How foolproof is your spellchecker?

Using a spellchecker is a convenient way to quickly check and correct errors in a text. Running it over your email before you send it or over your blog post before you publish it is highly recommendable. But does it find all the mistakes?

A spellchecker is ‘a computer program which checks the spelling of words in files of text, typically by comparison with a stored list of words’ ( And therein lies the weak spot: it checks against a list of words. So what about words that are on that list and spelled correctly – but not where you want them? Have a look at the following ten examples that would pass a spellchecker with flying colours. Can you spot the error in each of them?

Have a go – beat the spellchecker!

1. Could you send me the text in an edible format?
2. During a conversion between three or more people, one person often unwittingly takes on the role of the moderator.
3. After giving birth, all he wanted was to hold her baby in her arms.
4. We are happy to except your offer and look forward to working with you.
5. It was all – in all – a successful launch.
6. ‘Let’s eat nan,’ she said, and sat down at the table.
7. The company is implementing the changes across all sectors and it’s ever expanding network of suppliers.
8. A fixed space can be used to keep two words together that is separated by a space.
9. Do something great – everyday!
10. By spotting only one the ten errors, you have already beaten the spellchecker.

You can find the answers at the bottom of this post.

A spellchecker is not a proofreader

It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security with a spellchecker. After all, it is supposed to check your spelling, so you would think that it will find any mistake. But as you can see in these examples, a spellchecker cannot find the error if the spelling of the word in the text matches the spelling of the word on its list. It cannot tell if a word is missing or in the wrong place. No wonder – it is only a program and cannot read and understand the text as such.

Human proofreaders, on the other hand, not only check spelling and grammar, they also read the text for sense. They don’t just look at the individual words but at the whole picture. This is why a trained proofreader can spot correctly spelled words in the wrong context and other inconsistencies. So if you really want to be on the safe side, don’t just rely on a spellchecker – run it past a proofreader as well.


1. editable [not: edible]
2. conversation [not: conversion]
3. all she wanted [not: he]
4. accept [not: except]
5. – all in all – [not: all – in all –]
6. ‘Let’s eat, nan,’ [not: ‘Let’s eat nan,’]
7. its [not: it’s]
8. that are [not: that is]
9. every day [not: everyday]
10. one of the [not: one the]

Time to slow down

There is a lot of talk suggesting a growing demand for almost instant translations lately. Translators are being advised to adapt their skills and keep up with evolving technologies in order to provide an increasingly speedy service. It is not very clear, however, where this demand actually comes from, or who will benefit from this new approach. So what’s behind the hype?

First of all: I am not against technology in translation. I use a CAT tool to help me provide consistent translations. Fuzzy matches are indeed welcome time savers as I don’t have to look up how I have translated a similar sentence earlier. So I am all for the development of tools to improve my work.

There is a difference, however, between using a tool to provide better translations and post-editing an automatically generated pre-translation. What is the purpose behind the latter: is it to provide a better translation or to provide a quicker translation? And is a quicker translation a better translation for the client?

Back to basics: what exactly is a translation?

There is a clear consensus that a translation is more than a transfer of words from one language into the framework of another. Translation is not only about vocabulary, grammar and syntax (“the mechanics”) but also about voice, purpose and style (“the spirit”). There are cultural aspects, target readerships and customer specifics to take into account.

When translating a text, we carefully assess the register and writing style of the source text in order to create a translation that reads like a genuine text in the target language while reflecting the style and evoking the same effect as the original. We make a myriad of decisions and choices based on our knowledge of and feel for a language – something a machine is not yet able to do, and probably never will. Translation is an intricate creative process, not an off-the-shelf commodity.

Do we really need to reinvent the wheel?

A machine translation transfers words, sentences and structures from one language into another using ever more clever algorithms. The mechanics may be there, but the spirit is missing. Therefore it is, strictly speaking, not even a translation. Of course, machine translations have their place. For someone who just wants to quickly get the gist of things, they can be useful indeed. But with regard to the process of a true translation, the key question is: why replace something that works perfectly well – the skills and expertise of professional translators – with something that cannot reproduce the same quality and thus needs editing?

Especially at a time where we still have to educate potential clients and the wider world that a translation involves more than just copying words from one language into another, I fear that we are not doing ourselves and our profession a favour if we jump onto the bandwagon of producing ever quicker auto-suggested post-edited machine translations.

