Thursday, February 23, 2017

One Translator’s Sideline: Editing Non-Native English Scientific Writing

by Karen Tkaczyk, PhD, CT, FITI

Originally published February 10, 2017 in Thoughts On Translation, Corinne McKay’s blog for freelance translators.

 “The manuscript is poorly written and has too many grammatical and syntax errors. The results are promising, but the paper needs thorough revision to make it suitable for publication in The Journal of Astounding Scientific Developments.” Enter the native English-speaking editor.

Editing texts written in English for publication by scientists who have another language as their mother tongue is a relatively common sideline for freelance translators. The measure of success is the article being published after we have worked on it. Even better, the author sends subsequent manuscripts before submission to avoid the painful step of criticism or rejection. We become a trusted partner.

Editing agencies and scientific publishing houses that offer editing services also feature prominently in this market, but I’ve largely stuck to the more lucrative private clients. Another source of much work is graduate students who need editors for long theses but really can’t afford them. I suspect that could be a great stepping stone into this niche, if you want experience, but that it wouldn’t pay the bills.

So in my experience, an academic scientist is writing in English, which is not their native language. As well as journal articles, they send grant proposals, résumés, and accompanying documents. All of that is going through multiple drafts in the run-up to submission deadlines.

This work is a natural fit for me because I have training in a hard science and translate scientific texts as the bulk of my practice. I work mainly with chemistry and texts related to the chemical industry. I have received non-native editing work on and off throughout the 12 years I've been a freelance translator. The work has come to me from my profile, from professors I've met at chemistry networking events, and from word-of-mouth from translation colleagues who live in France and give my name to academics there. In 2016 non-native editing made up a little over 10% of my billable income. I have never actively marketed myself for this work – it really is something that has just come my way.

What sets this work apart from bilingual editing or from editing texts written by native speakers?

Obviously there are some parallels with other editing work, such as correcting typos and inconsistencies, but it diverges due to stronger source language interference. For instance, these texts may include homonym errors. On the other hand, you can nearly always assume that the technical terminology will be flawless. You might have to adjust hyphenation but you are unlikely to be spending any time researching technical concepts. Another factor is that you might not be familiar with the author's native language, so you might not read between the lines the way you can when you know the “other” language.

One other thing that sets this apart from translation work is that you're pretty consistently interacting with the authors. Of course that may be the case in normal translation or editing work but I find that even with my direct clients I am usually working with a contact in the same company rather than the author directly. Here the academic is asking me to quote, sending the files, sending me updated files because they added a paragraph, asking what I think of the article, resending it at 3 a.m, and then submitting it to the journal.


The typical market pricing method is per hour, by volume, often assuming 1,000 words per hour. I’ve seen agencies offer per word rates too. Having gained experience and developed an efficient process, I work quickly, so a per hour rate penalizes me. I prefer to quote a flat fee now, and customers never quibble. They don’t need to know how long we spent on it. They need to value what we achieve. When you quote, do remember to include time for back and forth and redrafts, especially until you get to know your customer.

To estimate how long the job will take, we have to agree on degrees of editing. These categories work for me:

• Copy editing (formatting, grammar, punctuation)
• Language editing (style, semantics)
• Substantive editing (flow/content improvements)
• Developmental edits and ghost writing

I always do the first two of these, and have never done the fourth. I make substantive edits for some of my customers.

The occasional need to justify changes, AKA buttering up the client

You have to be willing to invest in relationships to do this sort of work successfully. Once you know your customer, normal amounts of tact work, but at the beginning, I find being gentle and complimentary useful. Massage these authors’ egos a little. Diplomacy is especially useful if you are ripping apart their logic or filling the margins chock-full with edits. So I might sandwich the edits with a few compliments where I can come up with them.

• “I particularly enjoyed the conclusion. I thought it summarized your results very well.”
• “What exciting results. I hope you agree that the abstract conveys your main point more effectively now.”

Sometimes people will love you and graciously take your advice. But you also need to be prepared for the occasional defensive response. So you need to know your stuff, and have ammunition for justifying changes. For me that’s as simple as referring to my preferred style guide and a few straightforward references about scientific writing usage, when I am challenged. Another typical response is insisting that you revert an edited term to use something that reads as non-native, or a calque of some sort (Often “Eurospeak” jargon). I give them my opinion, in writing, so that I can point out that they ignored my advice if the article comes back rejected, and then they decide.

Other value that I can add includes occasional comments for suggested obvious improvements that are not within the scope of the job. Mentioning that “This reference is not listed in the Bibliography” can be a plus.

