The Thorny Subject of Revisions

Receiving a translation back covered in tracked changes and comments is never a nice experience because it mainly signals that the client is unhappy with your work. A mistake is a mistake and has to be owned up to and corrected. It’s something you have to learn from to improve your skills and ensure you don’t repeat. And you have to hope that the consequences won’t be too serious and that you don’t lose the client as a result.

But when there are no errors and the red highlights differences in opinion between the translator and the reviser/editor, it’s a whole other ball game. The ensuing argument can turn into a battle between who is right and who is wrong. And although one may emerge the victor, as in table tennis, points can be won by either player along the way.

Revision has long been a touchy subject. That’s why translation forums are teeming with posts by disgruntled translators complaining about the unfair editing of their texts and all the “unnecessary changes”. I’ve often been on both sides of the net, and as a reviser I know I’ve made my fair share of these “unnecessary changes” because my aim always has and always will be to provide the end client with the best rendering of their text possible. And that sometimes entails tweaking things here and there to ensure the text flows better.

revision should take place in a spirit of collaboration

It’s infinitely preferable for these changes to take place in a spirit of collaboration. The agency should send the original translator a copy of the revised text to approve the revisions or defend the original choices before the translation is sent to the end client. But so many skip this step altogether these days and instead give the translator the revised copy for their information or to justify paying them less after it has already been delivered to the end client and it’s too late to voice concerns about the edits.

I can understand why some agencies don’t give the translator an opportunity to respond to the revisions. Regrettably, there may be no time for ping-ponging the text back and forth. They may also just farm out translations for revision to tick a quality-assurance box rather than really caring about the end result. Perhaps they have got tired of all the bolshy translators who cannot accept that their version can be improved upon, who feel they have to argue against every change a reviser makes to prove their worth. Unfortunately, this attitude is often a direct consequence of some agencies docking pay if a “mistake” is found. It’s a vicious circle.

language is such that it’s unlikely for one person alone to hold all the answers

If an agency doesn’t consult the translator about the edits, they are placing all their trust in one person. Yet language is such that it’s unlikely for one person alone to hold all the answers. One mistake or dodgy sentence does not mean that the whole text is rubbish and that the opinion of the translator, who has a far more intimate knowledge of the text after the research put in to translate it in the first place, no longer counts.

When I’m wearing my reviser shoes, I often tell agencies in my feedback that I think a translator is good even if I have made a number of changes. Because I don’t want them to get the wrong impression and never hire that person again. And when I receive my revised translations back, I usually accept all the edits and don’t bother to complain unless the change has made the text worse. Life is too short and you just have to accept that others have their own style, favourite phrases and expressions, pet hates and peeves and own subjective ideas of what makes a text sound good and what doesn’t.

the objective should focus on client satisfaction

The objective of everyone involved in the project, i.e. the agency, PM, translator, reviser, second editor (the reviewer, if there is one), DTP department, etc., should be focused on client satisfaction, which usually means delivering the best possible version of their text in the target language. And I believe this can only be successfully achieved by everyone working together with a team mentality rather than as individuals who then partake in a blame game if something goes awry.

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, please see the list of other posts on the Revisions page.

1st photo by Mikkel Bech and 2nd photo by Lisa Keffer, both on Unsplash

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16 thoughts on “The Thorny Subject of Revisions

  1. Very thorny subject indeed, Nikki. I had a colleague e-mail me in despair this week because an (allegedly native-speaking) editor called in by an academic client had covered the text she had submitted in red ink and changes. She wasn’t even the translator, but had outsourced it to a colleague and already checked it herself. On examining the changes closely, she agreed that some of the changes were better, but were very “free” and obviously demonstrated considerably more knowledge of the subject area than a translator could be expected to have. Others were stylistic and unnecessary. When she went through it with a fine tooth comb, with the original translator, and sent back a detailed report to the agency, it eventually transpired that the client’s reviewer was a colleague in the same field, but not an English native speaker! It strikes me that such editorial changes, altering the sense of the original, are far beyond what a translator can be expected to do – yet a less dedicated editor/translator may well have taken this lying down and accepted the discounts the end client was demanding. A minefield!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s the end of your comment that really makes the difference. Up until that point, the fact that changes have been made to improve a text by someone with better subject-area knowledge is fine, to be encouraged even, because we all want the best outcome for our end clients. After all, that’s what will keep them coming back and keep us all in a job. But it’s the fact that they wanted a discount that is annoying and unacceptable in this case. The price of a revision should be factored into every translation (unless the end client doesn’t want to pay for this service and is prepared to accept the consequences). In other words, translators shouldn’t have to give discounts because a reviser makes changes. And often it’s far more than a discount and the end client refuses to pay anything to the translator at all even though his/her text is used as a basis for the revisions and the final outcome.


      1. Absolutely, Nikki – I’m always happy to have my translations improved, but where these are “improvements” that the translator couldn’t possibly have known about because they improve the content of the text itself (peer editing or reviews), that’s where problems can arise. We can ask all the questions we like, but fundamentally we don’t have all the research data at our disposal to go too far from the constraints of the original.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Very good points, Nikki. I always send the revised version (with track changes) back to the translator. There were only two occasions when I didn’t (due to the urgency of the project), but the changes had been minor anyway and I understood the language (even if it wasn’t my mother tongue). I also make a point of asking the revisers not to amend if it is not needed (suggestions are always welcome, but the translator will have the final word).

    A lot can be said on the topic though, and it can be thorny at times. I am aware that some people will change a perfectly good translation (mostly due to personal preference), hence my point above. Some translators may be offended if the reviser makes suggestions (which can actually improve the text) – it all depends on the people one works with. No one is perfect 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. No one is perfect and every case is different because it depends on the people and text involved. I’m glad to hear that you are in the habit of getting the translator to check any changes made to their work. While a second pair of eyes inevitably will be able to improve the text here and there, it is often only the translator who has an intimate knowledge of what the author is trying to say and why some things should stay as they are.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good post Nikki. One of the main reasons this topic can be so thorny is because so often there is a lack of true collaboration or clear understanding on all sides about what the purpose of the revision is. I certainly wouldn’t make lots of unnecessary changes to a perfectly good translation for fear of looking as if I hadn’t done the job properly, but I think some revisers feel they have to do this to justify their fee. For this reason, if I am revising, I always ask for clear instructions about what is expected.

    From a translator’s perspective, I’m fortunate to work with a couple of agencies who not only send me a revised version of my translation for approval, but also phone me so we can discuss any proposed changes. This is always a genuinely two-way process with the aim of getting the best possible final text. So, if I can see that the reviser has a more elegant solution I will happily agree to a change, but equally, if I can explain why a change isn’t necessary then the agency will respect that.

    Of course, for this type of collaboration to work, the agency and reviser both need to have faith in the original translator, while the translator needs to have the humility to recognise when the reviser has a better solution. Having the confidence to defend your work at times is important too, although, as you point out, life is too short and sometimes it’s best to pick your battles.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think that communication between the translator and the reviser is crucial. Once both can work together, it can turn into a great collaboration and I personally prefer to work with pairs of people who know each other – selecting them myself or letting them choose who they’re working with. Normally, if we work with different freelancers, we always copy both the translator(s) and the reviser(s) on the original email when launching the project so that they can immediately start exchanging opinions and questions if any.

    Liked by 1 person

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