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Could someone please review this for me?

By Grant Hamilton, Cert. Tr.

I remember attending a workshop for U.S. translation company owners where everybody was discussing revision (or editing as Americans often say). The big debate: Do revisers need to have a university degree?

The room was about evenly split, with about half saying no. In fact, a good portion of the audience did not even feel that bilingualism was necessary—as long as revisers were native speakers of the language, it mattered not a whit (or so they claimed) whether they could also speak the language that the text was translated from.

I think most readers would agree that, in Canada, revision is NOT a quick, unilingual edit. It is a line-by-line comparison of the original text and its translated version, usually by a senior translator, to ensure that the meaning and tone are the same and the style is optimal.

So how, you may ask, can revision differ from country to country?

As Target recently discovered to its chagrin, Canada is not the United States. We may look about the same, and watch some of the same TV shows, but there are differences. One is our translation market, which has a lot of knowledgeable buyers who know the value of a good translation and the danger of a bad one. Many of them are fluent in English and French themselves. If we don’t revise our work, they will give their business to someone else.

There may be times you can get away without revising—for instance, if the subject matter is uncomplicated or the audience is small or undemanding—but if you systematically fail to revise your work, you will have trouble holding on to clients.

The same is not true elsewhere. In markets like the U.S. where most people speak only English, buyers usually just want to know how much it costs and how long it will take. If the text is delivered by deadline and appears to be in the right language, that is enough. Buyers are unwilling to pay for quality because they don’t know why they should, and because they don’t recognize it when they see it. Many probably think a machine can do the job.

An exaggeration? Perhaps, but it’s close enough to the truth. And knowing that it is, I can understand why some suppliers would be tempted to skip such a costly step. Because let’s face it: Revision is not only expensive (it’s performed by the best-paid employees), it’s also time-intensive and has to be squeezed into very tight deadlines.

The long and short of it: We must revise in Canada because the market demands it.

But whether we revise our texts via a full-fledged, bilingual, line-by-line edit or via a quick-and-dirty read-through begs an underlying question that we must answer if we want to enjoy the respect we believe we deserve.

If we’re professionals, why don’t we just do the translation right the first time?

We translators appear to be the only ones to admit to fallibility. Of course, we wouldn’t if we didn’t have to. It would be great to be like lawyers, who can write ungrammatical gibberish of questionable legal value and never be called out on it.

The problem for us is that most people think that they can pass judgment on our work. Like us, they speak English or French, so when we write something odd or unidiomatic, they notice. This creates what I call the abstract art phenomenon: “You call that art? I could have done that myself!” Nobody ever says to a lawyer, “I could have written that contract myself.”

Quite frankly, I don’t blame the public for sometimes thinking they could do a better job. So many translators seem unaware of how poor their writing skills are. New translators should particularly watch their step—if no one goes over their work, they never learn what they’re doing wrong and they’re at risk of losing client after client.

The simple fact of the matter is that the work of any professional is almost always better when revised. It’s true for us. It’s true for engineers. It’s true for journalists, writers, scientists, even dentists and doctors. We translators just happen to be more exposed to public scrutiny.

When we do substandard work, people associate us with the horrors of machine translation and incomprehensible assembly instructions. They conclude that translation is not a profession but some sort of clerical function, and they pay us accordingly. So our translations must be unmistakably, unquestionably better.

Is there a silver lining?

Being forced to be good is rarely a bad thing. Consider this: You can walk into any reputable men’s or women’s wear store in Montreal and find clothes labeled “Made in Italy.” Surprisingly few say “Made in Canada,” even though Montreal was once a fashion powerhouse. Italy realized it could never compete in the bulk market with low-cost operators in places like China, Vietnam, or Bangladesh, so it specialized in upscale fashion. Montreal did not.

Canada is to translation what Italy is to silk blouses and cashmere suits. We have the incredible good fortune of being a bilingual country with a long history of translation scholarship and government support for the industry. We are leaders in translation tool technology. Our translators number in the thousands, and most are expertly trained.

In a way, revision is our USP (unique selling proposition, for those of you who don’t translate in the field of advertising). We can use it to sell our services to clients all over the world. I know for a fact that the very week this article was written, a major manufacturing concern in Europe had texts translated by my firm because it was tired of the garbage it was getting from slapdash translation companies. I know this because they told us. And they paid a premium to get what they were looking for.

Revision also pays dividends in terms of personal satisfaction. What other job offers you targeted feedback from seasoned pros on everything you do? You literally learn something new about language every single day. Imagine that—getting better at your job every day until you retire!

I have also found that some people actually make better revisers than translators. Perhaps it’s the glee of being able to change someone else’s work, but revision seems to bring out the best in them. What’s more, almost all revisers report that editing other people’s work has improved their own craft. They have discovered new and useful ways to translate troublesome passages.

The fact is, those U.S. translation companies debating the pros and cons of university degrees for revisers (pros: they’re smarter! cons: I have to pay them more!) are not translation companies per se. They are project management companies trying to minimize translation costs and maximize profits. If you want to have a career in project management, by all means compete against them. Just don’t expect me to call you a translation professional.

A certified translator and graduate of Laval University, Grant Hamilton owns and manages Anglocom, a Quebec City–based agency.

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