Saturday, 23 May 2015

Two Different Ways of Working With a Proofreader (and Pitfalls and Scams)

There are essentially two types of translator-proofreader relationships (other than role switching between double-hatting equals, i.e. two similarly qualified translators serving each other's second pair of eyes):

  1. The proofreader, as the more experienced party, is also the reviewer, reviser and overall sort of supervisor responsible for the final quality of translation. (Proofreader ultimately responsible.)
  2. The proofreader, as the less active party, with less exposure, is merely the translator's assistant, where the translator makes the final decisions. (Translator ultimately responsible.)

There are advantages and disadvantages to both models.

In #1 (dominant proofreader) the choice of proofreader/editor/reviser(/reviewer/supervisor) doubtless seems prudent, but coupled with the choice of rookier adepts of the profession to handle the core, substantive translation, it inevitably calls for the following question:

Why was the more qualified person not selected to do the translation in the first place?

And that question is spot on. Final quality was apparently looked on from the rear side, so to say. In other words, the decision-maker's focus was on assuring the best possible proofreading, which was commendable, of course, but it happened here at the expense of core translation, which was less commendable. Having the more highly qualified translator start from a clean slate would most probably have led to better results.

Agencies and clients may be tempted to adopt this model in order to achieve cheaply the same final quality of translation — they would think — as if the more expensive senior professional did it from scratch. Except they likely won't get it. The extent to which someone else's translation can be salvaged without being violated is limited. Revamping even a passable translation to make it excellent often takes more time that translating excellently from scratch. At half the price, naturally. Which is convenient to agencies but not to translators, of course.

Even if that exalted expert proofreader (or 'proofreader', as the job carries a lot more to it than its modest name would imply) actually did pursue his own quality standard, he would still need to make a lot of subjective changes that wouldn't go down well. He would be challenged for 'reversing' the translator without a good cause, charged with being whimsical and unable to justify his opinions and back them with evidence, or with being unfair to the translator whose work is being proofread, or with altering the vision of the translator whose name is put on the translation, who basically 'owns' it and thus his choices should command a certain measure of respect even if they aren't optimal.

On the other hand, in #2 (dominant translator) the proofreader's role is more reserved, more restricted, he stays in the background rather and acts as a typical QA link in the chain. Doing it that way should theoretically make sure that the translator's vision is not interfered with, his decisions aren't unfairly challenged and changed etc. However, if the translator's role is seen as more essential, then it's somewhat probable that a rookie will be chosen for the proofreader's billet. And that will mean a lot of silly questions for the translator to answer, a lot of errors flagged that aren't really errors but false positives — because the proofreader knows less than the translator does, he has to ask more questions and is more likely to be wrong.

Furthermore, where the proofreader (or editor or reviser) has less credibility than the translator, the translator is both free and somewhat tempted to just reject all changes off-handedly without justifying himself in detail. And that defeats the purpose of proofreading.

It's an 'either or' kind of situation: Either the translator ends up answering a lot of ignorant questions and even ignorant allegations of error in his work, or the proofreading ends up being more of a superficial pretence than reality, a rubber stamp to meet ISO requirements.

Neither model can be simply judged to be better or worse than the other, but what really leads to serious mess is when parts of the two models get mixed up, aggravating the problems that are already found in each basic model. For example:

  1. Junior translators selected to be 'proofreaders' and editing, revising and reversing people who have more knowledge, experience and possibly talent than they do. That is — unsurprisingly — outright harmful to translation quality if they have the final say. On the other hand, at a risk of repeating myself, if they don't have the final say and their authority and credibility is low, then they'll end up being more of nuisance and smokescreen than anything to do with what proofreading and revising really is supposed to achieve.
  2. More highly qualified translators who are relegated to a mostly passive and marginal proofreader role (in the dominant translator model) can't do much for quality — even if the quality is bad and badly in need of fixing. To still think that such proofreaders can somehow guarantee the same quality standard as if they were translating that same text from scratch would be a gross misunderstanding and an unfair situation to be in. And if they do retranslate entire passages (will they be paid properly for it or will they have to do it free of charge out of their sense of duty?), then someone else — a less qualified person? — will have to do the proofreading if the principle of two pairs of eyes is to be preserved.

