One too many tracked changes?

I’ll call him O for Offended.

O and I had volunteered our services at an NGO. His job was to translate an article and mine was to proofread it. And the NGO would get another English-language document for their website.

O’s work was good. In my mind, by suggesting about ten slight modifications, I made his translation even better.

For example, I changed

  • “June 9th” into “June 9”
  • “meet up with” into “meet”
  • “around the planet” into “around the world”
  • “numerous” into “many”

I also tinkered around with a sentence so that “sous la houlette” would not result in “under the primeship”; enter “under the primeship” in Google to see how obscure it is. Mystery expressions might be fine for an academic paper, but not for publicizing an event to the general public.

O protests

Each tracked change made O hostile.

He wrote back a page-long letter pitting His Word Choice against my word choice. He felt he had to defend all but one of my proposed changes.

I got a list:

Why did you take off the “th” from the date?

What’s wrong with “under the primeship”?

“Nombreux” means “numerous”!

The closing paragraph included a threat to never translate for the NGO again because he did not have time to correct the corrector.

Why would O spend an hour questioning every tracked change?

Maybe O is used to defending his work to project managers in face of The Overzealous Proofreader. But I was not proofreading for our employer and I did not go overboard.

A tracked change is not a personal affront.

Unlike O, I take editorial suggestions into account with little emotion. My own work is picked apart on a regular basis and these critiques are sometimes encouraging—and sometimes harsh, no holds barred. (Check out this post from The Cycling Translator if you want to get better at editing and proofing.)

Every time I get feedback, I get better at my job.

Thanks to feedback from other translators, I’ve been reminded that:

  • “Which” and “that” cannot be interchanged at will.
  • The spellcheck is better than me at Americanizing all instances of Canadian spelling (“fiber” not “fibre”).
  • Hyphens can be left out more often than I thought.
  • Short words are better than long ones.
  • Too much confidence in understanding the source text can lead to criminal linguistic activity.

I welcome feedback and read suggestions carefully. I take note of what I could have done better.

O should have done the same.

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19 responses to “One too many tracked changes?

  1. Excellent post, thanks for sharing!
    I sometimes wish I’d get more feedback on my translations or even on my proofreading jobs, because I think I would benefit from both. And I don’t know if lack of feedback is necessarily a good thing and/or a reflection on my superior skills as translator and writer (cough, cough)… ;)

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Anke. Although I always ask for feedback on my work, my clients, most of whom are French, rarely go into detail. But when my client is a native speaker of English, he or she will either send comments or even call me to go over my work.


    Loved the post! Yes, far too many people take each tracked change as a personal insult. It’s easy to get carried away when making changes (especially by introducing personal preferences or getting into the “well, that’s not how I would have said that” mindset) but feedback makes us all better translators. Being revised takes a dose of humility and sometimes a thick skin, but everybody benefits in the end!

  3. Must have caught him at a bad moment. I have made it a habit to not only make the change, but actually tag a comment to each change (unless it’s an obvious error like spelling or syntax). I start these comments with Suggestion: Question: and Correction:

    I have noticed many colleagues find it easier to deal with a “hey why don’t we…” suggestion rather than just finding their text overwritten.

    I can sympathize somewhat, since I have a client who insists on using the same proofreader all the time whom I call “Mr. Synonymous” because all he does is replace terms just to make sure there is some red in the document.

    On the other hand of course I have also experienced hypersensitive folks like the one you describe. I guess when it comes to proofing you just can’t please them all :)…

  4. Jill (@bonnjill)

    No document is ever perfect, and neither is every translation. I learned in grad school that no translation is ever perfect and can always be improved upon. Hypersensitive translators need to lighten up and consider proofreading as the final polish. We are human and make mistakes – and there may be better ways to phrase things than we have considered. Input from another person really helps improve anyone’s work. Just ask the client how many people collaborated on their document – and realize how many rounds of changes went into it. It will definitely make you realize you as the translator are not perfect or infallible.

  5. I think a good translator should never stop learning. Even if you are an experienced translator there’s always something you can learn from someone else. I agree that suggesting something instead of just correcting it may be a better approach, especially in cases like this: people do not feel offended and are more likely to open their mind and work out something better.

  6. I’ve been translating (French to English) for over 40 years. In the early days I used to see some truly whacky “corrections”, often made by French clients who thought their English must better than mine because they were engineers, economists, administrators, and what-not. I’d patiently explain where and why they were wrong, and generally kept the client for many years.

    More recently, I stay very calm when people revise my work. Some of them know things I don’t; sometimes I’ve missed something, or quite simply they come up with a better way of saying something. When I do disagree, I try to say so as politely as I can.

    Anyone who has written (not translated) documents for corporate or institutional purposes will know just what a painstaking cooperative venture that can be. A document may go through many drafts and pass through many hands, with each person bringing his or her personal knowledge of the subject, context and language to bear. The end-result may not be exactly to your taste, but, as in translating, we’re part of a chain.

    As one US company puts it: “we’re looking for a rock band, not rock stars”.

    So next time that redline makes you see red, remember: a good way to make the end product worse is to insist you are right and everyone else is a know-nothing.

  7. Like Anke, I wish I would receive more feedback from editors, but I am cautious about asking for it, because I don’t want to be seen as making work for the client. Perhaps no news is good news, especially when they provide positive feedback. Still, there must be something, and I would like to know what it is, so I can learn a little something from them each time. How can I encourage project managers to give me specific feedback from editors without being a nuisance?

  8. You got me curious: what is the one change that O didn’t feel a need to defend?

  9. Though O apparently is quite sensitive about comments on his work (which, we all agree, is not going to help him hone his skills), perhaps part of the reason for the tension that arose was an expectation disconnect. In other words, what was the deal between you two: proofreading (correcting typographical, grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes) or editing? I get the impression he expected a final check from a second pair of eyes and you aimed to make the translation as fit-for-purpose as possible.

    I’ve found requests for “proofreading”, whether from clients or colleagues, mean different things to different people. Getting that defined up front is as important as having a clear project brief with the client.

  10. Thanks for sharing your experience about O!
    As a French translator in a law firm in Paris, I always write “Je reste à votre disposition pour toute question” (I am available should you have any questions), to invite comments and feedback, which I rarely get. The lawyers actually make their own changes if necessary. Although some people do request corrections, I have also found out that the simple fact of correcting or overwriting, often reminiscent of school, may be irritating for some individuals. Hence the use of suggestions tagging or highlighting.
    In any event, getting feedback, this is how I (we) get better each time!

  11. I welcome a fellow professional’s eye over my work. As a previous poster said, others know things I do not – and the process of collaborative proofing and feedback can be very rewarding. I am surprised you received such hostility! Thank you, Catherine, for the link to The Cycling Translator.

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