Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well

Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well (King Lear, Act 1 scene 4)

Shakespeare said it first, but it’s worth saying again and it’s probably every editor’s or reviser’s biggest fear. If revisers are like doctors, aiming to make a text better, should they be bound by the Hippocratic oath – or at least “first, do no harm”?* If in doubt, don’t change it. If you do change something, be prepared to justify it. That is the main message of Brian Mossop’s revision course, hosted by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (I did it this February, it’s rerunning this July but already sold out).

The key question we asked on the course was: what level of readability do we want? Quality is not absolute, but relative to needs. It is the “degree to which a set of inherent characteristics of an object fulfils requirements” (ISO 9000, 2015: 3.6.2). So what do you (or your client, author, and most importantly your reader) need? Do you want the text to be intelligible, informative, publishable, or polished? People like me, who mostly work with publishable and polished texts, can find it hard to accept that for some readers, intelligible is just fine. Readers often care more about the subject and content of a text than the language and style. Of course it makes a diffference whether you’re revising your own work or someone else’s. While it was wonderful to see colleagues on the course, to discuss these issues and compare our own revision techniques, I felt that we could have interacted even more (even on Zoom).

Which prompted me to return to the book.

Brian Mossop’s Revising for Editors and Translators (4th edition Routledge 2020) is an essential handbook for any translator editing monolingual texts or revising bilingually to compare a source to its translation. For students and early-career translators, it is a map of everything you need to know, with plenty of examples and an exhaustive reading list. For experienced translators and teachers, it updates you, shows you how to turn the content into a course, and reminds you not to be overconfident in your own trusted solutions and habits. For everyone, it offers useful parameters and procedures – what are you actually doing when you revise or edit, and how do you measure that?

Two new chapters have been added to the fourth edition, one on post-editing machine translation (much discussed elsewhere) and the other on trans-editing. Trans-editors are journalists who transform news in one language into stories relevant for readers in another language. This involves prioritising, maybe adding information for the new audience, and taking a lot out. While the techniques mentioned are interesting, in Finland at least, translators have been very concerned about how journalists actually do this. Recently the biggest Finnish daily literally translated Boris Johnson telling parliament that he “didn’t give a flying flamingo” about something (let’s face it, it could have been anything). In another lanaguage, without the alliteration or connotations to an idiom and a swearword, airborne pink birds make NO sense. A reviser’s or editor’s job is to notice things like this before they get to print.

Two new appendices have been added to the book, too. One is on grading revisions. Are the changes Good, making the text Worse, Retranslation, Unnecessary, Inadequate, or didn’t the reviser Notice something that should be changed? (good, worse, or ruining it, GWRUIN, is the best acronym I could get, let me know if you can do better). Once you have a number of these types of changes for a sample text, you can grade it.

The other new appendix is about research. Bilingual revision is not a natural reading process – reading two texts at once makes it doubly hard to stay focused and spot problems. Empirical research on this process falls into four types – think-aloud, keystroke-logging, video-recording and eye-tracking studies. I have participated in research like this – the researcher videoed me revising and talking about my choices. Because of the volume of data they generate, these studies usually have less than ten participants, and not repeated. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about procedures that work on a larger scale. Mossop suggests investigating why revisers miss and introduce errors, what leads them to make unneeded changes, how they relate to others, how much revision costs, and how useful it is. He has done some of this work himself in a brand new book he co-edited with Maarit Koponen, Translation Revision and Post-editing: Industry Practices and Cognitive Processes (Routledge 2021).

In practice, a good reviser’s rule of thumb is that if you need to read a sentence twice to understand it, something needs to change. If you don’t have time for the book, or the course, you could ask yourself three questions and try three things.

Three questions to ask when revising or editing others’ work:

  • Can I justify 9 out of 10 of the changes I made?
  • Can I make a small change that is less invasive than a big one?
  • Have I imposed my own preferences?

Three things to try on your own and others’ work:

  • Save a draft separately, and revise the same draft six months later; did you make changes in the same places? If not, you might not be very systematic and may need to change your procedures (I am definitely going to try this).
  • Change the font to make the text look different so you can spot errors (I’ve not tried that one, but I have tried plenty more: start reading from the bottom, or get Word to read it to you, or print it out, or open it in a different programme, or leave it to ‘sit’ overnight; anything that will make the text feel new to you).
  • If you don’t do it already, read the translation first (before the source).

After all, a reviser or editor is a reader looking for things that might need changing, to make it easier for all the other readers that come after them.

* And what about “first, do no harm?” Turns out it isn’t in the Hippocratic oath at all, although Hippocrates said it in his (newly-apposite) Epidemics. You could translate part of the oath a bit like that, but that is not exactly what it said. As Robert Schmerling MD reminds us, doing no harm might mean doing nothing at all, and that won’t make anything better. You need to know why you’re intervening: assess the risks and benefits before you act.

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