Proofreading, Editing, Revising: What’s the Difference?
Proofreading, editing, revising: What’s up with the confusion?
Translators like to think about words. Using them precisely is important. But do we always practice what we preach? When it comes to the terms proofreading, revising, and editing, it feels like everyone has their own definitions. Just take a look into any place where translators gather to talk. There will always be a post about proofreading and revising, and there will always be someone unhappy with another translator’s use of these terms.
If the experts don’t use the terms uniformly, how are clients supposed to know what they want? And how do we handle this in our work?
Brian Mossop’s definitions
The first question is whether there really is a lack of definitive definitions. Are we all just making it up as we go along? What do the scholars say?
Brian Mossop is the author of “Revising and Editing for Translators.” With a book like that, I’d say he’s done some thinking on the subject.
He offers these translator-specific definitions:
- Editing: The process of checking a non-translational text for errors and making appropriate amendments, with special attention to making the text suitable for its readers and intended use. (p. 198)
- Revising: The process of checking a draft translation for errors and making appropriate amendments. (p. 201)
- Proofreading: (1) In editing, comparison of the printer’s proof with the manuscript. (2) In revision, sometimes used as a synonym of uni-lingual re-reading, especially when this is limited to corrections (i.e., no improvements are made). (p. 200)
Despite a respected authority using these definitions, plenty of translators work with other definitions (yes, including me). Proofreading, for instance, can mean anything from revising a translation to checking a text for spelling and punctuation errors. This tangle of meanings and varying approaches makes it challenging for translators and clients to be sure that they are talking about the same thing.
Careful communication is key (as always).
It’s crucial that translators and clients are on the same page. Translators should have a clear scope of services with no doubts about what is being provided under which name.
And now we need to get this information to our clients. I like to add a little blurb to my quotes, explaining my services. Something like “Editing: style check, smoothing language, choosing strong words and idiomatic expressions, adding transitions and increasing the flow.” This helps the client understand what they’re getting for their money.
In reality, you may be offering a hybrid service as boundaries are fluent. That’s fine! Just make sure that clients know where the service stops. If I’m checking for spelling and grammar, then I might slash a few too wordy sentences, but I will not reorder them to ensure a smooth read. And I don’t want to have to argue with clients later because they thought that would be included in the package.
Definitions in other fields
In academic or literary writing, there are yet other definitions. Revising can mean reworking the content, something that falls under structural or content editing. In this world, editing is limited to what we might call proofreading. What’s our take-away? We never know who’s working with which definition.
Proofreading, editing, revising: Which services are you offering?
Yes, the confusion about the terminology is real. Just make sure that you know what you offer and what you’re calling it.
Let’s go back to Mossop’s definitions: Is it a translation or an original text that a client wants you to work on? A simple formula is that editing is for a monolingual text and revising is for a bilingual text.
a) Original text = Editing
b) Translation = Revising
That’s one way of breaking down your services. Make sure that your clients know what you are referring to.
There are also different kinds of editing that you should be familiar with.
- Helping the text conform to a house style, certain usage rules or style sheets
- Ensuring that terminology and formatting are consistent
- Layout, typography, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, numerals, acronyms
- Gender-neutral language or not
- Format of footnotes, quotations and reference works
- Missing words, cut-and-paste errors
- Unidiomatic usages (influence of source text, lack of specialized phraseology)
b) Stylistic editing
- Improving a text by customizing it for a readership, smoothing sentence structures and word choices
- Is the readership specialist? Level of education?
- Necessary level of formality
- Sentence structure is non-ambiguous and does not require re-reading?
c) Structural editing
- Reorganizing a text to make the message/points clearer
- Empty references?
- Undefined acronyms?
- Misordered paragraphs?
- Problems with headings?
d) Content editing:
- Adding/taking away content
- Correcting factual/logical/mathematical errors
- Conceptual errors?
And then there are the gray areas: Translators will often mentally edit the source text when translating. They cut redundant wording, shorten lengthy sentences and choose clear-cut translations for ambiguous source passages. That’s part of creating the best-possible translation.
