Revise, or re-translate?

One issue I notice translators love to complain about is being asked to revise someone else’s translation. I absolutely get the annoyance when it is clearly a request to improve a cheaper translator’s work after your quote was rejected as being “too late” five minutes after the initial email. Been there, felt the burn. I’m with you on calling that out as poor etiquette.

But, sometimes, I find translators using this as a blanket excuse to turn away editing requests from professionals who want to write in a non-native language. And that’s something I just don’t understand.

Revising a non-native speaker’s English (or French, or other written language) creates a win-win situation for you and for your client. The original author gets practice writing in a language they might need to use for other professional purposes. And it offers you, the translator, an ideal exercise for improving your revision process and watchlist.

Think about it: a non-native writer’s written language is a direct translation of a French, German, Kiswahili, namethelanguage thought. So, it offers an opportunity to observe real-time examples of subtle, concept-level translation mistakes that can easily slip into your own work unnoticed.

This idea is similar to how we [translators] use parallel texts to identify appropriate vocabulary/register/etc. Revising a non-native writer’s work allows you to be more neutral in how you approach the text, more analytical, and more open to asking, “Why did that happen?” Instead of poking holes in your own hard work, you can approach the revision process as a learning tool.

In French-to-English translation, for instance, I find myself making oddly negative sentences where a positive statement is needed—because that’s how the French write. In Hungarian-to-English translation, I’m always watching out for how I’ve used commas and transition words. There’s no shame in making these mistakes in your first draft, as long as you are aware of your typical “mistranslations” of grammar and punctuation and correct them in your editing passes.

Other common translation errors to watch for when revising, depending on your language pairs:

  • When to use definite versus indefinite articles
  • Errors in subject-verb agreement
  • Plurals—or unusual absences of them
  • Incorrect verb in metaphorical/abstract sentence (lexical misconception)

What grammar and lexical oddities crop up in your language pairs? How do you accommodate them your translation/revision process?

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4 thoughts on “Revise, or re-translate?

  1. In the Japanese/English pair, the whole singular vs. plural thing is the #1 biggest culprit, because Japanese doesn’t have a singular/plural distinction for nouns (only for pronouns). Articles are also a problem, of course. I think the third one that hits nonnative English speakers would be preposition choices. Things like “to, on, at, in” can show up interchanged for each other in English written by a native Japanese speaker, so it’s always something to watch out for since in English the differences have consequences. For a translator of someone else’s Japanese text into English, gender is a big issue. It’s really easy to mis-assign the gender of a person and call men “she” and women “he,” or to unconsciously make an assumption about the gender of someone whose gender is unspecified in the original text.

    • Gender! I knew I was missing something important… Thanks for your comment! Out of curiosity, what causes the gender mistakes in JA>EN? Does Japanese not use any gendered pronouns?

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