Speaking the Author’s Language

Bilingual Academic Proofreading

Reading glasses rest on academic manuscript

Many language experts work as both translators and editors. As a general rule, when an academic translator edits or proofreads, they do so in their target language, the language in which they have greater mastery. But an academic editor or proofreader will often work on a text that an author has written in a language other than his or her native tongue. When proofreading this type of work, bilingual academic proofreaders can be broadly placed into one of two categories:

Category 1: Some bilingual proofreaders limit their work to texts where the author’s native language is one that the proofreader knows well – and perhaps works with as a translator. (For example, a translator of French into Spanish may prefer to only proofread papers written in Spanish by native French speakers.)

Category 2: Others proofread papers authored by academics from a wide range of linguistic backgrounds, all of whom choose to write in a language that, while non-native to them, is the proofreader’s mother tongue. (Based on our example above, the proof-reader works on papers written in Spanish not only by French speakers, but also speakers of Danish, Vietnamese, Swahili, and so on.)

Knowing the native language of the author of a paper would seem to offer the proofreader a clear advantage, helping them to understand what the author means when they are writing in their second language. But might there be any drawbacks to this approach?

Personally, I fall into the latter category. Before I got my first translation jobs from Polish to English, I freelanced for a translation agency based in Warsaw. Their client, a university, needed an English native-speaker to proofread and edit articles written by their students for submission to English-language journals.

These papers were all written in English, and many of the authors were Polish. However, the university also offered courses for foreign students, so I frequently found myself reviewing texts as diverse as an Italian’s hypothesis on economic policy, a Moroccan’s thesis on postnatal mental health, or an Argentinian’s theory on the handwriting of Chopin.

The ‘no source text’ quandary

Over the years, I have considered both the merits and the difficulties of proofreading papers written by Polish speakers, as opposed to speakers of other languages. In my experience of academic proofreading, there is often no source text available; many authors write directly in English rather than translating from a version written in their mother tongue. This means that the proofreader is largely reliant on the author’s grasp of their second language.

It would seem that the ease of the proofreader’s job comes down to the frequency of errors in grammar, vocabulary, syntax and spelling, as well as the overall writing skills of the author. On the other hand, does knowing the native language of the author play a role in the proofreader’s work? Does it help the proofreader figure out what the author means? Or can it be a distraction that causes the proofreader to make incorrect assumptions about the author’s intentions?

Common mistakes

When you have been translating a specific language pair and proofreading the same language for some time, you start to pick up on common mistakes that non-native speakers make. For example, I have taught English language classes to native Polish speakers, and frequently hear English spoken by my native-Polish-speaking friends. With this type of experience, your senses soon become attuned to the most frequent errors.

All of this means that proofreading written work by an author who speaks your source language should be more straightforward than proofreading the work of an author whose language you don’t know. You see the same old mistakes – in the case of Polish, the missing definite and indefinite articles, or the misuse of the present perfect – and their correction becomes almost automatic. And therein lies the problem.

The overcorrection trap

As soon as you begin nonchalantly correcting without stopping to think about the intended meaning, the quality of the work suffers. Knowing ‘too much’ about the author’s mother tongue can lead to the proofreader wrongly assuming, for example, that every incident of a missing definite article should automatically be filled. The proofreader may stop reading the text with a critical eye, as a whole piece, and may focus overly on the micro-level, making corrections that are not needed and failing to detect mistakes that should be edited. This is one of the reasons that proofreading the work of an author whose language you don’t know forces you to concentrate more carefully on what they are trying to say.

In my opinion, proofreading academic writing from as wide a range of linguistic backgrounds as possible helps the proofreader to adjust to different writing styles and refine their skills. Ultimately though, the language of the author needn’t make a big difference to the ability of the proofreader to do their job; we just need to remember to focus carefully on every sentence, and on the text as a whole, as if we don’t know the author’s mother tongue – even when we do!

The Society for Editors and Proofreaders provides a free guide to standards in proofreading, which you can find here, as well as a wide range of practical guidelines on various topics related to proofreading, which can be accessed here.

Proofread my paper