …
Going over a translation with a fine toothed comb is not really going to improve a translation. When the fine toothed comb is wielded by an uninformed and inexperienced monolingual manager, it is much more likely to do great damage to it than to improve anything.
I consider most translators who work for me pretty brilliant people, at least when it comes to translating. Otherwise I would not be working with them. But all brilliant people sometimes make stupid mistakes. I know that if I want to do my job well, then I need to catch stupid mistakes before they reach the client, and that’s pretty much it.
If I need to do more than that, it means that I hired the wrong person for the present job and I need to find a better translator for the next job.
Problems When Translations Are Sent Out for Proofreading
The other method that is used by some translation agencies for proofreading is sending them out to a second translator whose job it is to validate or invalidate them through proofreading.
This can also be done intelligently, but in order to it well, the second translator would need to be as experienced and qualified as the first one.
But because experienced translators are not cheap and usually busy, the second translator is most of the time just a beginner who is quite cheap and available. Because proofreading is paid poorly – I hear that three cents per word is considered a good rate for proofreading – translators who are well paid and generally busy simply don’t proofread other people’s translations for translation agencies because it is not worth their time.
The last time I proofread another translator’s translation for an agency was in 1988.
A relative newbie who has a lot of time on his or her hands can cause a lot of damage to a very good translation in the role of proofreader. An underemployed translator may also be severely tempted to mercilessly criticize a colleague’s work simply to make sure that in the future, the translation agency will start sending translations to him or her instead of sending them to the original translator.
Things sometimes work like this because some translators are not very nice people.
I think that it is important for proofreaders, monolingual, multilingual, inexperienced and experienced alike, to remember that they are not nearly as important as they may think they are.
Proofreading is important as a final stage when all pieces of the puzzle are finally revealed and come together. If everything, including the final proofreading stage, has been done well, the translation reveals the perfect (or not so perfect) meaning of the original text, just like a piece of arts reveals the perfect (or not so perfect) idea of an artist.
Would an “art-proofer” be able to improve a piece of art? I don’t think so.
Translation is both science and art, which is one reason why machine translation will never work.
If a translation is poor because the translator was incompetent, it can almost never be saved by a proofreader, no matter how competent the proofreader may be. Nothing short of a new translation will help in such a case.
The translating stage is when the magic happens, or does not happen as the case may be.
An inexperienced and uninformed proofreader can easily kill a perfectly good translation for some of the reasons I mentioned in my post, as well as for many other reasons.
And even a very good proofreader is unlikely to resurrect a translation if it was already dead upon arrival.