What makes a good translation?

A few years ago, I argued with a friend over whether research academics were qualified to work as translators. I came across a journal offering a prize for (unpaid) quality translation of prolific academic texts. The journal asserted that researchers know their subdisciplines well and are best placed to translate texts in that field.

On the other hand, my friend argued that such researchers are (mostly) not trained and qualified translators, or even linguists. They haven’t learnt about the process of translation and can’t be expected to do a good job. I sat somewhere in the middle. I felt the journal’s approach was a bit arrogant, and balked at the idea of the journal promoting unpaid translation work (which only suits the minority of professors with a long-term contract in a highly precarised field), but didn’t think a qualification in translation (or similar) was necessary to do it well.

In today’s blog post I sketch my answer to these two questions:

  • What skills does a translator need?
  • Can academic researchers translate texts in their field well?

To do so, I draw on the insights I learnt while training for the CIOL Diploma in Translation. I trained here and the course was based around feedback on several German–English translations completed.

In short, I learnt that the following three points make a good translation:

[disclaimer: these are the basic points I learnt on the course. Most of them form the basis of the marking scheme for the CIOL Diploma in Translation, but different kinds of translation require other skills too, such as research skills.]

(1) A good translation is well-comprehended

On the course, I learnt that comprehension errors are the most serious errors a translator can make. If the content of the text has not been completely understood, then the translator can’t do their job. Dictionaries and glossaries can help, but the translator really needs top-level language skills (a C2 reading level) in the source language. This doesn’t mean that a translator will know every word in the source text, but that with dictionaries and other resources, the meanings in context will be clear.

Academic researcher–translators: Your key strength here is knowing your field well. Comprehension skills are not only general, but also specific to topics and fields, each with their different conventions. If you have a good command of the source language and know the topic well, you are much less likely to make this most serious kind of error.

(2) A good translation is accurate

Different kinds of accuracy errors creep into all translations – no translation is perfect. These accuracy errors can be categorised, as in the table below. You can find a more comprehensive list here. Apparently the most common kind of accuracy error that experienced translators make is with terminology, and so special tools have been developed for handling terminology in translation projects.

What accuracy means also depends on the writing purpose. Getting the tone and style right is key for literary translation, whereas precise terminology could literally be a matter of life or death in a medical translation. Every translation loses and gains something when it is taken out of one language context and placed in another.

Accuracy does not mean translating a text word for word. It’s fine to move parts of sentences around to fit the syntax of the target language, and for word classes and structures to change (English likes to use verbs in places where other languages favour nouns, for example). The key is that the text reads idiomatically for the target audience.

In my experience working directly with academic authors, this is one of the areas where obstacles occasionally arise when asking the author to “check” the translation. Why? Because they may not know the expectations of an Anglo-American target audience or think that a “faithful” word-for-word translation sounds better to them as it looks more like the source text. This depends on the author and the ideas they have about language, and also their vision of what the target text should look like.

Academic researcher–translators: Accuracy is one of the key areas that improves with extensive translation practice. Except for terminology (which you are likely to get right), accuracy is perhaps the main area in which an academic translating a text will slip up. For this reason, I would recommend that academic researchers serious about translation take some kind of training in translation practice, e.g. by preparing for the Diploma in Translation.

(3) A good translation is well-written (fit for purpose)

Writing skills in the target language need to be top-notch. Many translators – including myself – therefore only translate into their first (or dominant) language. Different levels of skill are required, though. A text translated for informative purposes (e.g. a patient history) need not be as well-written as a text translated for publication in a book or museum exhibition. This means that a text translated for informative purposes could reasonably be translated into a person’s second language – but even so, translating in this direction is harder work and the results are often poorer.

For the CIOL Diploma in Translation, you must translate semi-specialised texts in one direction (typically into your first or dominant language). All the texts in genres I have picked (general translation, social science, and literary translation) focus on texts of publishable quality.

Finally, the quality of a professional translation is quite often better than the original, as translators spend their entire working lives writing, whereas it may just be one part of a job that the author of the source text does.