Who says quicker is better, anyway?

Good-quality products take time, so how can it be different for services? No one would throw some pre-formulated sentences at copywriters to produce advertising copy quicker. No one would suggest a few diseases to doctors upfront in order to speed up the process of diagnosis. Why not? Because prompts can actually hinder creative and analytical processes instead of speeding them up, and the end result may not be desirable for the client. It seems to me that the only ones profiting from this new trend in translation are organisations that supply technologies that are not helping translators to do a better job but taking the actual job out of their capable hands, albeit with an inferior result.

The future of translation is in our hands

We should ask ourselves what we as professionals actually want to produce and what we want to be seen as. Do we want to produce translations or become machine editors? Do we want to be seen as enablers of good communication, or do we want to give in to pressures of an industry that dismantles the core element of our work and become mere sidekicks?

I think we should embrace technologies we can use as a tool to improve – even speed up – our work because our clients deserve the best possible service. Speed alone, however, is not the solution. Slowing down and taking great care is usually what improves a translation. So perhaps we should focus more on honing our translation skills than learning yet another software programme. And until machines can actually match the quality of the translations we humans already provide, we should take charge of the beautiful craft that is our business.

Glossary of proofreading terms

Linefeeds, widows and en dashes – ever wondered what your proofreader is trying to tell you? Proofreading terms can be puzzling if you don’t know what they mean. Here are the basic terms explained.

Thicker style of > type. The individual headings in this glossary are written in bold letters.

The word “September” starts with a capital letter. Writing something “in capitals” means spelling it out in big, capital letters: LIKE THAT.

To write or print in > capital letters or to begin a word with a capital letter.

Closed up
Punctuation with no space on either side: 3–4 p.m. There is no space between the numbers and the dash.

Em dash
The really long dash. Longer than the > en dash. Always used > closed up, either as punctuation instead of commas or > parentheses (It was—all in all—a successful launch.) or to indicate interrupted speech (“What the—”, he gasped.).

En dash
The medium-length dash – used > closed up to form ranges (page 12–23) or relations (Paris–Dakar rally); used > spaced as punctuation instead of a colon, brackets or commas (It was – all in all – a successful launch).

Fixed space
Used to keep two words together that are separated by a space. Often used between numbers and units (50 mg) so that they don’t get separated by a line break.

Name of a > type with a specific design; also called > typeface. “Times New Roman” or “Arial” are examples of different fonts.

Hard return
Key on the computer keyboard that starts a new line (the “Enter”or “Return” key); also called a > linefeed.

House style
Company-specific guidelines for spelling, terminology, hyphenation etc. Often collated in a > style sheet for copywriters and proofreaders to maintain a consistent style in all written texts.

The shortest dash. Can be used to form compound words, e.g. short-term, wide-ranging, pick-me-up (hard hyphen). Also indicates the division of a word at the end of a line (soft hyphen). Contrary to popular belief, the hyphen is not to be used as punctuation (use the > en dash or > em dash instead).

When a line or a block of text is set further away from the margin than the main text, it is indented.

> Type that slopes to the right. If you really want to stress something, you could write the word in italic script for emphasis. The links in this glossary are written in italic.

A text is justified if the margins on both sides are even. All full lines have the same length. Often found in newspaper columns and printed text because it looks neat.

Two or more letters joined together to form a single character, e.g. æ, ff, fi, ffl. Perhaps a bit old-fashioned these days, but some > types still use them to look pretty.

Starting a new line by hitting the “Return” (or “Enter”) key; distance between two lines of text, also called line spacing.

Lower case
Lower-case letters are letters that are not > capitalized. All of the words in the previous sentence are lower case, except for the word “Lower”, which starts with an upper-case letter “L”.

The first line of a new paragraph at the foot of a page. Should ideally be moved to the next page to join the rest of the paragraph it belongs to.

Pair of round brackets (such as these).

Parenthesis (plural: parentheses)
Word or phrase inserted into a sentence as an addition, usually marked by brackets, dashes or commas on either side: Nobody, not even the owner, expected this horse to win.

The regular upright > type or font style (such as this one) that texts are usually written in, as opposed to the > bold or > italic type.

Run on
Continuation; connecting two lines or paragraphs that had been separated before, for example if a sentence had been split unintentionally by a > hard return.

With a space on either side. Some punctuation is used with a space on either side – such as this en dash.

