Four eyes (are better than two)

For many experienced translators, what I’m about to say will be nothing new, but I feel it is important enough to devote a blog post to.

In order to deliver a high quality translation, a second reader is a must. Even the most accurate translator will make spelling mistakes, miss a grammatical point or two, even forget to translate the odd word or snippet. It happens to the best of us.

Since a translator is so immersed in their translation – as well they should be – they will likely miss the odd mistake or oversight even on a second or third reading, no matter how much distance they will attempt to take from their own work. Our brain is wired to fill in blanks, to view as complete that which is not complete, to see as correct that which is not correct – this is called multistable perception (at least in visual phenomena) – especially when it involves small, almost negligible points. The likelihood of the translator’s brain falling into that trap increases the deeper they get into their translation. That is why a fresh pair of eyes on a translated text is often the best method of spotting translation errors of any kind. In addition, taking the brain’s quirks into account, it stands to reason that the more comprehensive a project is, the greater the necessity for a second reader.

My experience has taught me that there are a number of things to take into account when using a second reader.

Completeness. When you do decide to use a second reader, it is usually a good idea to present them with the original of the translated document. They may spot certain oversights that you have missed, such as a skipped word or phrase, or a misinterpreted sentence.

Quality. When you ask someone to be your second reader, it is good to be sure that you ask someone whom you know can be trusted to be critical, but kind. That last point may seem superfluous or even wimpy, but I have seen even the most experienced translator be shaken (though perhaps only momentarily) by overly harsh criticism of their work. As it is, a second reader is not there to critique your translation, but rather to help ensure the highest possible quality of the finished work. They are there to work with you – the translator – in the client’s best interest.

Language. If at all possible, use someone who is a little more language oriented and precise than your average person. They are more likely to spot little mistakes which someone who is not so much of a language purist might miss. (In fact, for some people I know linguistic and grammatical precision is almost a game of ‘spot the mistake’ – that can be annoying, but also oh-so-useful.) Particularly in legal translations, the kinds of tiny mistakes I’m talking about can create huge and expensive issues (see, for instance, what is commonly known as The Million Dollar Comma Case. This case didn’t involve a translation, but the person drafting the contract would certainly have benefitted from a nit-picking, grammatically precise second reader.).

Jargon and technical know-how. Especially for translations involving technical terminology, it is extremely useful to have for a second reader someone who is familiar with the specific field the translation deals with. For instance: an essay on the ins and outs of aviation law would benefit from someone familiar with this field, due to certain domain-specific jargon specific. A similar example: when translating a text about a specific treaty, you will likely use certain terms and phrases in your translation because they are also used in the official text of the treaty concerned. A person versed in the field or at the very least aware of the treaty and where to find it is much more likely to take this into account (which will in turn cost them less time in weeding out what they would otherwise perceive as your mistakes).

Corrections. Agree with your second reader how they will provide you with their feedback. It will be tempting for some second readers to make changes directly in the text and then simply hand back the ‘corrected version’ to the translator. In my experience that is not the way to go, particularly when it concerns texts containing technical (in my case legal) language. Certain phrases might seem awkward or even incorrect to a second reader, but if it concerns words or phrases in the specific context of a treaty or contract, for example, it could be correct in that instance. (Again, here it helps if the second reader knows something about the field your translation concerns.) I would therefore always recommend using track changes and/or comments/notes. Also, agree on what needs correcting: is it only mistakes and oversights, or are stylistic suggestions welcome as well?

Context. Just as context and purpose affect your translation choices, so too will it be important for a second reader to know the context and purpose of a translation. This will aid them in their assessment of what may be acceptable and what may not be for the translation at hand. This point goes mostly to the stylistics of a translation and to (using the right words on the right occasion).

Confidentiality. Many of the documents we translate for our clients are subject to confidentiality. It goes without saying that a second reader should also be bound by confidentiality. For that reason, it is good practice to inform your second reader that confidentiality is required for the translation at hand, and to have the second reader agree to such confidentiality – in writing if possible. It may seem like an exaggerated measure, but it is only fair to your clients and to yourself.

Fee. When you approach a second reader for your project, solve the issue of payment as early on as possible. I usually have them read a sample and ask how long they expect to take to read the full translation based on that sample. Based on their response, you can then agree on a reasonable (flat) fee. Of course, you have to keep in mind that your having them read your translation with a critical eye should not cost you your entire revenues from the project – a second reading is necessary polish. Don’t be stingy, but don’t give away your entire income either. You have, after all, put a great deal of time and effort into your translation and should reap the rewards.

Interest. Finally, and this may be a point of luxury, see if you can find a second reader that is even moderately interested in the text you present them with, or at the very least with its implications, impact or context. This may sound like a silly thing to remark, but there are certain issues involved here.A second reader who is bored to tears by a text is far more likely to overlook any errors, as they will have a hard time concentrating on their reading and will just want it to be over as soon as possible. The less interested your second reader is, the longer they will take parsing your document for errors, and this goes to economics – the more time they need, the more money you will spend. On the other hand, the more engaged your second reader is, the more likely they will be to think along with you in order to deliver the best quality possible to the product..

So there is an outline of things to take into consideration for the use of second readers.

A final remark: these days I tend to use second readers only for very complex documents, documents that have high impact (such as a court ruling), or for (extremely) lengthy documents. For short, relatively standard documents, I usually wait a little while, then read through them again to ensure that everything has been translated and translated accurately and correctly. I will then ask my partner to read through the document for language to finish the process.

I will now present this text to my partner before posting it up on our blog. He might spot a few mistakes…

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