Academic researcher–translators: Those of you who enjoy writing will likely have great writing skills and be able to produce a good quality finished product (although it may still need to be copyedited). Knowing the conventions of your subdiscipline will help you craft sentences nicely and your awareness of the text’s audience is invaluable here.

Type of errorMore details/examples
Consistency errors (writing quality)Using alternative spellings in the same text (e.g. travelled/traveled, competencies/competences). Switching between UK/US usage.
Mistranslations (accuracy)A big mistranslation could be a comprehension error. A small one could be an accuracy error, e.g. getting a tense wrong, mistaking an adjective for a comparative adjective. tenses, comparatives. Calques can be applied too often when translating quickly (e.g. kapitulacija>capitulation, when “surrender” may fit better, or translating Formulierung as formulation when “way of describing” might be better).
Nuance and emphasis (accuracy)Sometime a small word (e.g. upravo) is used for emphasis. On other occasions, sentence structure creates emphasis (“It is not you who has failed” versus “You have not failed”).
Omissions (accuracy)Missing small words out like jedoch, gesamt, upravo, tek, ipak.
Over and under translations (accuracy)überrascht as astonished, when surprised may be better.
Readability errors (writing quality)Compare: “It is precisely older people…”/”Older people, in particular,…”
Register errors (accuracy) E.g. saying “good relations reigned between the two parties” in a conversational, informal text.
Terminology errors (accuracy)Translating Bundestagswahl as “general elections” rather than “federal elections”.
Usage errors, i.e. not following target language rules (writing quality)Incorrectly placed commas, spelling mistakes, not translating punctuation if used differently in the source language.

2020 Round up: experimenting and specialising

This year has been my first complete calendar year of running an editing and translation business full-time, despite having run a part-time business for over five years. Over the year, I figured out my longer-term approach, started to see good results from my marketing, and refocused my website on my specialist areas.

Yet back in January, I hadn’t fully shaken off habits picked up in my former career as an academic researcher, and hadn’t got my head around pricing – especially as I’d lived in countries with very different prices.

Translation was more of learning curve this year than editing. Here’s what happened over the year:

Editing

I finished my PTC proofreading training (passed with merit) and continued working as an academic editor, becoming a professional member of the CIEP in November. I normally work with authors before submission to a mainstream publisher, but in spring, I copyedited several books for publishers too, which helped me better understand the editorial process. Next year I plan to finish my copyediting training and continue working directly with academic authors on book projects and on texts for publishers. I realised I enjoy line editing most of all (transforming sentences to improve style and clarity).

Translation

As my background is in linguistics and anthropology rather than translation, I decided to do a preparation course for the CIOL Diploma in Translation. Feedback on translations I completed in my favourite genres (social science and literary translation) and general translation was invaluable. This helped me massively in reviewing my own work (e.g. noticing kinds of errors – readability, omissions, register errors etc.) and learning how to respond to client feedback. If an issue arises, I now know whether the problem lies with me or with the author’s understanding of the process.

This kind of training is not available for Croatian, but I have set up an initiative with other translators to organise workshops and similar online training in future. I also realised that the field was much more hierarchical for German than Croatian – people had very specific niches, whereas with Croatian people were more likely to do a bigger variety of jobs, as the language and pool of translators was small.

By the autumn, I had also realised that non-specialist translation agencies weren’t a good fit for me, for the following reasons:

  • Requests for small and general jobs were rarely very well paid and always urgent (e.g. send me this press release/certificate/document by tomorrow)
  • My prices were generally too high (living in the UK) for Croatian and Serbian agencies
  • As there are few HR>EN native speaker translators, I found the reviewing process (key to learning and improving my craft) was often skipped

Working with agencies was a better fit for German translation work, though. And it’s highly likely that in future I will receive some more specialist requests from agencies that are a great fit. While I see such agency work (like publisher work for copyediting) as useful on the side, and for keeping up to speed with changes in the industry, my preference for large non-urgent projects means I am better suited to direct work with universities and authors. Finally, I noticed that the most interesting work came from my former academic and research networks. This makes sense as I have a personal connection to the topic.

