Why are some editors a joy to work with while others miss errors or are unnecessarily critical? This post describes the three qualities that set an excellent editor apart from the pack. It continues a series of articles about the subject of editing started by our previous article about what editing is all about.
In today’s translation industry, an editor is usually a linguist who reviews the translation made by someone else. An editor’s task in the industry-proven multi-step translation process—often referred to as translation + editing + proofreading (TEP)—is to catch all errors that the original translator potentially missed. Because the original translator almost inevitably overlooks some of the errors, having another set of eyes on the translation is indispensable in this process. But what exactly are the qualities that a balanced editor must possess to really add value to the final product rather than simply read the translation without any improvements?
Excellent Knowledge of the Source Language
I think this is the single most important quality. Editing when you don’t know the source language very well hardly makes any sense because at the very best, you can only proofread the translation for obvious issues such as spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors. Developing this quality is not as simple as many tend to think. It’s a well-known fact that to get the message of any communication you need to understand just about 70% of it. This often leads an individual who understands most communications in a foreign language they encounter to assume they know the language very well. But in reality, they may be getting it right just in 70% of all cases! 70% is fine for understanding in daily life, but it’s a joke in terms of a professional translation. If a pro translates just 70% of the text accurately while other 30% is wrong, this is nothing short of disastrous. (To put this in perspective, one major error such as mistranslation per one thousand translated words is just about 1% of the entire translation, but it’s already enough to consider the quality of translation unsatisfactory.) For a professional translator, the goal can’t be anything but 100%, which clearly requires knowledge beyond a hobby translator’s level of 70%. For example, my source language is mostly English. I studied English for seven years in the primary and secondary school and then five years at the university as my major. During this time, I also lived in the U.S. for some time and used this opportunity to further increase my knowledge of English. But the truth of the matter is that after all these years of majoring in English, I didn’t feel my knowledge was even close to sufficient when I started out as a professional translator. It was just the beginning of the journey, and it took me at least another five years before I was able to edit other people’s work with reasonable confidence. And of course there’s so much more to learn, so I’m continuously building my skills by editing hundreds of thousands of words per year and reading in English for at least an hour each day.
Editing is hard work that involves a high level of concentration. One reason is that an editor’s job is to catch the errors a translator missed—errors that are difficult to find by design, or else the translator wouldn’t have made them in the first place. Another reason is multitasking—a typical editor not only compares the translation against the source for accuracy, but also has to check for inconsistencies, point out major stylistic problems, and detect minor issues such as spelling errors. To catch all these different types of errors requires concentrating single-mindedly on the translation. I find that any distraction, even as seemingly small and harmless as listening to music, can be detrimental to the quality of editing. Finally, high concentration is a big challenge for most people. For these three reasons, high-quality editing is undoubtedly difficult, and unless an editor trains themselves to avoid all external distractions and especially the temptation to take a break from editing and do something else, the chances are they’ll overlook errors.
Attention to Detail
You may also call this quality professionalism or responsibility because whatever you call it, the essence is the same—it’s about how thorough an editor’s approach to their work is. Even with the two qualities mentioned above, an editor is likely to fail unless they are meticulous and thorough. The main challenge in this respect is to point out all potential issues in a consistent manner. If an editor suggests a certain change, but then ignores a similar case, the translation will look unprofessional. An editor who’s unsure about a certain translation, but doesn’t have the energy or motivation to do the appropriate research on the Internet, may decide to turn a blind eye to this potential problem, which can result in a serious error. Any kind of cutting corners during editing may have a negative impact on the final product, which makes attention to detail an extremely important quality for anyone undertaking translation review.
That’s about it. Of course, there are many other qualities that an editor can benefit from, but I believe these three make the most difference. And what do you think? Did I miss something important? Please feel free to offer any comments or ideas.