Proofreading: pitfalls and solutions

Co-authored by Lauren Shadi of Give Me Your Word, French <>English Interpeter&Translator, and Alexandra Singer of TransLex Italian, specialist Italian>English translation (

As professional translators, with our respective specialisms in legal translation, police, court work and education, we are acutely aware of the vital importance of accuracy in translation. The wrong phrase or term has the potential to cause problems; an incorrect translation can result not only in cancelled contracts and lost profits, but even in miscarriages of justice.

Following the completion of a translation, careful proofreading is required. This is challenging work; attention to detail and knowledge of the subject matter is required. The aim is not only the avoidance of embarrassing spelling mistakes or typos – it’s rather more complicated than that.

Of all the skills translators can learn, self-editing our own work is one of the most important. However, everyone makes mistakes and issues do get missed. When a third party double-checks work, more eyes are on the text and there's less room for human error. By using an outside entity to carefully check work before ensuring that it is final, clients are setting themselves up for success—in terms of both quality and reputation.

The importance of proofreading cannot be underestimated - even one mistranslated word can have catastrophic consequences. However, “proofreading” is in itself a vague term that is used to refer to different stages in the translation process. This is a difficulty in such a fast-paced industry. As translators, we must withstand this pressure to focus on the work at hand and ensure that the text is perfect.

And clients notice mistakes. They may not mention them, but they certainly take note of them. Translation agencies, also working under pressure, may not mention these mistakes, but they will certainly be put off by an apparent lack of care on the part of translator. This means that, as translators are rarely informed of mistakes, it is our responsibility to identify our own weaknesses and to ensure precision.

The source text needs to be checked and compared against the translation, and the translation itself checked, not only for spelling errors, but also for accuracy, completion, and linguistic issues and style.

The Importance of Accurate Translation

Precision and accuracy in translation is evident: mistakes result in legal problems and damaged reputations – and this applies to the translators just as much as it does to clients. Even one incorrectly translated word can result in the failure of a customer to receive the correct product, or where instructions contain an error, accidents may occur and result in legal claims and demands for compensation. Clients derive peace-of-mind from the security of knowing that their documents have been accurately translated.

Using the services of professionals who commit themselves to ensuring a high degree of precision in their work, and who are experts in their subject matter, makes all the difference.

The Difference Between Revision, Editing and Proofreading

Over the years, we are pleased to have developed excellent collaborations with clients: individuals, businesses and agencies who require various services. A major issue we have often encountered concerns the differences between revision, editing and proofreading. When an agency receives a document from a translator, and then passes it on to the proofreader for checking, the document may be perfectly translated – or it may be a disaster. Not only spelling mistakes and missing phrases; there may also be terms that are completely erroneous. This is not necessarily the client or agency’s fault: often a document may read well at first, and then deteriorate, or, for example, in a legal document, faults may only emerge upon the checking of the text by a subject specialist familiar with issues of comparative law.

For this reason, the key differences between the tasks must be noted:

· Proofreading: This concerns the careful checking and correction of the text, spelling, grammar and consistency issues.

· Editing: More significant changes are required, such as the reorganisation of sentence structure and rephrasing to ensure the concise conveyance of meaning.

· Revision: Both structural and logical changes are required, with substantial changes needed in the translation itself, in terms of changed words and phrases due to mistaken translations and misunderstood meanings. Facts may also need to be checked, with reference to the source text as well as extra research being required.

Generally, when asked to quote for proofreading work, we charge one third of what we would charge for translation. This pricing model is based on the assumption that what we will receive is a good quality translation. After all, proofreading a decent translation should not take anywhere near as long as translating the source text in the first place, right? Unfortunately, the quality we receive is so variable, that this is not a given.

Furthermore, proofreading is not always simple proofreading: as noted above, sometimes it is something else altogether!