Specialising

By July I knew my focus would be mostly in publishing and would include book translation and different kinds of editing and writing. One afternoon, I was reading Louise Harnby’s book on marketing for editorial freelancers. She says having a specialism is important when you start out, as you will bring your networks and clients from your previous job. Once you have run a full-time business for several years, you can then diversify e.g. by moving into a new kind of editorial field, like fiction or literary translation.

This helped me reorganise my marketing around my niches. Once this was clear, it was easy to rework parts of my website to make it more compelling. And things got really niche in places…

Translation specialismsEditing specialisms
Partisan art, media and politicssocial sciences and humanities
Emotions in anthropologypsychotherapy
Museums, marketing and tourismCentral Europe/South East Europe

In the autumn I started to receive a much larger amount of demand for my services. This meant I could pick and choose to avoid problem clients (I also realised a general rule of thumb – ego often comes to the fore when the quality of writing is bad).

What about 2021?

The next year or two will be focused on getting more titles in my specialist areas under my belt, and on finishing my training in copyediting and then line editing.

Finally, I plan on finishing a copywriting course I started, as this fits my interests in published texts that communicate with large audiences. Translation and blog writing also benefit from good copywriting skills, especially when written for big audiences. I have also started to learn a bit about content design, content marketing and UX design.

Yes, I got to the end without mentioning the C-word!

COVID-19 has not had a big positive or negative impact on my work so far, apart from making it difficult to concentrate at times. The spring was slightly quieter than the autumn, but this was a period when I needed to focus on my CPD, translator and proofreading training, and get the basic experience with agencies and publishers needed to confirm my work was up to industry standards. Things are looking particularly good right now compared with a year ago!

How much does academic editing cost?

Prices for academic editing vary widely. Anyone can offer their services as an editor or proofreader. In an unregulated environment, you can find novices offering £10–£15 per hour, while the most accomplished academic editors charge around £50–£60 per hour. Social sciences and humanities editing tends to be cheaper than medical or technical academic editing (follow the money!). In Germany, rates for professional academic editing hover between €30–€50 euros per hour, while in Croatia they hover around the €20–€30 mark.

Academic editing (compared with other fields) is characterized by low prices and low quality. This is a reflection of the large number of low-paid academic workers who require editorial services, and the low status often attached to editing and translation. Some consider working with language a job anyone can do as “we all use language every day”, and an academic journal may just seek out a native speaker with subject knowledge rather than an editorially trained professional.

For copyediting and proofreading – both jobs that require a lot of technical and linguistic know-how – an academic editor should be a trained editor, but they need not be a good or accomplished academic writer. For heavier editorial work (e.g. non-native editing, style editing and also rewriting), having good academic writing skills honed over several years will almost certainly improve the quality of the finished product.

Per hour, per word or per project?

Many editors – including myself – typically charge per word or per project. This is always based on an estimate of how long it will take us. I have found the quality of English to be similar across academic projects. Yes, there is the odd paper that reads like a dream, and the odd “stinker”, but most of the time, I edit around 800–1100 words or 3–5 pages per hour for non-“native” texts. This makes it easy to give a standard rate per 1000 words. For larger projects, many editors will offer a small discount as the volume of work means that less (unbillable) time is spent on looking for new projects.

How much do I charge?

My standard rates are based on earning roughly £30 per hour, which I see as an acceptable rate for a professionally trained editor with UK living costs and approximately three years’ full-time experience. This is at the lower end of what professional editors charge for copyediting (see the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading’s suggested minimum rates list). You can find my 2021 rates here.

In comparison, a junior lecturer’s hourly rate would work out at around £20 per hour – but this rate includes holidays, a favourable pension and other benefits associated with employment. Business owners also have to factor in paying for costs (training, office, software etc.) themselves and the extra hours of business administration (filling in tax returns, invoicing, marketing etc.), and ensuring they have a full-enough schedule. Despite the smaller hourly rate, a junior lecturer can expect to earn slightly more per year than an editor charging £30 per hour.

