Tag Archives: non-native English

Editing translated or non-native English

By Allison Turner
Large, flat stone with an engraving that says 'A translation from one language to another'

I like to think of editing as bridging the gap between what the writer wants to communicate and what the reader actually understands. If the writing has been translated or written in a language other than the writer’s native one, that gap is typically wider. That’s why an editor of translated or non-native English has a few extra points technical and stylistic to look out for.

The first aspects to be aware of are the technical ones arising from the differences between the source language of the translation or the writer’s best language, as the case may be, and English. An obvious example is false friends – words that look very similar in the two languages but have different meanings. For example, several European languages have a word similar to ‘eventually’ that, instead of meaning ‘at some point in the distant future’, means ‘possibly’.

At the next level up, the sentence level, it helps to know how the grammar of the writer’s language differs from English grammar. For example, Italian rarely uses subject pronouns and Russian has no articles, so writers from those language backgrounds may have trouble with these issues. I have an Italian client whose English is great, but she occasionally misses the ‘there’ in a sentence like ‘There are many reasons.’ Not surprising, since its purpose is purely grammatical rather than meaningful – but it can be confusing if you don’t expect it (especially when the sentence is more complicated than that).

I see this type of editing as a kind of word puzzle, especially if I know the writer’s native language at least a little. ‘What word could they have mistranslated into this one?’ or ‘How would this sentence likely have been written?’ German – which I can confidently say I know at least a little – is particularly fun for this, as it has some word order rules entirely different from English ones.

Scattered Scrabble letter tiles

A professional translator will know how to avoid these technical traps, but there are stylistic issues to be aware of that apply to translations as well as non-native writing. One of these is words that are not so much false friends as fair-weather friends. These have quite similar denotations but a different connotation or tone. For example, a Portuguese speaker might use ‘foment’ to describe creating something positive, but that would sound odd to English ears. Or a French speaker may use a word that is more recherché than the tone of the text calls for, because the French cognate is much less obscure.

It’s a good idea to clarify the connotations are correct. For example, I might say ‘This sounds harsh (or flippant, or negative) – is it meant to?’ Of course this is true of all editing, but I think it’s more likely that a non-native writer will not realise how they are coming across.

On a more general level, different languages have different ideas of style. My grammar teacher put it this way: ‘English likes verbs, French likes nouns.’ So a sentence that sounds good in French could sound quite stuffy in English, simply because it has too many abstract nouns that could easily have been verbs. Or a writer who speaks Arabic, which tends to be more flowery than English, might in English come across as excessively wordy.

The last thing to think about – and arguably the most important – is the author’s voice. If the author’s English isn’t great or is non-existent, what we want is not quite their own voice, but more like an idealised version of it. I speak French and German regularly, but I know I’m not as smart in French or as funny in German as I am in English. I don’t edit fiction, and I’m sure there are additional considerations for those who do, but every piece of writing expresses something about the writer – whether they want to show themselves to be knowledgeable, or approachable, or empathic, or witty, or all of the above. A good editor can help with this.

I need to conclude by admitting that sometimes I really don’t know what the writer means. In such a case, I still almost always offer one or more suggestions. Even if I’m way off, in most cases the user can tell from my guess what went wrong, and eventually (in the English sense!) together we come to the best way of expressing it. One of my favourite clients said it best: ‘You think with and for me.’

Allison TurnerAllison Turner is a textual healer and a Professional Member of the SfEP. A Canadian who lives in Switzerland and a former ESL teacher, she edits almost exclusively non-native and translated English, mainly for academics and entrepreneurs.



Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Specialist Q&A – Archaeology (and related fields)

Specialist Q&AOur editorial industry is made up of people carrying out a huge range of tasks across many different sectors. Although we are bound by common aims – to make text consistent, accurate and clear – our chosen areas of work can differ in fascinating ways.

Jill Cucchi is a freelance copy-editor. She has answered some questions on her main specialism: archaeology.

