Revising and editing German translations - the complete guide
As a translator, agencies frequently ask me to “proofread” a translated text. What they mean is copy editing, reviewing or revising.
Basically, this means I am being asked to check that:
If I can say "yes" to all of the above, I know it's probably a good translation.
Now let’s go through each revising and editing step in more detail…
"Please proofread this text!” is not enough. What exactly are you being asked to do?
You also need to know:
Clarify all of the above before you proceed.
Before getting to work, make sure the payment conditions are clear:
The general assumption amongst translators is that you’ll be able to revise around 500 to 1,000 words an hour.
And for lots of good reasons, you’ll be insisting on payment on an hourly basis.
The client will either tell you the available budget, or ask you for a quote.
In either case, insist on looking at the text first!
If it’s clear at first glance that the translation is substandard – difficult to understand, obvious grammatical mistakes, etc. – get back to the client immediately.
Because minor changes will never turn the final product into a good text, and sometimes the most efficient solution really is to re-translate the original German text.
Once you’ve started the job, it doesn’t look professional to go back and ask for more time or money.
There are so many tales in the forums of translators accepting revising and editing jobs for an agreed fee, only to thoroughly regret it afterwards.
Learn from their mistakes!
Now let’s look at the process of revising and editing in more detail.
(The following draws on John Linnegar, ITI workshop on Essential editing and proofreading skills to perfect your translations, 2017, and CIOL eCPD webinars on revising & editing for translators with Marga Burke, March 2020)
First read the translation.
Ideally, you’ll read the whole thing, but if it’s really long, read several pages, enough to get a good feel for it.
What’s your first impression? Does it feel like a translation or a piece of original writing? Does it work as a whole, with beginning, middle and end? Are there sections where the meaning is unclear? Does some of the phrasing sound a bit off?
Mark the sections you feel need improving.
Now you’ve marked various sections, you need to consider why you don’t think they’re up to the mark:
Ask yourself: it this a style preference, or an error?
It’s an error when:
But don’t fall into the trap of interpreting your personal preferences as errors, e.g. –ize endings instead of –ise.
Check the English translation against the German original, sentence by sentence.
Don’t forget you’re examining the target text at 2 levels:
Remember to frequently switch between the two.
For instance, at sentence level, the target text may appear to have some omissions – but this may have been a deliberate choice made by the translator if they felt the source text as a whole was too repetitive.
I find this is often a problem with CAT tools – they force you to focus on the individual sentences, so that when you read your finished text as a whole, for example in Word, it’s easier to pick up unnecessary repetitions or unsuitable linkages, etc.
A key factor in making a text flow naturally is signposting.
This means words or phrase which guide the reader from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.
Examples include: in addition, consequently, furthermore, first…the…finally
Too much signposting makes a text hard to read, while you may need to add signposting if you’ve reordered sections of the text to ensure the argument is presented in a logical order.
English uses conventions we follow instinctively but may not know we know!
The challenge for the German translator is not to forget these conventions, and follow the structure of the source text too closely.
Here are a few important conventions to remember:
In English emphasis is typically given to the information at the end of the sentence. This is called end-weight.
And longer/more complex information usually comes after the verb:
2. The known-new contract
An English sentence starts with the information that is already known, and then introduces a new concept.
New or important information is usually placed at the end of the sentence.
Here is an example of these last two conventions in practice:
“Translators can add value by offering their clients additional services. One such service is proofreading. This involves checking a text for any issues after it has been laid out or typeset – a process during which non-native publishers often introduce errors.”
(Marga Burke, English Editing Techniques, eCPD, 12 March 2020)
In order to follow these conventions, you may need to recast sentences, i.e. rearrange the content to put the emphasis in the right place.
1. Switch between active and passive
2. Add or remove an introductory phrase
3. Start with It is, There are, etc.
4. Rephrase entirely to say the same thing
This is where a style guide helps. If your client doesn’t have their own, then you can offer to create one for them as an additional service.
Here you'll be checking that the spelling, punctuation, and layout are all correct.
One easy ways to spot errors that are easily missed = e.g. or/of, in/is, at/as – is to work through the text backwards.
The translator forums recommend software such as PerfectIt for catching these type of issues.
I’m fairly regularly asked to revise English texts written by native German speakers.
In my case the client is often a scientist, at home in the English literature on their subject matter, and with an excellent general command of spoken English.
However, their texts don’t always read quite so well.
Typically their English texts include:
Here sensitivity is key.
No one who has worked hard writing a text in their second language wishes to see it riddled with corrections. And you need to ensure the authors’ voice still comes through.
Often it’s best to do as much as required, but no more than necessary!
I hope this guide to revising and editing for translators is useful.
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I'm a German to English translator living and working in Vienna, Austria. I turn German texts into clear and accessible English, allowing clients to present their stories, ideas and information to a completely new audience. My business and marketing clients rely on me to get their message across clearly and effectively. How can I help you today?