When (not) to hire an editor

If you just want somebody to ensure your chapter or thesis is written to the level of a native speaker, then there are many others willing to do this for a significantly lower rate. You could also look to see if any researchers in your cohort with subject knowledge can help you out. However, it is worth spending money on professional editing if you are publishing a key paper or book for your career, and you want to ensure it meets the best standards expected in publishing. If this is your goal but you are a low-income academic worker (earning less than €15,000 per year gross), I also have a small number of “solidarity slots” available at a discounted rate – feel free to ask me about them.

Who do I work with?

Almost all the people I work with link to my specialist knowledge. This makes sense as there are hundreds of trained editors available, but only a few with a knowledge of mistakes that Serbian/Croatian and German speakers make when writing, and even fewer who also translate from those languages. My specialist areas are social anthropology, psychotherapy (transactional analysis), history and political sciences, and almost all of my work deals with academic books, journal articles and policy reports. I have many years’ experience writing and publishing social anthropology texts and so I know the conventions of the discipline and audience expectations. I avoid dissertations and other assessed student work, but occasionally take on a PhD thesis if the topic particularly interests me!

What do I offer in the price that other editors don’t?

I always include a second read through in the price (what I call a proof-check). This is because editing non-native texts usually involves making big interventions and so a second read for readability and to catch any remaining typos significantly improves the quality. In mainstream publishing, a copyedit is usually followed by a proofread, but this is often skipped in academic publishing, or the authors are asked to do the proofreading. Having a second check through definitely makes a difference.

4 steps for speeding up formatting reference lists: a guide for journal editors

[Free resource to help available here]

Are you an academic researcher and journal or book editor tasked with ensuring the reference lists are formatted correctly in each contribution? While some academic researchers have perfectionist tendencies and will deliver a well-formatted list, others are very sloppy about references. Even the perfectionists may not have a deep familiarity with your journal style, as their contribution will be one of many, made to different journals that use different styles.

If you have to tidy up their reference lists, there are a few steps you can take to improve the speed and accuracy of reference checking. In this blog post I discuss a four-step process you can take to make life easier for yourself.

Step one: Pick a recognised style

It is incredibly helpful to pick an “official” style such as APA, Chicago, MLA etc. for your journal. This enables you to save time as there are some labour-saving tools you can use to format reference lists presented in that style. It also means you have a comprehensive guide available that you can refer back to when you have unusual kinds of references to format.

If you have a small amount of funds to spend, I recommend buying a copy of the relevant style guide (I prefer a paper copy, but they are available through online subscriptions too).

Step two: Use Edifix to help you

Edifix is a program that helps you format references by putting all the elements in the right place. For each reference it recognises in its database, it will format it in line with APA style, Chicago style, or any other of the main referencing styles. This is a big help as it usually parses at least 50% of the references, which you can then use as a guide for formatting the rest. You can pay for a monthly subscription that costs about 35 euros and then cancel it after that month, e.g. if you just need it for one month per year. It will save you a lot of time!

However, Edifix does not make every parsed reference perfect. In my experience, you should still double check that features such as capitalisation and use of italics are correct.

Step three: Manual checking – discrete passes

Following this, you usually have to work on the references manually. Some people like to focus on each reference individually, but I prefer to make several initial passes that focus on single aspects, and then a final pass that covers each reference individually.

I suggest you make separate passes for:

  • Capitalisation – You should check article, book, journal names etc. These are usually sentence case (This is a sentence), or initial caps (This Is a Sentence). [Tip: You can press Shift + F3 to toggle between lower case and capitals in MS Word, which saves time.]
  • Italics – Once again, you should check article, book, journal names etc.
  • Names – You should check the punctuation: full points or commas? Spaces after initials or not? Do they give the full first name or just an initial etc.
  • Years – Is the publication year in brackets or not? Where is it located?
  • Quotation marks – Which elements are enclosed in quotation marks? You could use Find & Replace to highlight all quotation marks to make them easier to spot)
  • Edited volumes – Chapters in edited books need checking especially carefully. Do they use “edited by…” or Ed., Eds., eds., ed.? The same applies for translated volumes. [Tip: Use Find & Replace to highlight all instances of these abbreviations or words (ed., eds., edited by… etc.) – but watch out for entries where the words have been mistakenly omitted.]

