Thursday, February 23, 2017
One Translator’s Sideline: Editing Non-Native English Scientific Writing
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 ProZ.com 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.