Latin for “let it stand”. Usually marked in form of a few dots underneath a correction made in error. Means to leave the text as it is. Not so much used anymore in digital proofreading, where you can simply delete a correction if it is wrong.

Style sheet
List of instructions about grammar or spelling preferences and other style-related matters, for example with regard to hyphenation, capitalization or word endings such as -ise or -ize.

Take back and take over
To correct a bad word break such as “leg- end”, you can either take back the second part to keep the entire word in the first line or take over the first part and move it to the next line.

If you swap around words or letters that are in the wrong order, you transpose them. In this exmaple, you need to transpose the letters m and a to form the word “example”.

Another word for character or letter. Originally a printing term for a piece of metal with a raised letter or character (which you can also find on an old typewriter).

Name of a > type with a specific design; also called > font. “Times New Roman” or “Arial” are examples of different typefaces.

The margin on the left side of the text is even (aligned) and the margin on the right is uneven (ragged). The lines have different lengths, but the spaces between the words are all the same size. Usually used for online texts (such as this one) and emails, as it is easier to read on screen.

Upper case
See > lower case.

A short last line of a paragraph (just a few words) spilling over to the top of the next page. Should be tucked under the paragraph it belongs to, if possible.

Are there any other proofreading terms you are not sure about? Let me know! I will try and answer them.

Glossary of translation-related terms

Looking for a translator but feeling a bit confused by the lingo? Here are the basic terms explained.

In two languages; or a person who speaks two languages fluently. Translators are bilingual (or even multilingual), but not every bilingual person is a > translator.

CAT tool
Software used by many translators to assist them in producing consistent translations. Useful for creating > termbases for individual clients and accessing previous translations (> TM).

Continuing professional development. Training that professional translators do throughout their career to hone their language, business and translation skills and subject knowledge.

Editable format
If the words of a text can be counted and changed directly, the format is editable. It is easier to work with editable Word documents than with PDFs or scanned documents.

Fuzzy match
Shows previously translated text segments that are similar to but not exactly the same as the actual segment that is being translated. It helps to produce consistent translations.

An interpreter orally translates speech from one language into another and vice versa. Often confusingly called > translator.

Orally translating speech into a different language or sign language and vice versa, usually during a conversation between two or more people who speak different languages.

Another term for > translation that emphasizes the need to adapt a text according to cultural aspects and local customs in the > target language.

Language service provider. Another term for translation agency. These days also used for technology firms offering > machine translations or other language tools.

Machine translation
Software that transfers words, sentences and syntax from one language into another using algorithms. Often used to get the gist of things, but strictly speaking not a > translation.

Mother tongue
The language we grow up and feel most familiar with. I grew up in Germany and lived there for the first 29 years of my life, so German is my mother tongue.

Native speaker
Someone who speaks their > mother tongue. Translators should generally be native speakers of the > target language, although reasonable exceptions are possible.

Reading a text very slowly and carefully in order to spot spelling and grammar mistakes, inconsistencies and layout issues. Not to be confused with > revision.

The intention behind a text. A text can be written to attract, inform or amuse an audience, to discuss theories, sell products, give comfort … The list is endless.

Entire segments of a text that are an exact match. These can be translated quicker using > TM and are sometimes charged at a reduced rate.

Comparing a translation against the > source text to check the accuracy of the translation and to correct any spelling or grammar mistakes. Often confusingly called > proofreading.

Source language
Language that the > source text is written in. If you send an English text to a translator for translation into another language, English is the source language.

Source text
Original text that is supposed to be translated into another language. It is the text that you send to the translator.

Subject area in which a translator has acquired extensive knowledge thanks to a previous career and/or continuing professional development (> CPD).

Target audience/readership
The people you have in mind when writing a text. They can be potential or existing customers, colleagues, experts or other end users, depending on the > purpose of the text.

Target language
Language that the translation will be written in. If you send an English text to a translator for translation into German, the target language is German.

Target text
Translation of the > source text in another language (the > target language). It is the text that the translator sends back to you.

> Bilingual database of terms (glossary) that helps to manage approved terms for individual clients and to use terms consistently in translations.

Translation memory. > Bilingual database containing text segments (usually sentences) that have already been translated earlier for reference in future translations.

Another word for > translation. It emphasizes the fact that a translation is more than a transfer of words from one language into another and that some aspects can’t be translated directly.