Transcreators, SEO translators and marketing translators will also edit their translations to make sure that they conform to the creative briefs. Their edits take them away from the source text. That’s why transcreators live an exciting life at the intersection of translation, editing and copywriting.
What about proofreading, you say. Mossop would see proofreading as a type of language check that does not stretch into actual editing. In reality, I’ve often seen agencies use “proofreading” to mean “revising”. In fact, the agency where I first worked had an in-house proofreader whose only job was revising translations. As I said, the confusion is real!
That takes us to revising.
If we stick to Mossop’s system, revision is the comparison of source and target text in translations. A revisor’s sacred duty is to ensure translation accuracy.
Things revisors look at:
- Transfer: Accuracy, completeness of the translation
- Content: Logic, facts of translation
- Language: Smoothness, tailoring, sub-language, idiom and mechanics of translation
- Presentation: Layout, typography, organization
Revising translations is a tricky beast. Never confuse your style preferences with actual corrections! I still cringe about the first translations I revised and how heavy-handed I was. There’s a reason translators huddle around the campfire and share stories of overzealous revisors (or proofreaders?) at agencies who mangle other people’s translations solely to justify their existence …
This doesn’t really belong here, but it’s a real thing that can come out of editing/revising/proofreading jobs. Revising an extremely bad translation can be more time-consuming and frustrating than simply translating the text again. Some texts I’ve seen for editing have been so bad that a retranslation was cheaper than editing at an hourly rate.
This is the reason many translators refuse this kind of work. They’ve been burned in the past. When I was still a fledgling freelancer, I spent many a stressful night sweating over editing jobs gone awry. No fun!
This is also becoming more frequent as irresponsible agencies discover the joys of free machine translation and try to have human editors save crappy MT.
The point is to look out for the texts that can’t be salvaged. Don’t invest too much time trying to save something that was doomed from the start. Let the client know, offer a retranslation (if applicable) and move on to greener pastures.
Pricing your services
Whatever you call your services, you still want to be paid for them.
If you price your editing/revising by word, how do you factor in the varying amounts of work that texts might need? After all, giving an excellent translation some finishing touches or struggling to make sense of someone else’s word salad—should that have the same price tag? I think not.
I’ve learned from past mistakes, and my hourly rate for editing has served me well. If you do end up with a stinker, at least you can send an invoice for the added work.
What I do is give clients a ballpark of how long I think something will take. If I see that it will take longer than planned, I notify the client. We can then discuss either adding extra time or reducing editing depth. When I’m done, the clients get invoiced for the time it took. This works fine and weeds out anyone trying to get editing done for cheap per-word prices. And this is an approach I also use for the rare agency editing jobs I take on.
(I’ve heard whispers of agencies wanting translators and editors to install time-tracking software and send the results as a basis for invoicing. Nooooo, don’t do it! That is the reddest flag for a bad working relationship I’ve ever seen.)
How to name your services on your website
In client-facing communication, it doesn’t really matter what Mossop says.
If your clients are searching for “editor” online when they really mean “revisor”, then that’s what you’ll write on your website. Insisting on terminology no one else uses means it’s harder for clients to find you. Sure, they’re not using the right words, but does it matter? How much is being right worth to you? Clients don’t need to be translation experts.
Get them to your website and then offer clear explanations (or maybe a blog post) on your different services. Academic distinctions are great when we’re learning the craft. But part of working with clients is speaking their language. This is a business relationship and not a theoretical discussion. As long as they’re clear about what they want and you’re clear about what you’re offering, it’s all good.
How do you describe your services on your website?
PS Let’s be honest, translators are touchy about these things. Do we enjoy the fact that no one knows the difference between translators and interpreters? No, it really rubs us the wrong way. But if I were talking to my accountant and I got lectured for using the wrong word about a service I’m paying him for, well, that would REALLY rub me the wrong way.
Sources: Brian Mossop, Editing and Revising for Translators, 2. edition, 2010, St. Jerome Publishing, Manchester
Last updated March 2022. This used to be a post explaining the definitions, but it has now morphed into many other thoughts about how we talk about our services.