Going in blind

This leads us to another issue; we often accept a proofreading job without having seen the translation first, or, if we do have the luxury of seeing the translation first, we don’t have time to read it from start to finish. We are well aware that the job offer we have received from the agency has been sent to hundreds, perhaps thousands of other linguists all over the world. If we don’t respond quickly, someone else will snap it up and we will lose the project. We therefore run the risk of spending much longer than we bargained and budgeted for trying to salvage a sub-standard translation, when, as proofreader, this isn’t our job at all. When we are providing a proofreading service, we depend on the client or agency to send work that is of a certain standard. However; the client is not working in their native language, and the agency is often working on the basis of trust and that the translator has completed a satisfactory job. It is unfortunate that problems may only come to light at the proofreading stage. When we are offered work, it is simply not possible to look at, for example, a complicated legal text and within the space of 5-10 minutes make a decision on the quality of the translation. In any case, it may be well translated in one area, but badly in another. The legal language and also issues of comparative law may need to be checked. The proofreader may only discover extensive mistakes and quality issues once the work is well underway.

The issue of liability

When we are proofreading a sub-par translation, and working under the time pressure we are almost always up against, we often wonder: who is liable for the final translation that will be delivered to the client: us or the translator? Ultimately, in our view, it’s the translator. After all, the proofreader does not write the content of the text, but merely checks it.

Where do we draw the line?

Many a time, we have found ourselves at our desk in the early hours of the morning, fighting sleep, having worked way beyond the time allotted for the proofreading project, agonising over whether to keep on going, and accept that this is one job that simply wasn’t worth our time, or to cease working and email the agency/client to inform them that the job is taking much longer than expected and that we will wait for further instruction (and ideally an amended PO) before continuing, in spite of the looming deadline, and risk upsetting our client.

In an ideal world…

There are several options available to us to avoid this difficult situation when it comes to taking on proofreading work. First and foremost, we ought to be able to price a job once we have completed it, based on the number of hours spent. The word-count of the translation itself is irrelevant; there are simply too many variables involved, and, ultimately, the job of the proofreader is dependent on the competency of and effort put in by the translator. The actual pricing of a job post-completion requires an element of trust between the client and proofreader; the client must feel confident that the number of hours invoiced do indeed correspond to the hours spent on the job, rather than an inflated figure. On the other hand, clients often are not familiar with the intricacies of the translation work process, whilst as translators – and proofreaders – we have a key insight into the processes of the work that must be completed before we can definitively pronounce a translation word perfect.

Additionally, a contract which sets out clear terms and conditions for proofreading jobs would prove useful, and enable us to avoid the late-night dilemma referred to above. Greater awareness is also required as to whether a brief really is a proofreading job, or whether editing or even revision is required. A contract for proofreading work is especially useful in terms of providing clarity for all parties: the client, the translator and the final translator/proofreader. Contract provisions for hourly billing – and a surcharge, should it emerge that a translation is inadequate and requires extensive revision, could be included.

It would also be advisable to include other provisions; these would cover issues such as the difference between basic proofreading of the language, with regard to the bilingual checking of the content in the target language against the source, and its suitability for the purpose and sector, as well as the verification of the translation’s quality, the rectification of spelling and grammatical errors, and the checking of the integrity of the text. In addition, extra contract provisions that might originally not have been envisaged, such as concerning revision and monolingual editing, might also be included. Such provisions would relate to the examination of the target language and its suitability for the client’s purpose and sector, as well as the checking of terminological terms and phrases and the consistency of the use of these terms within the text. This ideally takes place in accordance with a glossary of terms that has been either collated by the translator with expertise in the sector, or which has been provided by the client or the agency. Stylistic monolingual editing might also be required, with the rectification of style within the document. This might include, for example, complete changes in the word order of sentences and editing to ensure greater comprehensibility.

These tasks are often likely to be performed as one procedure, and they all do in fact come under the umbrella of monolingual editing under the ISO 17100 Standard.

In an industry that is so fast-paced and pressured, but in which the accuracy of texts is of the utmost importance, we must ensure that quality is never the casualty.

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