March 2022 – Translation Editing: How Much is Too Much?

Read the latest WMTS blog post on editing back translations for clinical trials and best practice in proofreading.

Revising a fellow linguists work can be fraught with complexity. I was recently asked to review four proofread, back-translated informed consent forms (ICFs) as the end-client raised concerns about the sheer number of changes made to the back translation (BT). This particular job was a laborious and difficult one, but, ultimately, it was also a rewarding experience, as I now use it as a case study for considering: When editing/proofreading, how much change is too much?

BT is, in general, a complex undertaking, and differences between the BT and the original translation (OT) often cause headaches for end-clients and language professionals alike: highlighting issues with the OT and inadvertently revealing the translators’ differing biases and linguistic preferences. This being the case, a conservative approach to proofreading BTs stands us in good stead, as we’ll examine below.

I took this job with certain expectations, as it’s not very often I get asked to review a proofreader’s work. In accordance with ISO 17100, industry best practice states the translation should be undertaken by one linguist, and another linguist proofreads it before being sent for client approval. For there now to be a further step in the process, I knew the issues had to be fundamental, but the full extent of the problems only became clear once I started looking at the files.

Regardless of whether you’re translating or proofreading, with ICFs, it’s best to start with the main patient ICF, as large swathes of other related ICFs, such as pregnant subject and pregnant partner ICFs, are often drafted—or copied and pasted by the authoring physicians, as the case often is—using text from the longer, more comprehensive main subject ICF. Doing so will help build in consistency across the entire project.

From the first two pages alone, the issues were clearly wide-ranging and significantly impacted all four ICFs. As you can imagine, the task of reviewing the reviewer took much longer than originally anticipated and, after all four files had been assessed, reviewer X had made several basic errors:

To aid the translation and review process, the end-client had supplied their own terminology glossary and style guide. However, throughout the four ICFs, reviewer X deliberately chose to swap out terminology employed by the translator and specified in said glossary for preferential, interchangeable nouns. As a linguist, you should always yield to the expressed will of the client where it exists, and where there’s doubt, discuss any concerns with them ‘cum exsurgunt’. X also made various syntactic and stylistic changes that were non-essential when compared to the original BT. Unless such changes are necessary to correct mistranslations or more accurately reflect the meaning of the source text, further edits are not generally required. In the present case, X’s syntactic choices took the meaning of the BT further away from that of the OT, causing confusion for the end-client when they compared the BT with the original source text.

Perhaps most damning of all, X even introduced their own typos and errors into the BT while editing and, rather inexplicably, deleted sections of text which clearly appeared in the OT. As a linguist, such sloppiness is unforgivable, especially given that the sections of translated text were error-free to begin with. It laid to bear X’s poor quality assurance practices and their lack of attention to detail. As the old adage says: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

As stated earlier, all four ICFs were riddled with similar errors and, as a seasoned linguist, the slap-dash execution gave me the very distinct impression of someone under pressure to get this job done. Little care and attention were paid in this piece of proofreading and, ultimately, the project—and the client—suffered because of it.

So, to sum up:

  • Proofreading/editing should be a deliberate and careful process with sufficient time designated to doing it properly. If not, the end product and client will ultimately suffer, whilst increasing your potential liability in the event of a later dispute.
  • It’s important to listen to the needs and wants of your client, employing any reference material and style guides they provide. Such terms are usually stipulated upfront and, wherever possible, shouldn’t be left open to interpretation. Consequently, where doubt does exist, talk to your client, and resolve any issues beforehand, rather than leaving surprises to be discovered after the fact. They’ll appreciate your inquiry, which reflects an attention to detail and thoroughness associated with a professional service.
  • And finally, ensure you have sufficient quality assurance measures in place to prevent introducing errors into a text. Such errors are inexcusable as a language professional and could be detrimental to your continued business relationships.

Find out more about my editing and proofreading services, and SUBSCRIBE to the WMTS blog by completing the form at the bottom of this page.

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