Revision – what’s it for?

No 19 in a series about translating from Serbian (and other languages) into English

People sometimes ask me what revision means. “Editing a translation”, I say. We recommend revising translations of all important texts, especially ones for publication. But perhaps it’s not so easy for people outside the business to understand what this means. So here’s an example from real life.

An example of revision

The other day I revised a translation of an article about an organization that supports rural women in developing traditional crafts. Now, the client was a magazine that was printing the article, and they wanted a simple translation with no revision. Heaven knows why, they ought to know better. But I happen to know the organization described. It does a brilliant job: it helps rural women with few employment opportunities develop an independent income, and it preserves a rich cultural heritage while encouraging some stunning designs. I wanted this nice article about it to be error-free and readable, so I revised it anyway for free.

The translation was generally good, but as always there were some typos and one or two minor misunderstandings. I made a few changes and returned my revision to the translator. She questioned some of my changes , so I wrote an explanation. It went something like this.

Trimming excess fat

Superfluous phrases: the Serbian texts we get are full of these. Whether it makes good writing or not in Serbian I would not claim to know, but in English it irritates. This gives plenty of opportunity to streamline things and make the text more readable. Here are some examples:

We can cut out things like these:

  • “The organization carries out projects in order to empower women and young people, who are making traditional crafts.”
  • “The province supports public works in the cultural sector, and we encourage this to be done on a national level as well.

You can usually use “to achieve a result” without adding “in order”, which often slows the sentence and makes it more formal. An example: Instead of “In order for the continuation of support not to be just an unfulfilled promise, …”, we could say: “To make sure continued support is not just an unfulfilled promise, …”

Then I often wonder who told translators that you can never say “in”, and must write “within”, (which is rarely appropriate). An example: “They have also started holding exhibitions within the palace”. Using ‘within’ rather than ‘in’ suggests that, until now, they had been holding those exhibitions on the pavement outside. Rule of thumb: only use ‘within’ if you would emphasize that word when speaking.

The list is long. George Orwell’s good writing rule applies even to a translation or revision (If you can cut it out, cut it out).

The right use of terms

Question: “Why did you change ‘from’ to ‘in’ in this sentence?” “After decades of unemployment and being shunned from the labour market, hundreds of women…”. Now, Merriam Webster defines ‘shun’ as “to avoid deliberately and especially habitually”. Here this is done on or in the market. But you cant ‘avoid’ someone from something. You could say “ejected from” if that’s what is meant, but I think the intention here is not actual ejection, rather the idea of women being silently avoided with this fact never being made explicit.


Question: “Why did you change ‘for’ to ‘to’? “The system has been tailored for/to small organizations…”. Answer: You are right, it can be either. I just felt that “to” made it sound a touch more direct, referring to the tailoring itself rather than just its purpose.

Question: “Why did you change ‘a’ to ‘the’? “The products have a/the stamp of approval from this organization”. Answer: You can use the indefinite article, but I think this organization only “issues” one metaphorical stamp of this kind, so it is a pretty definite sort of thing. If their support somehow gave several different types of approval it would be another matter. Moreover, the definite article here gently suggests that this is a recognized standard of some kind, so it gives the organization greater authority (which it richly deserves).

What did she really want to say?

Question: How can you justify changing this so radically?

“Supporting these efforts is the ambassador’s wife. She readily engages as a host and sponsor of the organization’s initiatives, and along with/supported by her husband helps us selflessly.”

Well, yes, the original words were indeed something like “along with”. However, this article is all about women’s independent agency, and I’ll bet my boots the ambassador is not the primary active one in this area. I’d guess this is 99% her activity. I found that the “along with” formulation suddenly made it sound as if this was an initiative of these two as a couple, and not hers in particular.

Given traditional roles, it could even open the possibility that she was the supporting actor, or even just window dressing, the obligatory woman in such a context. I’m sure the author did not even realise the faux pas she had made by seemingly including the husband on a par with the person really doing this work, whereas his role was probably just to look absent-mindedly up from his important papers of state and say “Oh, well done, my dear”. So I took the liberty to make it a better fit with the article’s intention.

You may say that I am overstepping a translator’s remit and you may be right, but perhaps not. How much do we look at the bare words of a text and how much at what we think the author really wanted to say? Too much the former, I think.

Ideally the translator should check this with the author of course, but in our world of commercial translation, this is a rare luxury. We have tight deadlines and here we had no direct access to the author. Often, we just have to take a risk and use our own best judgement. In this case, thankfully, nobody objected to my revision.

All of these small improvements are done in the course of revision. Without it, publishing this article could have been a poor idea, whether because of an embarrassing grammatical mistake or simply because readers were bored stiff by the style and gave up after the first paragraph. There is always something else clamouring for their attention, so reading your text has to be effortless, as smooth as butter. That’s what revision can do. You can read more about it here.

(While based on reality, this article uses fantasy to make a point – no resemblance to any real people is intended.)

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