Proofreading Translations? Easy! Isn't it?

How does proofreading translations differ from proofreading any other text? Surely, all it is, is someone translating a text and a colleague reading through the result to check for errors.

Yes, but which errors? When proofreading translations proofreaders do not only have to find grammatical and spelling mistakes, they also have to check that

  • the translator has translated everything (every sentence and every important "other" detail, such as rubber stamps or reference numbers in certified translations)
  • all the figures are correct
  • the meaning of the original is correctly translated into the target language

Therefore, professional proofreading - the kind a translator charges for - requires a translator who speaks both, the source and target language. In addition, they should know the specialist subject, so that they can compare the original text with the translation efficiently.

Why Proofreading Translations is such a Specialist Job

Only a qualified colleague will be able to understand the nuances of the original text. This enables them to judge whether the translator has represented those nuances properly in the translation. Only a qualified colleague will be able to spot "false friends" - words that look as if they mean the same in both languages but that don't. One such word that causes confusion in the translation from English to German and vice versa is the word "sensible" ("sensibel" in German). While in English it means "rational, making sense", in German it means "sensitive". If the English text describes someone as being "sensible" and you only read the German translation, you might well conclude that describing that person as "sensitive" is correct.

With technical texts proofreading translations is even harder. Should the translation for a "ground anchor" for a tent be "anchor" or "peg"? The dictionary will give you both options. Only a specialist in the same fields can judge whether the translator has chosen the correct word.

Ideally, the proofreader's mother tongue is the language of the translation. This is a sensible precaution, because very few people are genuinely qualified to work into their foreign language. Most people translating into a foreign language make tiny stylistic or grammatical mistakes that only a native speaker would pick up.

Anyone with a good knowledge of the target language can "just check" a text for grammar and typos. But only an appropriately qualified translator can proofread it to a professional standard.
Proofreading is one of those words everyone thinks they understand. Someone writes a text, another person reads through it to check for typos, grammatical errors, style and maybe for internal logic. But I hope I have given you an insight into what is really required when proofreading translations.