  1. Briefly, what’s your work background?

I started out in the civil service writing business cases for HM Treasury and answering parliamentary questions, but my passion was always archaeology. After many years volunteering on digs, and after completing a BA (Hons) degree in archaeology in 2004, I landed my dream job as a field archaeologist with Durham University.

  1. How long have you specialised in this particular kind of editorial work, and how did you get started?

I did some editorial work for Durham University’s archaeology department, but it wasn’t until I moved to France that I realised it could be a full-time job. After ‘checking’ some journal papers for my husband’s colleague, and really enjoying it, I started looking into copy-editing (via indexing and proofreading) as a new career. I’ve recently started to specialise in academic journal/conference papers written by authors with English as a second language.

  1. What specific knowledge, experience or qualifications do you need?

You need to have a wide-ranging knowledge of archaeology and archaeological practices (e.g. chronology, excavation, methods of dating), as well as a good understanding of related disciplines (e.g. zooarchaeology, archaeobotany). For me, having French as a second language is also useful in differentiating scientific jargon from direct translations.

  1. How do you go about finding work in this area?

As most scientific papers need to be written in English, academics who are non-native speakers are always looking for copy-editors and/or translators. As my husband works for the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (Paris), and his colleagues knew he had an English wife with a background in archaeology, I was constantly asked if I could do urgent jobs when their usual copy-editor was busy. After a few (hopefully well done) ‘rush jobs’, I took on every urgent job that came up, did minuscule jobs (e.g. reading a 100-word abstract, correcting a book review), offered a final free proofread, adjusted my hourly rate – anything in fact to get some experience. Often the copy-editors that academics use have a PhD (I don’t), or are fluently bilingual (I’m not) so competition is tough. However, now I have an ever-growing set of regular clients, and I’ve had requests from other universities and museums via recommendations.

  1. What do you most enjoy about the work?

I love that it combines my two great passions: archaeology and literature. I love taking a piece of complicated text and making it readable. I love it when a client has a paper or a grant application accepted and I can breathe a huge sigh of relief. I love that my job allows me to read (and write) and learn about archaeology without getting wet and muddy, though that is fun too.

  1. What are the particular challenges?

Trying to copy-edit complex scientific papers when I am not a science graduate and the author is a non-native English speaker. Also, the text can be incredibly specialised (e.g. 12 pages on the nitrogen value of pig’s teeth), so it can be challenging to stay focused.

  1. What’s the worst job you’ve had – and/or the best?

The worst job I had was a paper I had copy-edited being refused publication and not knowing why. Ouch! (But later accepted, thankfully.) The best job I had was a scientific budget report with a two-day turnaround (sadly, the two days were Saturday and Sunday). The client readily accepted my increased hourly rate and insisted I take a bonus – I thought I was dreaming.

  1. What tips would you give to someone wanting to work in this field?

You will need a sound knowledge of the subject so read lots of journals, volunteer on some digs, see if you can help out at your local museum and register for some (often free) online courses (e.g. FutureLearn – they have several archaeology/history courses). You’ll also need excellent (I’m not quite there yet…) copy-editing skills as the publication process is tough.

  1. What is the pay like – and are there any other perks?

It varies (wildly) depending on the client’s grant allocation or the project’s budget, but I’d say for an average 15-page paper (about 8/9 hours) you could expect around £200. My biggest perk, at the moment, is just being freelance – after 12 years in the civil service this is a dream!

  1. What other opportunities do you think editorial work in this area might lead to?

It’s hard to say really as I’m just starting out, but I’ve recently been asked to translate and copy-edit a book chapter for the Musée du quai Branly on anthropology, which is a new and exciting direction for me. I’ve also been asked to copy-edit a catalogue for an art gallery in Paris, which has nothing to do with archaeology at all, so it seems the possibilities are endless.

Jill CucchiJill Cucchi is an Entry-Level Member of the SfEP. She is an archaeologist turned copy-editor specialising in academic journal/conference papers for non-native English speakers.


The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP