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.