Proofreading, editing, revising: What’s the difference?

Lack of universal definitions

When translators discuss proofreading, revising and editing, they often don’t agree on what the terms mean in their every-day work. Then how are clients supposed to know what they want? To add to the confusion, outside of the translation world these terms have yet other meanings.

Brian Mossop offers these translator-specific definitions:
Editing: The process of checking a non-translational text for error 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)

I have seen translators use different definitions of these terms and my website also features other explanations. Proofreading can mean anything from revising a translation to checking a text for spelling and punctuation errors. This tangle of meanings and varying approaches make it challenging for translators and clients to be sure that they are talking about the same thing. Careful communication is key (as always).

I will not be able to settle the debate with a single blog post. What I can do is outline how complex a task correcting and refining a text can be. It is never a case of just giving a text a quick glance.

Things to consider

Is it a translation or an original text?
a) Original text: Editing
b) Translation: Revising

In a nutshell, editing is for a monolingual text what revising is for a bilingual text.

1) Editing

a) Copyediting: 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 formality of text? Sentence structure is non-ambiguous and does not require rereading?
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 errors.
Factual errors? Conceptual errors? Logical errors? Mathematical errors?

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.

2) Revising

A reviser’s sacred duty is to ensure translation accuracy. Revision makes use of the source text and the translation.
Transfer: Accuracy, completeness of translation
Content: Logic, facts of translation
Language: Smoothness, tailoring, sub-language, idiom and mechanics of translation
Presentation: Layout, typography, organization

3) Retranslation

A reason many translators don’t accept revising jobs. Revising an extremely bad translation (machine translated, perhaps?) can be more time consuming and frustrating than simply translating the text again. Clients are generally not too happy to hear this.

Where do we go from here?

I could go on and on – but I won’t. What’s important is that clients realize how many different aspects are involved when working with texts. Clients need to be clear in what they expect and what they are willing to pay for. And translators need to ask the right questions so that everyone is on the same page.
PS  A whole other can of worms is why translators hate having overzealous editors at agencies mangle their texts or make changes just to justify their existence …

Sources: Brian Mossop, Editing and Revising for Translators, 2. edition, 2010, St. Jerome Publishing, Manchester

There are 8 comments on this post

  1. Proofreading, editing, revising: What’s the difference? | Québec-Translation

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  2. ana

    Totally agree, and in line with the ISO 17100. By the way, may I ask you what German terms would you assign to the three concepts: Revision = Revidieren, Review = ???, Proofreading = Korrekturlesung ? Thanks!

    1. Else Gellinek

      Thanks for your comment!

      I hope others will correct me if I’m wrong: In German, “Lektorat” and “Korrektorat” are often used without a clear distinction, even though “Korrektorat” has a meaning closer to “proofreading” and “Lektorat” would be the translation equivalent for “editing”. On German translator and agency websites, we often find “Lektorat” and “Korrektorat,” sometimes with an added “bilingual” or “monolingual” (“zweisprachig”, “einsprachig”) for clarity. So, Mossop’s “revision” could be anything from “Korrektorat,” “zweisprachiges Korrektorat,” “Lektorat,” or “zweisprachiges Lektorat.”

      About “review”: Are your referring to the concept of subject-matter review? German has the rather clunky term “Begutachtungsprozess” for that. And the reviewer is called a “Gutachter.

      I hope I was able to answer your questions 🙂

  3. Tetiana

    Thank you. A very helpful information. I see that clients confuse these terms quite often.


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