Tee-Dotting, Eye-crossing: How to Avoid Unnecessary Proofreading

Translating Limited Time into Limitless Quality

Proofreading is, like so much else in life, a quest for balance: does it read well? Could it read better? What changes can I introduce?

Translators rushing against deadlines must weigh the possible benefit of a full rewrite against definite penalties involved with post-term delivery. But we bear into the battle a handicap that makes the proofreading problem terribly unfair: translators tend heavily toward perfectionism. We like getting things right. Or even perfect. If we only had the time, many of us would polish that menu to a bright sheen, or unify the third and fourth sentences in a financial statement to equal the first in brilliance and focus.

But we cannot. A translator’s history is written in the past nearly-perfect tense, with glorious efforts not quite qualifying for literary excellence and without the time and space to reach perfection.

I propose that a lot of the frustration can be alleviated by a paradigm shift: figure out what proofreading includes, and do only that — even when other, similar activities beckon. Doing this can keep your energy fresh and will result in translations that are better, more readable — and cost you less in time and effort.


Like any well-run estate, proofreading is best performed by the butler — not the lead character. Our butler is here is someone unobtrusive and service oriented, who can do it well and not involve the leader in most of the details.

There are several very good reasons for finding a butler for this:

  • The butler’s eyes are fresh, for this text; he’ll spot things that you’ve seen so often as to have become desensitized to;
  • The butler’s effort will leave you more time to generate income by translating fresh texts;
  • The butler develops a sense of what is required and can tune his performance to the circumstances;
  • The butler gets a clear set of instructions from you, which means you actually think formally about the proofreading;

Of course, not every well-run translation studio has a butler. If you can get into a mutual butlering agreement with a colleague, you’re in luck. Otherwise, find a paid butler — or corral a willing student and train them. Whatever you do, don’t let your parents, children, or spouse proofread: these relationships have too much to gain from nit-picking, fault-finding, and generally dragging Aunt Kaye’s 1954 Scrabble hand into a setting which should be more industrially oriented. With sufficient time you can even be your own butler, although following your own orders politely is a very hard thing to do well.

Proofing as Compared to Reading

Now that you know who’s doing it, you’ll have to give some thought to what actually gets done. The trick is making sure you’ve done your bit and completed your first or second or nearly final draft. Now it’s time to read the text through — and that’s the proofreading. Any rereading you do beforehand is part of the translation process and outside the scope of this article. I’m talking about taking the material you’ve produced and reading it through, start to finish.

This read-through is blessed with a red-pen, physical or virtual. And red pens are best suited to error handling. But what exactly is an error?

This is the question you should keep in mind, while reading. “Is this wrong or is it me?” — and if it is wrong, in your opinion, do not hesitate to correct.

At the proofreading level, an error can be a misspelling (although spell-checkers pretty much rid us of that); a statement misread and misunderstood an error of tone, a sin of omission and similar issues. Your role is not to question grammar unless it is blatantly wrong for the kind of writing being produced.

When you proofread, start by reading the text through — and keep in mind the possibility of leaving the text exactly as it is. It’s not something to agonize over — it’s a project to complete.

Sure, make a note of the things that seem odd without comparing them to the original. Is the strange placement of the word ‘too’ touch too Dutch? Does the French idiom jump out of the page at you? These call out for change. But changing ‘was born in 1935’ to ‘born 1935’ is hardly worth the effort, in most cases.

As proofreader you’re not there to rewrite — just clear-read. The question you want to keep asking is: “Is this an error? Or is it just that I’d use another word?” This is the focus of the exercise.

False Friends and Texts Gone Native

As you go along with that ‘do I have to change it?’ attitude, you’ll find plenty of the kind of thing that really does have to change. Reading for the meaning of the text will clue you in to the strange bits — ‘false friends’, words that sound similar but mean very different things in other languages, or originally sound grammar that has spent a few years too many under the coconuts or up the glaciers.

Some false friends are notorious: pregnant is not embarrassed, and any mistaking of one with the other screams out ‘Spanish!’ to educated readers. Others are more insidious: I recently ran across a mistranslation of Hebrew’s ‘pluma’ which means not ‘feather’ but ‘down’; the meanings are close enough unless you’re importing a product and need to determine the customs duties.

The grammar issue is a thorny one. Language changes constantly, which means that an in-country reader will probably see nuances in either the source or target that anyone outside the country would not. Grammar, more than word usage, is the bastion of the editor.

That said, if you don’t want your translation to sound ‘like a translation’, keep on the alert for the grammar of the source language, repeated in English words. But grammar echoes the translator’s soul — in my experience it is best to keep a very light hand on grammatical eccentricities. Take them out if they’re weird or wrong, if they obstruct the meaning or sound too stiff or too loose. Otherwise, let them stay: when you’re proofreading, your way of saying things is good only if it’s better.

A good touchstone for grammatical issues is a non-native reader. When you have to learn the language through its grammar, you grow very sensitive to even slight deviations. “What does this mean to you?” is a good question for an educated non-native speaker of your target language. Other than the occasional shocking response, you’ll get a good feel for the limits of even an elastic grammatical system.

Pressing ‘Send’ and MEANING it

Once you’ve gotten to the end of the text, and read it through and found it good, stop.

By all means, check the parts you’ve marked as odd, set up a procedure for uncovering omissions. Look it up in the original if it sounds funny. Make notes when you discover new abbreviations or usage. But when you’re finished — flush it out of your mind.

Too many proofreaders call me up the next day, or the next week, with a really great idea for something that’s been out the door, billed, and paid for. Even as an intellectual puzzle, post-facto attention to proofing means you’re not spending time on whatever it is that you’re doing at that moment. Even the best proofreader makes mistakes, as do the best translator and heart-surgeon. And while it is good to feel important, there is a freedom in the knowledge that our efforts are merely a matter of words and ink, not flesh and blood.

[This article was originally published at Multilingual Computing in 2000.]