Some thoughts on translation and proofreading

This came up in my Twitter feed today and made me smile.

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a post on proofreading for a while now. There’s often a translating/proofreading/language-editing project in the works, so it feels like a highly relevant topic.

I’m not a trained proofreader/language-editor, by which I mean this isn’t something I have a degree or any formal certificates in. The English lit program at the university I went to now offers courses in translation; i.e., you can opt for a graduate program in translation, which I suppose would have constituted formal training, only it wasn’t available in my university days.

I got into it because people would ask me to translate/proofread something and it was a way to augment the budget, always an appealing idea but especially when you’re a student. I sometimes do translations into Croatian (I never proofread texts in Croatian) but it’s way more often translations into English and/or proofreading/language-editing texts in English. This may be somewhat unusual for NNSs in some places, but it isn’t all that unusual in Croatia (see a not-so-recent post on how this is valid for ELT as well – some excellent comments there).

I’ve never advertised this service. Some of the work I ended up with as a result of Octopus advertising (although most of our business was corporate language training), but in this case clients wouldn’t ask for me specifically. The other projects came about thanks to recommendations, either by clients or colleagues. I’m not kidding myself; if this was something I were doing for a living, I’d definitely have to advertise, but as a side gig it works pretty well.

When I was younger – yeah, I know this makes me sound 95 – there was a fundamental difference to how I approached the job: I didn’t communicate with the client beyond agreeing on the essentials (rate, deadline) and submitting the finished product. If a question came up as I read the text – and usually a lot of questions came up – I dealt with them as best I could. Again, when I was younger, dealing with translation issues as best you could was often not very good at all because of the scarcity (and cost) of reference materials and scarcity (perhaps total absence?) of professional communities one could easily join. There was no internet in any meaningful sense and I recall handing in a very early translation (for someone working in a bank) written out by hand.

Things changed gradually and these days when I translate/proofread/language-edit I talk to the client. There’s rarely a text I don’t add comments to, asking for help in figuring out what the author meant to say or suggesting an alternative, if I think I’ve understood what the author meant but am not absolutely sure, so I don’t feel comfortable amending the text directly. Sometimes the author writes back, so we actually exchange thoughts. More often the author can figure out – I assume – what to change by themselves on the basis of my comment.

February 10 – Ok, so today in the opening sentence was about three weeks ago. It takes me ages to get around to posting something. What else is new?

Let’s see if I can pick up where I left off. I don’t know how quick other translators/proofreaders are – I think I’m fairly slow. Thorough sounds better. I did have a couple of courses on translation at university and they taught us I learned that the idea is to convey the author’s idea sticking as close as possible to the source text, yet phrasing it as naturally as possible in the target language. In practice, this means I am loath to leave anything out, which can be a problem if the author is a tad verbose. I would like to cut (what I feel is) unnecessary text, but I don’t think this is my place. I will recommend the author do that though, if I feel that it would benefit the reader.

I can’t say that all my translation or proofreading gigs have been interesting – that would simply be untrue – but overall I enjoy this kind of work and feel I’ve learned something about topics I might otherwise have remained largely (and on occasion blissfully) ignorant of. For instance, weather and climate, architecture, public administration, Croatian history, online learning, presenting sales plans and results, etc.

When I started this post I thought I might describe the proofreading process and what resources I use, but now I feel this would probably best be left for another post.

I’m curious as to how many other teachers do this kind of work? In Croatia it’s pretty common, or so I used to think. Now my impression is that it may not be as common as (I thought) before. This could at least in part be due to the feeling I have, as a member of both teaching and translation online communities, that there is a clear distinction between the two professions. Although… if I had to commit to an observation, it would be that language teachers are more often asked to proofread/translate than translators are asked to teach a language class. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

How do you feel about teachers translating/proofreading/language-editing texts? Are they qualified to do this simply by virtue of being teachers (speakers of other languages in the case of translation/language-editing)? And finally, if you know of a MOOC that deals with this area, please let me know!

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The fear of being unemployable

Until around a year ago, I didn’t give the NEST-NNEST dilemma much thought. No, let’s be completely frank – I didn’t give it any thought at all. I didn’t have to. I had a full-time job.

Then I moved from Croatia to Belgium. I couldn’t carry on working as a teacher and DoS at my school remotely, so I went freelance. Luckily, as it turned out, I began teaching online immediately and soon afterwards joined a project as a researcher, in both cases working for Croatian employers. I say luckily, because apparently if I’d started looking for ELT work in Belgium, it’s quite possible that I wouldn’t have found any.

I can’t be absolutely sure of this. I haven’t actually sent my CV out to any schools yet – for the record, I would have tried private language centers because that’s the sector I’ve been working in since 1997. It’s not only because I’ve seen ads for native speakers or UK/US passport holders – though that certainly hasn’t been encouraging – but for a number of administrative and personal reasons as well.

