The single-language publishing industry routinely distinguishes between editing and proofreading. However, there is no firm consensus on what constitutes editing versus proofreading for translated texts. Often a single  reviewer performs the role of both editor and proofreader of a translation. There has been some controversy about what each role involves and how each should be compensated.

For single-language texts in the American publishing industry, the following general rules apply:

The Editor focuses on content, flow, lucidity of ideas. Of course an editor would correct a typographical error if they noticed one, but an editor is not perfectly positioned to do that. This has as much to do with the way our brains work as it does with our skills. When we focus on meaning, our brains can unconsciously correct what we see. Our brain goes on autopilot and “fills in” the missing word or overlooks the repeated or misspelled word.

The proofreader focuses on form—spelling, grammar, style guide requirements—taking each word as it comes. Meaning is secondary. Tips for overcoming the risk of reading on autopilot include: rendering the piece in a different font; printing the piece and correcting with pencil; looking at the piece upside down, or forcing yourself to read the words backwards, examining each word separately. This sounds onerous but on a high-stakes document like a resume, these are completely worthwhile techniques.

A first-time reader of the text is most likely to have their flow interrupted by errors. This is why proofreading is important: you don’t want to annoy the person you are trying to persuade, educate, or entertain. There is no writer on Earth who never makes a mistake. However, no professional writer or editor will want to embarrass themselves by delivering a manuscript riddled with errors.

The distinction between editing and proofreading is fuzzier in the translation industry. For example, in the ProZ choice of services, “checking/editing” is a category and proofreading is not. The ATA, on the other hand, does make a distinction between editing and proofreading. Some freelancers distinguish between editing jobs and proofreading jobs, and say that editing requires comparison and review of the source text with the target text, and requires a higher rate of pay, and proofreading involves review of the target only for errors. Many translators have told me that they “do not proofread texts by translators I don’t know” and others simply do not proofread at all. Each of these linguists has been “burned” by committing to proofreading a poorly translated text that really needed a total editorial overhaul.

The real problem in the translation industry is that some agencies are not hiring competent translators in the first place. Fluency as a writer is part of the service a translator is selling. Not every native speaker of English can write well in English; not all individuals selling translation services can write well in their native languages either. A German into English translation that simply substitutes one word for another and retains the rhythm and syntax of the source is not professional writing. In addition, some translators seem to believe that their job is to produce a first draft only. We disagree: any professional writer should give their work a second pass and run spellcheck. If a translator delivers errors that could have been caught with spellcheck, especially on small jobs, we do not hire them a second time.

If the translator is good at their job, the reviewer’s primary job should be proofreading, not editing. An excellent article by Wendy Griswold titled “Guidelines for Editing Translations” appeared in the March issue of the ATA Chronicle. She writes, “One of the most important things to remember in editing a translation is to do no harm. If it is not broken, do not fix it.” She emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between errors and preferential changes—her message is, make as few changes as possible, and do not make stylistic changes unless you have been specifically asked to do that. We agree. Unless we have hired (and paid) an editor specifically for transcreation of marketing or PR texts, we instruct our proofreaders to be very conservative when suggesting changes. Every preferential change by a proofreader requires review by the translator and increases the risk of error. If the translator and the proofreader cannot agree on whether changes are preferential or true errors, we might hire a third linguist to assess the document.

It has become clear to me that if we have earned a linguist’s trust, they are more likely to take proofreading jobs from us. This is because they know we have standards and we hold our translators to them. However, we also pay good rates and provide administrative support. In an ideal situation, we would ask a proofreader to evaluate a translated text before they agree to take the job, but sometimes we are working on a tight deadline. In these cases, we ask a proofreader to make room in their schedule to begin work as soon as the translator has finished it. We know we are drawing on the goodwill we have built up with our partners when we ask them to make this kind of commitment and we try never to let them down.