Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Copyediting Translations

I would like to ask you a question as a student of translation. My translation professor once introduced this phrase to me: "We use words to translate, but we don't translate words." This phrase always reminds me that my job as a translator is not simply converting words, but expressing the original writer's ideas in another language. Therefore, understanding what the original writer meant becomes the first obligation of any translator.

In that light, do you feel that a copy editor should be knowledgeable of the original language when dealing with a translated work? Should a copy editor be able to understand what the original writer meant and to check the accuracy of the translation? Or is that beyond his/her role as a copy editor?

(from Takashi)


Pat said...

This is a good question for Frank Stewart, who is the head of MANOA, the journal I work for. I've asked him to comment on it; while we're waiting for his remarks, let me offer the following.

The copyeditor enters the picture after a work has been accepted for publication. This decision has been made by the acquisitions editor, and at some publishing houses, it has been approved by an editorial board. Therefore, the determination of a work's veracity, authenticity, or quality is usually made by someone other than the copyeditor.

For example, Frank has accepted a number of works for publication in our India-Pakistan issue, due out this summer. He has worked with the guest editor, a professor at a university in New Delhi, on the contents. All the translations have been previously published, so we assume that because they were (1) already chosen for publication and (2) approved by the guest editor, they meet high literary standards.

If we were to publish an original translation, i.e., a work that had never appeared in print, we would require the translator to get a release from the author saying that the translator had the right to publish the work. This would ensure that the translator was working with the knowledge and approval of the author.

In our office, I think of myself as the head mechanic. I know--or should know--how to make corrections to text. I'm not expected to know things outside grammar, style, punctuation, and so forth; there are times when I spot a factual error, but this is the result of coincidence, serendipity, or some factor other than training as a copyeditor.

It will serve you well to have a wide range of interests and to be a frequent reader of newspapers, magazines, and so forth. These things--as well as the depth and breadth of your educational and personal experiences--will help you be a good copyeditor.

frank said...

Dear Takashi,

As you probably know, there is much debate about translation, including whether it is even possible to do. At Manoa Journal we work with translations a great deal, so it is not a theoretical question for us: we have to just do it. So, let me try to respond to your question from the point of view of copy editing, which of course is different that actually translating a work from one language to another yourself.

The role of the copy editor requires her to be as knowledgeable as possible. Therefore, knowing the source language is a big help; just as important, however, is knowing the target language really well. In fact, that may be more important than knowing the source language.

I would point out that it's the job of a copy editor to ask questions rather than to know all the answers and to make decisions. The responsibility for the finished translation remains with the translator, and the copy editor is a facilitator.

My first job in editing was for a text book publisher. I was assigned to edit college science books: physics, math, etc. I often had no idea what the sentences I was reading meant (poor science student) but I could tell if the sentence was well constructed and readable. I would compare that job to editing a translation from a language you do not know. Of course I would have been a better text book editor if my physics had been stronger, but in some ways I like to think that by NOT knowing physics I could ask questions that helped the authors be clearer. I'm sure I asked a lot of dumb questions, but often the authors were grateful for a fresh perspective on what they were trying to explain to students.

(Frank Stewart)