Eventually I grew ready to start looking for some traditional (and by this I mean offline) teaching work. And as that happened, I increasingly began coming across blog posts that spoke about discrimination against NNESTs. I’m sure there are many more, but I only started discovering them rather recently, and I’ll mention only three here: Michael Griffin’s post on race-based hiring practices in Korea, Marek Kiczkowiak’s “(Non)-Nativity Scenes”, and Christina Rebuffet-Broadus’s “Qualification required: Native English speaker” (the comments are well-worth a read in each case as well).

Take it from me – if you’re a NNEST, these will make you shrivel up a little inside. Especially if you’re a NNEST with plenty of experience who knows that he/she has a lot to offer to a prospective employer. When I was just starting out in the field, I fully expected to have to deal with being turned down for jobs, but now one of the crucial things I have going for me is experience. Or is it?

NESTs have it easier?
NESTs have it easier?

“Nest” by Dean Shareski is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Last Saturday Marek Kiczkowiak and Chris Holmes spoke about the NEST-NNEST issue at the BELTA Day in Brussels. It was a good talk, which I’m sure I would have enjoyed even more if the subject didn’t make me feel distinctly uncomfortable. They explored some common misconceptions of why NESTs make more desirable English teachers, eventually ending on a positive note and encouraging both camps to speak up against discriminatory practices. However, earlier in the day I’d had two disheartening conversations. One was with a NNEST who told me she’d spent the past year looking for teaching work with no success, and had recently started giving conversation lessons in her native language online. She’s not a trained teacher of her native language. The other was with a very sweet person who, in a genuine attempt to be helpful, asked if I’d considered teaching Croatian. I’m not a trained teacher of Croatian.

In their talk, Marek and Chris mentioned that they were working on research about perceptions of NESTs and NNESTs among students and recruiters, so I asked whether they had any data on specific countries (I was primarily interested in Croatia). There are no relevant data yet, but I’m quite sure I know what the results would show.

It’s actually quite popular for Croatians to be critical of their country for various reasons – mostly to do with politics and the economy – but here’s something we don’t have to criticize: we don’t discriminate against NNESTs. I can say this with some confidence, having worked in the private language training sector for a respectable number of years. During this time I remember ONE single client requesting a native speaker. And we’ve had several thousand students over the years. This is not to say that NESTs can’t find a job in Croatia. Granted, right now unemployment is at a record high and nobody is having an easy time finding a job. But in previous years our school had teachers from the US, UK, Russia and Hungary, all teaching English to Croatian (adult) students. Croatian teachers predominated by far. And it can’t have been much different in other schools because if they’d made NESTs their selling point, we would have had to keep up with the competition.

We don’t discriminate against NNESTs. Why is that? Open-minded as it sounds, I’m not sure that this is the practice in my country because of a strong sense of justice and fairness and a wish to uphold the right to equal employment opportunities. I’m actually a little baffled by it now that I see we apparently belong to the minority. I’ve heard the explanation (a long time ago) that this is because we have a strong language teaching tradition and chains like International House never got a foothold in Croatia. Is that the only reason? If anyone knows of another one, it would be great to hear it!

I hasten to add that all these Croatians teaching other Croatians English might make you think that we’re not very proficient users of the language. But that would be entirely untrue. The EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) doesn’t include Croatia in the results yet, but it does include our next-door neighbor Slovenia, which is likely to have similar results, and they’re in the “high proficiency” group.

In any case, I now feel quite unprepared for such a different situation in Belgium. And more than a little discouraged.

Teaching Croatian is not an option I’m rushing to embrace for two reasons.

  1. I don’t know if I could do it. The last time I had Croatian class was in the third grade of elementary school. I worry about the mistakes I make in my written Croatian. Besides, languages aren’t static and changes in Croatian have been perhaps even more numerous than a language would normally experience over a twenty-year period, due to the war.  I suppose I could do it. I sometimes translate into Croatian as well, and no one has complained yet. But this brings me to the next reason.
  2. I want to teach English. That’s all I’ve ever done, it’s what I enjoy doing and I’m good at it.

I didn’t set out to write this post with any particular aim in mind. These are essentially just thoughts that have been troubling me with increasing frequency since the beginning of the year. I suppose that I’m lucky to the extent that right now I don’t have to put finding a job to the test if I choose not to, and I certainly can’t complain that I have nothing to do, but at the same time I don’t want to hide behind that.

I did have one more conversation at the BELTA Day, just before the end. It was with a Belgian teacher who had taught English abroad. His advice was to deliver your CV to your prospective employer in person, not by email. This strategy had apparently been successful on a number of occasions, although it’s not quite what I was expecting to have to do in this day and age. But compared to the rest of this post, it’s as close to a positive ending as I’m going to get.