Creating a text in another language than the > source text that reads like a genuine text in the > target language while reflecting the style and evoking the same effect as the original.

A translator translates written text from a > source language into a > target language (usually their > mother tongue). This can be texts, subtitles or other forms of written material.

Word count
Amount of words in a written document. A translation fee is usually based on the word count of the > source text or on the estimated time it will take to translate it (hourly rate).

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Have I forgotten anything? Are there any other translation-related terms you are not sure about? Send them in!

The importance of being on holiday

Freelancing and holidaying – does that go together? Sometimes when I hear fellow freelancers talk about their holidays, I get a little confused. Many of them take their laptop and phone and check their emails regularly, even take on work, while they are away. This does not sound like a holiday to me, and I wonder if it is beneficial – for the freelancer or the client.

I just got back from a holiday in Somerset, relaxed, refreshed and with new ideas. I had been working flat out since February, and I switched off for the whole week. No emails, no phone calls, no Internet. Is that scandalous, irresponsible or damaging for my business? Let me explain why I think it is the exact opposite.

watchet harbour
Everyone needs a break from time to time. I don’t know about you, but I find that I am working harder as a freelancer than ever before. Why? Because I love my job, I care for my clients, and I am responsible for every aspect of my own business. I work evenings and weekends if need be, and I don’t let a cold stop me from sitting at my desk. So do I need a break occasionally, just like everyone else? I think so.

How can I leave my clients on their own while I go on holiday? How can I not post anything on social media for a week or two? Will my blog be overgrown and all my followers gone by the time I come back? These may indeed be issues to consider before you go on holiday. Depending on the business you are in, you may need to find someone to cover for you, schedule a few posts or plan the timing of your holiday carefully. But let’s be honest – no one is really that indispensable that she or he can’t go on holiday for a few weeks without everything falling apart. In fact, it would be irresponsible if that were the case.

Of course, I don’t just drop my pen, shut down the computer and run off. As a freelancer, there are a few things I need to do before I go on holiday. A couple of weeks in advance I send out an email to my regular clients to inform them about my upcoming absence. That way, projects can be planned and scheduled around it, or – if a job really needs to be done during the time that I am away – a colleague can be found to do the job instead (which, by the way, I don’t consider as damaging either, as colleagues may need help sometime too). A week before I go on holiday I stick a message in my email signature that reminds anyone I am in contact with that I will be on holiday soon. And just before I go on holiday I switch on my out-of-office assistant and change my message on the answering machine so that people know when I will be back. This seems to work, and so far I haven’t lost a single client over a holiday.

Switching off – is that allowed?

In our fast-paced online world it may seem impossible to switch off for fear of missing out on something. However, I think going on holiday and not switching off can be damaging to the business. We need to take a step back from time to time to reflect on what we are doing. While we are in the thick of things, we don’t often realise if we are still on course, if we look after our own health enough, if we treat our clients the way we want to. So being away and having some time out can be rather beneficial – for ourselves and for our clients.

coastal path
I returned from my holiday with a clear head and fresh insights that came to me while I was busy inhaling the scent of the sea, admiring the views on a walk, savouring a glass of ale. New ideas popped up like corks that previously had been suppressed by daily routine. Suddenly I know what I will be concentrating on in my professional development, how I can improve my website, which post I want to write for my blog. And coming back with recharged batteries, I can’t wait to catch up with my clients and give them my full attention and best service. I would say all this is rather good for business. Wouldn’t you?

How do you organise your holiday? Do you switch off completely or take (some) work with you? I’d love to hear what works for you!

Proofreading or revision? Two often confused terms in translation

Whenever I get asked to ‘proofread’ something that involves a translation, I make sure to ask what the client actually wants me to do. Should I check the translation against the source text to make sure the translation is correct and fit for its intended purpose? Or should I check the text for spelling and grammar errors?

The former would be a revision, the latter a proofreading task. These two terms often get mixed up in the context of translation. Confusing these two terms can have unwanted consequences, however, both for the client and the proofreader. So let’s clarify the meaning of both terms to avoid misunderstandings.

