What should and what shouldn’t we change when revising a colleague’s translation?

This is the title I chose for the November hosted session of the Group Translation Chats (GTC). Besides two coffee-break chats per week, which are drop-in meetings anyone in the group can attend, we hold one moderated chat on a particular translation-related topic every month.

I’ve always been interested in editing and revisions. Not only do they account for a large chunk of my workload, I’m also now a member of a RevClub and an Edit Club, meeting with my colleagues on alternate weeks to discuss texts we’ve translated with the aim of improving them and learning from each other.

My passionate views about revisions began with me being on the receiving end of what I felt were unnecessary and sometimes downright wrong changes. I’m sure most of you can relate.

But it began to strike me that we are often too translator-focused in our edits and feedback. That this “leave it” if it’s acceptable and sounds OK is doing the client a disservice. Because surely our primary goal when we revise a colleague’s translation should be to ensure the client receives the best possible rendering of their text. As they’re the ones footing the bill, our loyalty should lie with them. And if the reviser can think of a better turn of phrase and enhance flow—or as Ros Schwartz says, make the translation sing—then surely “leaving it” is not an appropriate option.

That, in a nutshell, is the spiel I gave at the beginning of the session. However, as the other attendees pointed out, it’s easier said than done.

For starters, it depends on who the reviser is. They have to be competent because unknowledgeable people can introduce mistakes (incorrect terminology, grammatical errors, wrong collocations, etc.). For that reason, the text should always go back to the translator after the revision for a final check of all the edits. It’s also why so many translators complain about revisions. Unfortunately, some agencies select the cheapest reviser they can find for an extremely important part of the entire translation process, thereby relegating revisions to a mere box-ticking exercise because an agency is ISO 17100:2015 certified or compliant. Instead, revisers should be more experienced than translators, client-focused, or better still, reader-focused, and pursue perfection.

There’s also a huge difference between one’s own and an agency’s reviser. Translators hiring their own revisers for direct-client work often prefer them to tweak as much as possible (remove repetition, tidy up syntax, improve adverb placement, etc.) and to share all their ideas to arrive at a natural, flowing text that doesn’t sound sticky or clunky. In this situation, translators rarely complain about preferential changes because the process is viewed as a partnership, with the translator and reviser working together to achieve a common aim: client satisfaction because of a job well done. It’s an opportunity to gain valuable insights, up one’s game, and, if time allows, have long conversations about specific choices.

Time, of course, is a luxury we often don’t have. As translators, we should let a translation breathe before turning it around for delivery. The more we can distance ourselves from our first draft, the more critical our eye will be when we check it through. And that’s what a reviser can do for us if there are time constraints.

Not all the attendees agreed about accepting preferential changes. They felt the translator’s choices should be respected and that changes should only be made if they can be justified. Otherwise, it can come across as a personal criticism and arrogance: my opinion is better than yours.

Other attendees disagreed because the edits they make are often instinctive. And it all depends on how the revision is approached. If done as a brainstorming exercise in a friendly, open way (usually the case when a translator hires a reviser they trust, which is “gold”), it doesn’t have to be offensive. Rather than saying something is wrong, revisers can be supportive and communicate with translators. They should give praise for clever constructions. But if a translator has made a mistake, they should own it. They should also take style changes on the chin and not be offended.

The scenario in which revisers seem to be in competition with translators should be avoided. That’s why I don’t think agencies should impose penalties on translators when revisers make lots of changes. If we’re viewing the text from the client’s or reader’s perspective, these edits can make the difference between a translation of acceptable quality and one that will actually hit the mark. And changes don’t necessarily mean the translation was bad per se, just that it could be better.

I’ve sometimes sent a revised text back to an agency covered in tracked changes but told them the translator is essentially a decent one they should keep using. Sadly, I’ve had to say the opposite as well. There are some people’s efforts I never want to try to untangle again. In these cases, I believe agencies should pay the translator and move on, in the interest of preserving revisions as a collaborative process that doesn’t descend into bickering about every word choice because your fee depends on it.

My view was not shared by all the attendees. A few feel we should insist on a discount if the translation is atrocious. Because sometimes a revision turns out to be more like a rewrite as the translator doesn’t really know how to translate. Especially if they’re addicted to a dictionary when tackling a creative text.