This table may help you, or alternatively you could print out the main kinds of references in a large font and post them above your desk.

Step four: manual checking – individually

Finally, I recommend checking the order of elements, punctuation, and diacritics (e.g. š, ž, ć, ć) on a final pass through in which you look at each reference individually. Also check for spelling errors that a spellchecker will not find (e.g. diary–dairy).

The individual checking is best done last as each earlier pass will deepen your familiarisation with the style. When doing this final, more detailed pass, you may find it quicker to do the regular source formats first (books, journal articles, edited collections, internet sites) and highlight any unusual kinds of sources to check at the end.

Hope this helps speed things up – let me know how you get on!

Guest feature: editing LGBTQ+ fiction

This week *cue drum roll* we have the first guest feature on the blog!

Those of you familiar with my previous life as a sociologist will know I have a background in LGBTQ activism among football fans in Southeast Europe. For this reason, I was thrilled to learn of an editor, Nick Taylor, who works with the LGBTQ writing community. I asked him a few questions and here is what he had to say about his work – enjoy!

What kind of texts do you edit? What kind of books do you like to read?

Some of my earliest memories are of reading, or being read to. My favourite was Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, a fantasy that works as well for children as it does adults. It was such a clever book that every time I reread it, I discover something new!

I moved into editing and proofreading full-time because of a love of reading. I’ll read most things! As long as the story is good and the first page has me hooked, I’m in! I’ve read science fiction and fantasy, to romance and erotica, stopping off with thrillers and crime novels and a good celebrity autobiography.

Most of my editing work is done with fiction, although I also edit “creative non-fiction”, which includes things like self-help books and memoirs. Genre doesn’t concern me too much, as I feel getting to a good story is a key part of my role. Genre is, in my opinion, just a way for booksellers and libraries to decide where to put the book!

Who do you work with and how long have you been editing?

I’ve been really excited by the developments in self-publishing, from amateur efforts a few years ago to really professional looking books today. I love to support independent authors as they are so passionate about their stories and making everything just right. It’s an investment for them. For too long, publishers have been gatekeepers to publishing but now more and more people are being allowed to tell their unique stories.

I moved into full-time editing at the start of 2020, having done some writing and editing alongside other jobs. Training was key and allowed me to hone my craft, giving my clients a far more professional edit.

In your opinion, what makes a book a work of LGBTQ+ fiction?

That’s a tough one, because it’s more than just having LGBTQ+ characters. I think it needs to speak of something in the LGBTQ+ experience and deal with the “otherness” that is so often felt by the community.

That doesn’t mean it all has to go wrong. It’s not all about discrimination and struggle, rather about identity and how that doesn’t fit with a society that, still, defaults to heterosexual expectations.

Stories like Simon vs The Home Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli, or Lie With Me, by Philippe Besson, that deal with adolescent feelings are vitally important. They show young people that those feelings are entirely normal and whilst they might be hard to deal with at the moment, life gets better.

Where does general fiction stand on LGBTQ+ issues? Is it becoming increasingly LGBTQ+ sensitive?

Whilst the casts of general fiction might be slowly diversifying, there’s still room to improve. Frequently, LGBTQ+ characters are the best friends, the supporters or somehow playing a lesser role. We need more LGBTQ+ heroes!

For a while, LGBTQ+ fiction was read pretty exclusively by those in the community. With the successes of stories like Call Me by Your Name, by André Aciman, we are starting see a wider readership. And that can only be a good thing for everyone.

