Proofreading or editing – that is the question

The line between proofreading and editing can seem a little blurred sometimes. However, there are a couple of clear indicators to straighten it out. If you are not sure whether your text needs proofreading or editing, here are some pointers to help you decide.

One way to make a distinction between the two services is to look at what stage of the process the task is performed. Proofreading is generally carried out once the text has been edited and the final version is complete. So it’s editing first, proofreading last.

Another way is to look at what the task actually includes. A proofreader looks for and corrects errors and inconsistencies in grammar, punctuation, spelling and layout and does not otherwise interfere with the text. If there is a need for clarification, the proofreader merely raises a query so that the author or editor can take the final decision. Proofreading generally does not include changing the style or content of a text.

Editing a text (also called copy-editing) involves working on the text to enhance its quality. An editor specifies the overall style in view of the intended readership and alters the text (in collaboration with the author) when he or she thinks that a change is necessary, either for consistency, accuracy or to improve the flow. The editor also corrects spelling and grammatical errors, but – provided there is a separate proofreading process afterwards – the main focus is on the style and content of the text.

With these two indicators at hand – the stage of the process and the actual activity involved – it becomes easy to distinguish between editing and proofreading.

Proofreading and editing translations

Just like any other text, regardless of the language, a translation should be proofread at the end (unless it is for information only) to ensure that the translated text is error-free and consistent. Many translators proofread the text themselves once it is finished or ask a colleague to do so. Being familiar with the techniques of a proofreader is essential here, especially when checking your own text. You can read more on that subject here. For translations that are going to be printed or published it is advisable to employ a second (and preferably professional) proofreader in the target language to double-check the final version.

A translation may be reviewed by another translator with the same language combination, particularly on specialised subject matters. This can be regarded as editing, as it involves checking and, if required, changing the content of the translation itself to maintain accuracy or improve the overall quality of it. Again, this should be done before the final proofreading.

Treat a translation like any other text and you will know if and when it requires editing (reviewing) or proofreading.

It pays to know what you need

To illustrate all of the above in practice, I will conclude with an example that involves all three services: translating, editing and proofreading.

With the rise of machine translations, both translators and proofreaders (indeed sometimes confused in the process) often get asked to “proofread” a text which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a machine translation. The idea to run a free machine translation and ask someone to proofread it in order to use the text as a translation seems to become increasingly popular, but it usually backfires as it can lead to time-consuming and costly consequences.

As we have established earlier, in order to proofread you need a finished text. Depending on the subject and length of the text, this may not be the case with machine translations. More often than not the result of a machine translation is an incoherent and hardly comprehensible text that is difficult to read. What is required here is in fact either a substantial editing service to turn it into a readable and attractive text or a completely new and adequate translation of the original text – the latter often being the more efficient and less expensive alternative. Only then can we think about proofreading the text.

In the end, if you are unsure about the right service for your text, speak to a proofreader or copy-editor – or indeed a translator if you need it in a different language – and ask them for guidance. It is better to establish the true requirements to start with than to end up having to pay for extra services or to rectify a job that wasn’t necessary in the first place. It is quicker too.

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