Away in a Manager: The Proofreader’s Nightmare

Originally posted on Tembua’s website.

It was bad enough when the program listed the first Christmas carol as “Away in a Manager,” but the secretary responsible turned red and sank down in her chair when the error was projected on giant overhead screens. People laughed and dismissed the mistake as human error. I felt that secretary’s pain.

Several years ago, we were completing a large, complicated translation for a new customer. The usual path for a translation is from translator to editor to proofreader. In this case, we had a fourth person double-check the document. The project was ready to leave the office when a fifth person walking casually past the desk said, “Aren’t you going to correct the typo in the headline?”

For any company that publishes anything, the obvious goal is perfect, error-free copy. After the ideas are organized, after the text is lovingly and sometimes painfully produced, after the author is convinced the document is ready, the quality control team takes over. Thus editors and proofreaders find employment and spell-checking software exists for most languages. In the translation industry, the term “editor” is most often used for the second linguist who verifies the accuracy of the translation and polishes the language. The proofreader, coming third, then has the final responsibility for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and typos.

In reality, everyone who handles a document in our office functions as a proofreader. Our clients want their source-language documents to be flawless as much as they want their translations to be, and most clients thank us when we tactfully point out errors in the document we are prepping for translation. I’m quietly glad when that happens because it reminds me that others wrestle with human error, too. In fact, the story about a prize offered for a perfect, typo-free book is legendary. No one ever collected the prize.

Margins are tight in this business, and proofreaders are a budget line many agencies cut. But as hard as we work to select top-notch linguists who carefully check their own translations after a night’s sleep, we still allow everyone who works for us to be human. And that means an occasional mistake. Therefore we still insist that every document that leaves here goes through a full linguistic edit and proofreading. Pity the writers of daily newspapers, news crawls, closed captioning. Time doesn’t always allow for their work to be carefully edited.

But who checks the checker? Every time a document is handled, the possibility arises that errors will be introduced. An editor correcting a typo may delete an extra letter or skip a comma. The proofreader may correct the punctuation and misplace that comma. Or the spell-check software may decide that “manger” should be replaced with “manager,” and the proofreader may not notice.

Recently a client complained that a bullet point had been omitted in a 20,000-word translation. The translator (who also subcontracts for NASA) was mortified. The editor was chagrined. The two proofreaders absolutely swore they counted those bullets. I sighed, apologized profusely to the client, and inserted the bullet.

Until the day when computers do the translating and writing, human error will be a factor. And even then, someone will have to check the computer code. Otherwise we may still have Baby Jesus sleeping in the manager.

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About tembua

Tembua: The Precision Language Solution provides comprehensive linguistic services for 100 languages to private industry and government agencies on a global scale. Services include document and website translation and localization; conference and 24/7 telephonic interpretation; glossary development; proofreading, text adaptation, editing, multilingual design and DTP; transcription; technical / custom authoring editing, foreign search engine optimization; translation memory management; subtitling.
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