Revision and its Kin

by Jonathan Hine

notebook+mugIf you have been translating professionally for a little while, a project manager (PM) has or will ask you to revise a text that someone has translated. The PM probably will not call it “revision.” This is part of our professional practice which has more misnomers than almost anything we do.

What is revision? Why isn’t it editing, proofreading or something else?

In our industry, “revision” is a technical term, a cognate from the French révision. “Revision” in English implies modification of the text, but révision denotes a series of specific activities, which may or may not require modifying the text.

Specifically, the French have a connotation for révision that refers to a verification against standards, which is absent in the English. When you verify a text against standards, and it meets the standards, there is no need to modify it.

For what it is worth, editing, proofreading, revising, and copyediting are monolingual activities, which may take place downstream from the translation and revision work – or not. They belong to the world of monolingual publishing.

Different Types of Revision

Pragmatic revision is what we do: checking a target text against a source text. The revisor needs both texts, and should be at least as qualified as the translator in both language pair and subject matter. Peer backup.

Didactic revision is what a teacher does when correcting papers. It is also what we do as professionals when teaching or mentoring. For example, if a colleague were to ask me to revise a translation not for client delivery, but because she is trying to learn how to translate something new, I might mark it up more than a client delivery, and I would leave the corrections there, with comments. Then we could discuss it.

Evaluation usually means an up/down judgment, as when a Language Service Provider (LSP) retains a revisor to evaluate a new translator’s work. This is not properly revision, because correcting the text is not the purpose. However, a good evaluation may require a revisor. This is what Certification graders do.

Quality control is why LSP’s hire revisors. It is also why the PM must read the work, and why there are proof-readers and editors.

Monolingual Revision

Basically, revision without the source document. This cannot be done without compromising quality and possibly making things worse. A well-written text can contain mistranslations that appear coherent with the rest of the text. A monolingual reviser could also repair a clumsy sentence, and inadvertently change the meaning.

However, there are forms of monolingual review that translators are sometimes asked to perform. For example, in technical communications, a subject matter expert (SME) works closely with technical writers and translators. If the SME sees something that does not square with their understanding of the subject, they can send it back to find out what was really meant. A bilingual SME would be ideal, and I am often asked to revise translations as much for my technical background as for my language pairs.

We may also be asked to review the writing of non-native writers. Professional translators add value to this task, because we can hear the authors thinking in their native language as they write, and imagine a “source text” behind the strange phrases. This kind of monolingual editing applies only to material originally written by the non-native author, not translations. When asked to repair translations, I always insist on working with the source text.

Tips on Revising

We simply cannot edit own work perfectly. Small errors become part of the page, and we no longer see them. It takes a second set of eyes to catch those mistakes. Nothing personal here: the revisor is actually helping the translator deliver a perfect product. Working as a revisor has the added advantage of improving our own self-revising.

Here are some pointers from revisors with many years of experience.

  1. Know beforehand whether you are expected to revise for style as well as substance. If you don’t get this guidance, ask for it. You can waste a lot of time and your client’s money improving the coherence and style of a document when no one needs it.
  2. Know how closely the client wants you to revise. For example, if the end-user needs to know what the document means for an internal meeting, it does not have to be elegant as long as it is clear. Weird (but correct) spellings, unusual syntax (that is not misleading), even omissions (that have no impact on the meaning) can be accepted. On the other hand, an annual report for big investors is a kind of sales document. It has to be very accurate, and it has to read well, to place the company in a good light. A scientific journal article has to be precise, even at the expense of easy readability in some cases (fewer than you might think. Many scientists are excellent writers.).
  3. Don’t take it personally. Remember always that you are revising a translation, not a translator. It takes special effort to set aside the human tendency to imagine the translator working on the document. Even if we do not know the name of the translator, we should have a special empathy for that individual. Anyone can have a bad day; there could be many reasons why the translation in front of you is a mess.
  4. Stay in touch with the PM. One common reason that the translation is a mess may be that you have the wrong file in front of you. If something is way off or if you see that the revision will take more time than you estimated, contact the PM right away.
  5. Avoid “happy-to-glad” revision. This is the habit of replacing a word with its exact synonym. It is both unnecessary, and insulting to the translator. In a way, it is cheating the client, too, because they should not have to pay for wasted action.
  6. Closely related to “happy-to-glad” revision is “I would not have done it that way.” If the meaning is carried correctly, leave the translation alone. One way of policing ourselves is to be sure that we can use external reference(s) to justify every change we make. These could include client guidelines, reference books, checklists, style guides, or glossaries. Anything we cannot justify may simply be personal preference, and that is not a reason to change someone’s work.

How to charge for revision

Revision should be priced by the hour. Revision is affected, more than any other activity in translation, by the quality of the text we are given to work with. If the revisor is not wasting time (see the six tips above), a good translation will take less time to revise, and a poor one will cost more. It’s that simple.

Do not be shy about turning down revision work if the text may be over your head. However, it is an indication that your client has a high regard for your work. Take it as a compliment.

One thought on “Revision and its Kin

  1. Practical information. thank you. I like the fact that you allude indirectly to the role that the subconscious play on the bilingual author as they write (“We can hear the authors thinking in their native language as they write.”)
    Thank you.

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