You can't magically have the cake and eat it too by paying 50% or 33% of a great translator's normal rates to have him fix a 0.02 translator's work. You will NOT receive 100% of the quality for 80% of the price.

The cost of the kind of 'proofreading' that is in reality more of a rescue operation traditionally is a lot higher than the going rate of a simple cursory QA check that corresponds to 'proofreading' in the typical understanding of the word in English-speaking countries.

If you try to pay less, you expose yourself to the same risks as everybody else who tries to purchase goods or services for less than they are worth. Naturally, it gets worse when you try to buy at or especially below the vendor's cost-to-provide.

Obviously, even having the good translator's work proofread by an assistant with some language skills is preferable to not having it checked at all, by anyone. If you run an old-fashioned translation company with in-house translators, having a seasoned professional proofread, correct and educate the rookies is more than viable, it simply is the standard way of business. Those rookies later graduate and enter into supervisory roles themselves.

But quit thinking that you can somehow, magically, get top translator quality without paying for it.

Rather, think thoroughly and honestly about legitimate ways to optimize your costs without counting on a miracle to happen. For example work with fully professionally qualified full-time proofreaders who are not simply double-hatting translators but for whom proofreading and editing really is their calling. Pay a fixed salary rather than freelance rates. Use rookies for simple texts that they can handle with some supervision from a senior professional equipped with the final say and make it clear who is responsible for what. Or match senior, expert translators with 'assistants' to help spot the occasional missing comma, ambiguity or slip of style. But above all plan with the assumption of having to pay the full price of the quality level you want to achieve, whichever level of quality that is. Don't cut corners, it won't work.

Bottom line: you can't (i) achieve top translator quality by assigning a top translator to do the proofreading and a less qualified, cheaper translator to do the translation, and (ii) you can't really bring the quality of a good translator's work to a higher level by pairing him up with a less experienced or skilled proofreader.

For translators: scam risk by certain agencies and clients:

To hire a more qualified translator to do the proofreading with the expectation of e.g. receiving 100% of the quality for 60% of the price is nothing new or merely theoretical. It's not even unreasonable from a purely economical point of view, a purely economical sort of rationality.

Since agencies and PMs don't sell their own time but rather earn their commission on thousands of such sales, the effect of scale makes all those two-cent savings here or there add up to much more substantial numbers that seem worth pursuing (even if they aren't really, compared to adopting a more sustainable and less corner-cutting business model).

Thus, in the broad market of today it is probably reasonable to be cautious with proof jobs and carefully check all the relevant factors before accepting such a job. Try to make it as clear as possible what standard of final quality your are supposed to achieve (or especially guarantee) within what budget. This includes finding out (i) whether you will be paid extra for extra work, as well as (ii) whether you will be required to do extra work for no extra pay if such a need should arise (which would mean the agency outsourcing the risk to you, which is a known and scientifically researched and optmized method of risk management for companies).

Next, agencies can exploit less experienced — and cheaper — translators by having them sign quality guarantees and indemnity clauses (hold harmless etc.), so that those translators can ultimately be required to pay a more expensive translator's bill when their own quality, surprise!, is not found sufficient. Often at the agency's 'sole discretion', as some of those churlish people dare actually write in their standard contracts. 

The above essentially means hiring a 20-cent translator at a 6-cent translator's expense. A beautiful business plan, isn't it?

It is the bigger, meaner cousin of dodging payment by hiring an inexperienced rookie whose work can later be challenged easily and penalties imposed to avoid payment.

Another trap for you lies in not knowing that you are supposed to achieve a particular standard with no editor, proofreader or reviser being hired as should be the case in a real, professional publishing process or in normal professional translation. As a result, you can be expected to pay the proofreader or editor's bill out of your own pocket.

Alternatively, you can just be told that there's no proofreader or editor, so you need to handle it all on your own — with no extra pay. And that too is a scam, essentially, though not of the same gravity. It's not actually fraud, it's just a tricky sort of extortion — if it even is that — or simply a bad deal.


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