I enjoy editing as part of my translation practice. It adds variety and helps me think about target-language writing more "purely" than when I translate and might be affected by a source text, so I think it builds up my skills. Once in a while, the authors even credit me in the acknowledgements, so my name makes it into The Journal of Astounding Scientific Developments, or this week’s equivalent: that’s my small reward.

Karen Tkaczyk, CT
Karen Tkaczyk works as a French>English freelance translator. Her translation work is highly specialized, entirely focused on chemistry and its industrial applications. She holds an MChem in chemistry with French from the University of Manchester, a diploma in French, and a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Cambridge. She worked in the pharmaceutical industry in Europe and, after relocating to the U.S. in 1999, she worked in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. She established her translation practice in 2005. You can follow her on Twitter (@ChemXlator) or Facebook.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The 4 S’s, part 1: Skill

by Patrick Weill, CT

Would you like to improve your level of success in translation or interpreting? If so, I have a four-part philosophy regarding some recent experiences I have had as a translator that I would like to share with you.The four S’s refer to skill, sales, self, and service. Developing these four areas allows us to unlock our potential and move more freely both professionally and personally. I’ve grouped them into two pairs: the more technical “skill and sales” pair, and the more personal “self and service” pair. The elements of each pair, and the two pairs themselves, are mutually complementary.

This comprehensive philosophy of success in business and life will be presented in four parts; today’s text discusses the foundation of success. The bottom line. If our product is poor, we will eventually fail, while having a great product is a good indicator of success. There are other important factors, though.

Skill in business is all about discipline. Doing what we do not want to do. A wise man once gave me a great piece of advice: “Successful people are willing to do what others aren’t.”In order to provide a great product all of the time, our language skills must be top-notch, for both languages in a given pair or pairs, and under continuous development. How can we improve our skill in a non-native language? The best way is to live in or visit a place where the language is (exclusively) spoken, as cultural knowledge is crucial to our understanding of the subtleties that often underlie our source language discourse. Grammar is also important. It’s necessary to know the rules. Having both practical (conversation) and theoretical (grammar/syntax) skill is necessary if we want to be real experts.

What about improving our skills in our native languages? “It’s my native language so I don’t need to work on it.” No, no, no. Even though I had a strong high school and university education, was fairly well-read, and thus had a good command of my native language, it wasn’t until I had worked for several years as an English teacher for native Spanish speakers that I was able to gain an understanding of the language’s fine points, allowing me to work at a professional level as a translator into and editor of English.

Specialization is another important element in our professional skillset. What with neural machine translation and the effect of globalization, the latter virtually allowing members of virtually any economy to compete with us as translators remotely via the internet, we have to differentiate ourselves from the bottom feeders - and middle feeders, too, preferably. I want to be a top feeder. So, again, discipline is key in areas such as subject-area research and CPD (Continuing Professional Development). Sometimes I spend more time reading about the subject in a translation or editing project than I do actually translating or editing. And if there are no face-to-face training courses given by experts in your region, the ATA Webinar Series and  eCPD are very good options. The harder it is to gain expertise in a given subject area, the fewer competitors we will have in this area. Of course, as Ms. Chris Durban has alluded to, these are high-risk areas and demanding clients, so we should not offer services in areas in which we are unable to guarantee quality.

Which leads me to my final point. Mr. Shakespeare wrote “To thine own self be true,” and you are probably familiar with the old maxim “know thyself.” This is particularly relevant to us as language professionals. Anybody can do anything, I know, so we shouldn’t limit ourselves, and we shouldn’t be afraid to explore new avenues. In fact, doing new things and taking calculated risks is a big part of success. Nevertheless, what I want to say is that we all have certain areas of strength and weakness, and we need to know how to best exploit the former while avoiding the pitfalls associated with the latter. Focus on what you are good at. Use your strengths to get ahead, and be honest with yourself about your own abilities. That’s not the same as being weak. That’s being optimally strong by knowing yourself and using the tools you were given to your best advantage.

Once we have this optimized product, we must also let people know about it via sales and marketing, discussed in next issue’s installment. Balancing the maximization of our professional skills with a strategic effort to make potential clients aware of how we can serve them will pay off in the short and the long run. Best of luck to you all!

Pat Weill has been living in central Mexico for 12 years and has been translating for 11 years, with a special focus on medicine and science. He is originally from northern California, and when not staring at a shiny screen, he enjoys spending time with family, friends, and his dog Lulu, in addition to reading, sports, and video games.