To Edit or to Retranslate?

Photo Credit: Pexels

Translation quality is serious business. Under the best circumstances, a poor translation will give you a laugh. Under the worst, it will have serious consequences on your company, resulting in a damaged reputation, loss of customers, or concerned investors. This is why editing is so critical for any text that will be used for anything other than information purposes.

Let’s say you are working with an editor and she comes back to you and says, “This translation really isn’t very good. I think it should be retranslated before I edit it.” What do you do? Your first reaction may be that your editor is trying to upsell you on something that you don’t really need. However, translators who abide by a code of ethics will always try to do right by you and will not sell you something that isn’t necessary. So, what signs should you look for to determine whether your text should be retranslated or whether a thorough editing will suffice? Work with your editor to determine the following:

Does it contain minor translation errors or spelling mistakes?

The world’s best authors require the services of an editor to ensure that their texts are flawless. The world’s best translators are no different. Though a text should not contain errors that would be picked up by a regular spellcheck, it is not uncommon for a translation to contain minor spelling, grammar, or translation errors. A thorough edit should be able to find and correct these errors.

Are terms generally inconsistent within a single file or across multiple files?

Complicated or long files may result in a certain amount of term inconsistency. This is something that an editor should be able to take care of. If there is a significant amount of inconsistency, or especially if inconsistency becomes a recurring issue over multiple projects, you and your editor should work with the translator to create a glossary that can be used in your CAT tool of choice.

Was it clearly translated by a non-native speaker?

You might not be able to read the target text, but your editor will be able to tell you almost instantly if the translator was not a native speaker of the target language. Why should this worry you? Professional translators do not translate into non-native languages. Native speakers, by virtue of their innate abilities in their native language, can render a text better than a non-native speaker. Period. When it comes to quality, this is important. Texts that have been translated by non-native speakers should most often be retranslated by a qualified native speaker.

Was it clearly translated by someone without the requisite industry knowledge?

Industry knowledge is a translator’s bread and butter. It is difficult to fake knowledge of complicated documents like contracts, financial statements, or patents. Many translators with enough time and the right resources can do a bang up job translating something in a field outside of their areas of expertise, but how will the fact that they aren’t experts make you feel when someone questions the translation? Work closely with your editor to determine what should be done in cases where a document was clearly translated by someone in over his head: the editor may be able to fix the mistakes in the file as they arise, but if the mistakes are too numerous, retranslation will be the fail-proof way to ensure quality.


Mistakes happen, but vendors that deliver content that needs to be retranslated should raise a red flag. Always ensure that you are selecting a qualified, native speaker to handle your translations and that a similarly qualified, native-speaking editor is reviewing his or her work. Don’t want or don’t have time to hire two vendors? Many translators and editors already work in pairs. Discuss your needs with your vendor prior to signing on the dotted line to ensure that all parties come away from the transaction satisfied.

Have you ever had a retranslation nightmare, either as a buyer or a vendor? Leave a comment or tweet me at @Bentranslates.


2 thoughts on “To Edit or to Retranslate?

  1. Nice post, and I like your take on how important the editing process is.

    However, I respectfully disagree with your statement that “(p)rofessional translators do not translate into non-native languages. Native speakers, by virtue of their innate abilities in their native language, can render a text better than a non-native speaker.”

    Er, it depends. A professional translator translates into the language or languages that he or she writes exceptionally well. Typically, yes, this will be the native language. However, there are plenty of people who grew up multilingual or who lived, worked, and studied in various places for extended periods of time. Conversely, I know plenty of native speakers who have lived in their source language country for so long that it interferes with their target language. Or, indeed, whose command of the source language is so poor that they misinterpret the source text and, consequently, mistranslate it – just like your Old Testament/torah example.

    What if you left at age 5? Or several languages were spoken in your home? Or you have zero formal training in your native tongue? Just being a native does not make you a good translator. Mastering the target language by virtue of exposure *and* training *and* experience (as well as mastering the source language to a sufficiently elevated degree) does.


    • Thanks for your thoughts, Katja.

      It sounds like the way you and I are defining “native language” is different. It seems like you have interpreted “native language” to mean “the language of the place/culture where you were born,” that you can only have one, and that you cannot acquire a new one. I did not mean to imply any of those things. Case in point: a dear friend was born in Sweden and spoke Swedish at home with her parents, but grew up in France, Turkey, and Egypt (her father worked for a large multinational and they moved at a lot). Subsequently, her native language, though she speaks with a slight unplaceable accent, is English, since she was schooled only in English her entire life and only spoke “family Swedish” at home and during trips to visit her grandparents in Sweden. Another example: a former classmate was born in Serbia but grew up in Tsukuba, Japan, because her father was a physicist who worked in a lab there. She has two native languages, Serbian and Japanese, but her youngest sibling speaks Serbian poorly and is a native Japanese speaker. In the United States, Hispanics make up 17% of the population and many children in Hispanic households grow up bilingual and have two native languages. I myself did my translation studies from English into French in Montreal, though my native language is English. So, the question of what language is one’s “native” language can be rather complicated. And those people with more than one native language can theoretically translate in multiple directions. I am sure we both know many people who do. Judy Jenner addresses this very issue in the interview I did with her here.

      All that said, I believe that one can also gain native-language proficiency in another language through years of immersion, training, and effort. I was completely immersed in French for four years and completed my university studies in translation, linguistics, and French literature entirely in French. When I was done, I could say that I had near-native proficiency in French. Then I moved to China and spent a couple of years there, and then I moved back to the United States. I no longer have native-speaker proficiency in French. If someone has lived in a place for 20 years where a different language is spoken, chances are they have acquired a significant understanding of the language, but that does not necessarily mean that they have native-speaker proficiency. It all depends on the person and how they have worked to develop their language skills.

      I would still maintain that professional translators do not translate into non-native languages, with the understanding that one can have more than one native language for a variety of reasons and that one’s native language can change over time, either by acquiring a new one or by losing one through not using it, living abroad, etc. I also believe that, given the choice between two professional translators, one who grew up in the target language and completed university studies in the target language, and one who moved to the target-language country later in life but has native-speaker proficiency, all other things equal, a discerning client would choose the first translator due to the innate abilities I describe in my post. I also entirely agree with your statement that , “being a native speaker does not make you a good translator,” just as being bilingual does not make you a good translator, either. Like you said, being a good translator is a function of source- and target-language mastery, exposure, training, and experience: I could not agree more with you there.

      If you made it this far, thanks for reading (it was quite long reply)! I truly appreciate your feedback and thoughts and that you were willing to spend the time to share them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.