Translation and Editing

by Lynne E. Riggs

On average, an editor (if he or she cares at all about the book) must spend two to three times as much time working on a translation than on a book originally written in English; most editors I know have argued, at one time or another, that they—rather than the translator—have translated the book, given how much rewriting the translation requires.

—John O’Brien in Context, No. 15

One of the major battles of English wordsmithing in Japan is for recognition of the importance of rewriting/editing in translation work. Many clients do not budget for editing, assuming that the translator’s work is polished and finished as it is. Authors are not accustomed to having their work scrutinized and changed for the sake of clarity, accuracy of facts, or readability. Translators are pressed for delivery under tight time and rate constraints.

Editors and people in charge of published information in English in Japan are nevertheless increasingly alert to the importance of the editing stage, and able to tell the difference between raw translation and edited text. There is high demand for translated text that is taken this one extra step, as well as a willingness to pay for it among some clients. Why?

  • It expresses the essence in natural, clear language that the English reader can readily grasp as well as reflecting the meaning of the original.
  • It follows accepted English rules of style and presentation as well as conveying the message effectively.
  • It bridges the cultural divide, filling gaps and finding equivalences for sensitive passages as well as transferring the meaning of the words from one language to another.

Sensitive editing does not change the message or intent of the original or obliterate all trace of the author’s voice and style; it leaves alone whatever can be left, changing only what can be changed for the better. Emphasizing the improvement in the accurate, but edited, translation will demonstrate to the clients we work for how editorial revision works, and how it enhances what they are trying to do.

For the translator, moreover, the product is much more satisfying, and the translation becomes much more sophisticated, if editing follows translation. There is a limit to how far chokuyaku can be perfected, and those who assume that close word-for-word correspondence is always expected may gradually find translating losing its allure. If, however, we think of translation as a medium in which one can pursue the closest empathy with the intent of the original, using the most elegant (or poetic, or nuanced) and effective English available, it becomes a profession of infinite creativity and challenge. For some of us it is addictive.

The ideal work situation for a translator is to have a bilingual English editor to work with and trade drafts with, so that each can edit the other. As we who work on this Newsletter have confirmed over and over, every text benefits from the eye of another reader who is able to help improve its clarity and style. When this is not possible, however, I advise translators to build self-editing into their work pattern:

  • Draft a translation quickly and early (if parts of it slow you down, leave them untranslated or rough, and forge on); put it aside.
  • Come back 24 hours to a few days later, when you can see it partly as a “new” reader; its faults will jump out.
  • Scrutinize the content and logic of the text; if there are non sequiturs, information puzzling to the reader, or gaps in the argument, remember that supplying such information is part of the bridge the translator must build. Some things should be queried with the author or client.

Even given that some editors can be heavy-handed, lording over author and translator sometimes unfairly, translators could be doing much more to facilitate the publishing process by learning to see what the editors see and remedying what the editors think has to be remedied, while assuring that the edited version does not lose sight of the original meaning.

Editors of translated materials who cannot read Japanese risk changing the text in ways not intended; ideally, they should work collaboratively with translators or authors, or those parties’ representatives (who are often our clients). Editors who can read Japanese and translators who can edit are in high demand, and I believe will be even more so in the years ahead.

Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, Nos. 113-114 (December 2006), pp. 40–42.

© Lynne E. Riggs