A couple of the GTC members mentioned two other important aspects. Firstly, it’s essential to flag up any questions for the client. The more contact you have with the client, the better the result usually is. And secondly, translators should give their revisers instructions and mark anything they’re unsure about. That way revisers can look at problem areas first. Failing to highlight issues could result in revisers overlooking them and errors slipping through.

In the revisions survey I conducted in 2016, 11.5% of respondents said they’d lost a client after a revision of their work (including me). If we were more accepting of changes that are perhaps not strictly necessary but do, ultimately lift the text to another level, and also stopped penalising translators unnecessarily, we could shift the entire revision focus from translator to client and reader. And this collaborative process would almost certainly lead to more satisfaction all round.

I hope you’ve found this summary of our hour-long conversation about revisions thought-provoking and I’d be interested in hearing your views.

If you’d like to find out more about GTC, please read The Group Translation Chats Story.

First image by A. Schüler, second by Gerd Altmann and third by mohamed ramzee all from Pixabay

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8 thoughts on “What should and what shouldn’t we change when revising a colleague’s translation?

  1. Good summary, Nikki. I tend not to revise for agencies these days either, as you have no control over the quality of the original translation. Agencies also have a horrible habit of expecting you to revise on a per word fee basis, which is impossible if you have no idea of the quality before you start. Even something that looks reasonable at first glance can end up being a horror when you get into the nitty-gritty and take much longer than you anticipated. I prefer to revise for colleagues, often on a quid pro quo basis, where it is a genuine collaborative process. Rather than making outright changes, I often add one or more suggestions in the comments, leaving the ultimate decision to the translator. It’s less harsh than lots of red pen and leaves the translator in control 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, leaving the translator in control is only a good idea if the translator is experienced and willing to take edits on board. Given that many agencies hire cheap translators and then get someone more seasoned for the revision, allowing the translator to have the final say probably wouldn’t work as they might just change everything back again.
      In fact, I guess the ideal revision process I’m alluding to here only works when you have two experienced professionals who are prepared to collaborate together for the sake of the end product (direct-client scenario in the main, right?), or with a novice translator who’s willing to learn.
      However, I have to say that I can usually learn something from any revision scenario, even when the text has been poorly translated.
      Definitely agree that being paid per hour for revision is the way to go.
      Thanks for your input, Claire!


  2. I agree with Claire too. I’ve had some really rewarding experiences working with a colleague this year. Several direct clients were willing to pay for translation +revision and it worked so well. It did take longer than expected sometimes, depending on the type of text. Wherever possible, we added comments with suggestions or explanations for our changes.
    As you said, Nikki, if deadlines are tight it’s invaluable. And there are those occasions when you can’t see the wood for the trees but it’s often obvious to an outsider. I wish I could work like this far more often as we learn so much. And, if course, the client gets a better end product.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Cherry, thanks for dropping by!
      I can understand the sentiment behind making a comment rather than changing the text, although, essentially, it boils down to the same thing, and, to save time, directly changing the text is more efficient. I also wouldn’t bother giving an explanation unless one was asked for. A good translator should realise why you’ve made a change without having it spelled out.
      I once paid for a revision of my work for a direct client and the reviser spent so much time trying to teach me to suck eggs that they failed to pay enough attention to the text and an error nearly slipped through. They were also not correct in all their explanations, which was galling.


  3. This is a great article Nikki, it sounds like a brilliant workshop. The title of your article grabbed me, having recently been involved in a revision situation where emotions ran very high and opinions diverged greatly, which seems to be reflective of the workshop and probably our industry as a whole. I only work with colleagues for revision these days and enjoy seeing and discussing the constructive, reader-focused changes and corrections they make, but I did a lot of proofreading for agencies when I started out. In hindsight, I probably lacked the experience for it, but I now view it as a valuable form of on-the-job training which gave me great insight into the different approaches, practices and terminology choices of other translators which helped me to build my own skills.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Louise, thanks for commenting. Rather than a workshop, the Group Translation Chats (GTC) is a group that meets together once a month on Zoom for a hosted session to discuss a translation-related topic. Up to 14 can attend the chat and the idea is for everyone to get to say something (if they want to). We also schedule two “coffee-break” chats every week where GTC members can drop by at any time and say hello. Please feel free to join us.
      I’m glad you usually have good revision situations these days!


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