Fortunately, it is very easy to distinguish between the two. Just ask yourself how many texts and how many languages are involved in the task:

Revising a translation involves 2 texts in 2 languages (source and target)
Proofreading a translation involves 1 text in 1 language (target)

It is important to make this distinction, because revision and proofreading are indeed two separate tasks for which two different skill sets – and often two different people – are needed:

Revision (2 texts – 2 languages)
Revising a translation requires a skilled translator with the appropriate language combination and subject specialisation who is able to compare a translation against the source text in order to check if the translation is accurate and adequate for the purpose and edit or correct it where necessary.

Proofreading (1 text – 1 language)
Proofreading a translation (or indeed any other text) requires a trained proofreader who works in the target language, who is not only experienced in spotting grammar and spelling errors, ambiguities and inconsistencies, but who is also trained in the techniques that enable her or him to do a professional job.

What if the client wants both?

Often the client expects the ‘proofreading’ job to include both: revision and proofreading. This is entirely reasonable. As a client, you want an excellent translation which is fit for purpose and free of errors and inconsistencies. But to avoid misunderstandings, it helps to clarify what exactly it is you require: revision, proofreading or both.

Equally, if you are the supplier of the service, it pays to double-check what your client actually wants from you, as you might not deliver the required service otherwise. And if the client wants both revision and proofreading, you either need a translator who is also a trained proofreader or you need to separate the two tasks and employ a translator for the revision and a proofreader for the proofreading.

Why is that necessary? For the same reason that not everyone who speaks two languages is a translator – not everyone who knows a thing or two about spelling and grammar is a proofreader. Trust me, I thought I was a pretty good proofreader before I did my formal training, but it opened my eyes. There is a lot more to the work of a proofreader than meets the eye.

Often translators are expected to do both the revision and the proofreading task, even if they are not trained proofreaders. As a trained proofreader, I think that’s a risky thing to do, both for the untrained proofreader and the client. So if you are a translator dealing with proofreading as part of your work, be it proofreading your own translation or someone else’s, it makes perfect sense to diversify and train as a proofreader in order to be able to offer both services – revision and proofreading – professionally.

If you are a translator interested in some formal proofreading training, or if you would like to refresh your proofreading skills, check out organisations such as the Publishing Training Centre London or the Society for Editors and Proofreaders for their proofreading courses.

Stuck in a rut?

Whenever I need some inspiration, it helps to step away from my desk and look at things from a different perspective. I get my best ideas when I am running or walking in the countryside, breathing the fresh air, stretching my legs and enjoying the view. As soon as I am outside, the synapses in my brain that were previously tired and uninspired seem to find a new spark. Suddenly I know the right solution for a tricky translation, the ultimate gift for a friend’s birthday, even a fresh idea for a blog post.

One day when I was running around the fields, I noticed that I was skipping between the two ruts in the path, because the one I was running in always seemed to be full of obstacles – long grass, muddy ground and rabbit holes. By contrast, the parallel track always looked much easier to navigate. Funnily enough, as soon as I hopped over to the other side, it turned out to be just as challenging to run on as the first one. I skipped between the two tracks for a while and started to think about it in a more figurative sense, thanks to the revived activity of the synapses, no doubt.

Sometimes it can be tempting to glance at how other people fare from the side and believe that they have it somewhat easier or that they are more successful, and you may find yourself thinking: I wish I could be ‘running in their rut’. But just imagine for a moment that you were – is it really that much easier? They may be better off, but perhaps there are areas of their life that are harder than in yours: a difficult relationship, a chronic illness or other worries that you are not aware of.

Just as I came to the conclusion that the other track was as tricky to navigate as the one I was running on, I realised what an illusion it is to think that someone else could have it easier. And just as I decided to choose one track and stick with it instead of hopping back and forth and expending even more energy, it dawned on me that it may be a good idea to concentrate on my path and do my best to tackle it instead of being distracted by the way other people tackle theirs.

That afternoon I could suddenly relate to the old adage that the grass is always greener on the other side, or as they say in German: the cherries in your neighbour’s garden are always sweeter (die Kirschen in Nachbars Garten schmecken immer süßer). Of course, it is not wrong to get some inspiration from the way other people go about their business. It does not mean, however, that they don’t have their own obstacles to overcome.

So, by all means, if you feel stuck in a rut, hop over and try out the other one. But don’t be too surprised if it turns out that the path you were on is just right and worth persevering. Maybe you just need to step outside and take a brisk walk to fire up your synapses.

What do you do when you need a little bit of inspiration? I’d love to hear where you get your best ideas!