Lost In Translation: Editing Translated Texts

Bill_Murra_m794923As a writer, I try my best to avoid using clichés and worn out turns of phrase such as ‘lost in translation’. However, working as an English Language Editor in Saudi Arabia has opened up a wealth of new meaning for the phrase that using it as a title for this piece is not clichéd but perfect.

Editing text can be challenging at the best of times, especially text for a specific field such as engineering, medicine or education, all of which I deal with regularly. However, when that text was originally written in a different language and then fed through a computer before it lands on your desk you’re faced with an entirely different challenge. Meaning can truly be lost between the author, the translator and the editor. For example, one of the more interesting mix-ups I have come across is suggesting a doctor step in and help if your infertile husband cannot get you pregnant…

Many freelance jobs for editors are translated texts, and many freelance editors looking for work will choose to skip over them. Anyone who knows the job will tell you that it is a minefield that is best left alone unless you really know what you’re getting into. However, I believe that with a few tips and pointers to set you on the right course you could open up a whole new income stream. Following these steps should help you make a success of editing translated text from any language:

Start with the basics

As with writing, you should start with what you know. By correcting the spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors first you will not only ease yourself into the document and familiarize yourself with the text, you will also begin to notice the obvious confusions of meaning.

Never assume!

Take my previous example, it would seem a safe bet to assume that the author of the text did not mean for the doctor to call around while the husband was out with a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates to set the mood! However, while you may think that the author meant to tell patients to visit their doctor for medical solutions to infertility you should not just change the text. Leave a comment or suggestion, or better still contact your client and ask what was meant.

Don’t be afraid to ask

Chances are your client is the one who translated the text, meaning they read both the native language of the author and English. If you are unsure about something, then they are the person to ask. They will have access to both the original and the English version of the document, and talking to them will clear up any misunderstandings. Being in constant contact also helps break down the barrier that working via the Internet can often create, which will lead to a better finished piece at the end and may also open up the possibility of future work.

Double-check everything


In some languages, such as Arabic, there aren’t words for certain technologies or medicines. Instead of simply naming a new machine or procedure it will be described. A good translator will at least make a stab at what the machine or procedure in question is, however, that does not mean that the name or the spelling is correct. Having a good dictionary, specific to the field the text is aimed at, is a must. For example, I frequently make use of TheFreeDictionary.com’s medical dictionary for any medical text I edit.

Once you have ferreted out what you believe to be the right name, phrase or term and inserted it into the text you MUST make a comment, or contact and inform your client that you have done so. Remember, you are an editor; not a doctor, engineer or expert in metaphysics! Besides, there is a very good chance that during the course of translation meanings were lost again, leading you to the wrong conclusion.

A full copy edit is a must

When you think you’re finished, even if you have been through the text one hundred and fifty four times always, always perform a final full copy edit before you send it to your client. When providing your client with time frames for completion add an extra day. Even if it can be done in two days, tell them three.

Here’s why: you need to sit back and read something else before a final edit. By moving away from the project you ensure a more thorough final read, rather than simply skimming because you’re sick of reading the same thing over and over and over again. It will be the little things like confused spellings such as weather when it should be whether, or a comma where there should be a semicolon. Read each word slowly, and out loud, to make sure you miss nothing.


So you’ve read this post, done some more research and won a bid for a translated text. Then it arrives and you read it. Suddenly you feel that you would be able to make more sense of Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky than you could of the document on the screen. This is normal. Every day I get sent a booklet that I am utterly convinced was translated into Swedish instead of English. Words are back to front, grammar is non-existent, there are absolutely no full stops, and only 1.5 words out of 10 are spelled correctly.

Step away from your computer, make a cup of ~insert favorite beverage here~ and take a few steadying breaths. You CAN do this. Start with step one of step one, spelling. Then tackle the lack of proper punctuation, and before you know it the grammar is starting to take care of itself. Work one paragraph at a time this way and you’ll be finished before you know it.

Good Luck!

Has anyone had any difficult experiences editing translated texts? How did you manage? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Images courtesy of ippbooks.com and abc.net.au

An English Language Editor in the Middle East who blogs on Open Salon, sells services freelance and tweets on Twitter! She writes fiction of every variety and enjoys nothing more than writing for others.


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