Science fiction is a genre well known for experimenting with different ways of thinking about society – take Ursula Le Guin’s book The Left Hand of Darkness, which describes a society of people with no fixed sex. Do you work in these genres? Do you think they have played a role in LGBTQ+ emancipation?

Science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy genres have always been excellent for LGBTQ+ characters. There’s something safe about exploring alternative worlds with characters who don’t fit the present conventions.

A lot of my work recently has been with authors of these genres with a cast of really diverse characters. You can sense how liberating it has been for these writers to create worlds that are far more tolerant and accepting of LGBTQ+ peoples – and species!

It is also a safe way to explore some of the issues that LGBTQ+ people face in the real world. It is, after all, through fiction that we find out about ourselves and reflect on how we deal with the world around us.

What do you think of the concept of a sensitivity edit? Do you offer this service?

This is another tough question! I wonder if because I am part of the LGBTQ+ community, I am more aware of sensitivity issues, therefore I don’t feel the need for someone else to read the text. That said, I do not profess to be an expert in, say, trans issues, so if I felt there was potential for something to be misinterpreted or even offence to be caused, I would seek out an appropriate person and ask their opinion. Luckily, the LGBTQ+ writing community is very friendly and very helpful!

Of course, if you are not from the community you might feel that sensitivity readers are important to ensure that you are not causing offence. But, for me, that’s something a fiction editor should be doing. It’s a path to navigate: if you don’t know, and don’t want to deliberately upset anyone, the best thing to do is simply ask. There’s plenty of people out there who are more than happy to offer their support.

And finally, are there any great books or resources you would recommend for editors and authors interested in engaging with LGBTQ+ concerns?

For editors, The Radical Copyeditor has some excellent advice on working with LGBTQ+ themes, including style guides and a really useful blog that discusses all sorts of language issues surrounding inclusion and diversity.

For writers, the organisation Out on the Page has a great forum and runs some excellent workshops. I was lucky enough to be invited to one, to talk about editing, and it was a delight.

A massive thanks to Nick for taking the time to answer my questions and feature on my blog! If you would like to learn more about Nick or work with him on an editorial project, check out his website or drop him an email (nick@justwriteright.co.uk)

What issues do novice AND experienced academic writers have in common?

Every summer I teach academic reading and writing to international students before they start postgraduate studies at a UK university. The students, mostly from Asia with upper-intermediate (roughly B2) English skills, are often grappling with academic writing in English for the first time in their lives.

As an academic editor, I see many of the issues they experience come up again at a more advanced level when working with multi-language authors. What are these issues and how are they manifest at these two different levels?

  • Register

On the summer course, this is taught in a very basic way – students are taught that academic language is formal, and that you should use cautious language and hedging frequently (making changes such as: increasingly>more and more; receive>get, it is likely that>it is definitely true that). Sometimes stronger students who have had more contact with non-standard Englishes, have lived in English-speaking countries, or both, have issues with overusing less-formal registers.

At a more advanced level, register in the social sciences and humanities must be attuned to subtle (sub)disciplinary conventions. Writing in a very specific style can be a dog-whistle strategy of demonstrating that one is a member of a particular academic in-group too, but it can take writers a long time after the PhD to become totally tuned in to these disciplinary conventions. Experienced writers living in English-speaking countries continue to have issues with using non-formal registers.

  • Structure

Many students on the summer course have issues with structuring their writing. I teach these students a simple model of using a thesis statement, signposting and topic sentences to structure their essay writing. One specific feature of academic writing in English is that of making linkages obvious through clear signposting and often unambiguous messaging. As English is a global academic language, less contextual information can be assumed about the reader and therefore the author must make linkages clearer in the text so the reader understands simpler connections (see the discussion here on “writer- versus reader-responsible languages”). This comes up all the time in copyediting too, where certain usages of “we” and “our country/our situation” are taken for granted and links are deliberately made more ambiguously with more reading between the lines expected.

More generally, though, structure is one thing experienced authors have usually “nailed” pretty well. While certain ways of structuring an article dominate somewhat (e.g. a “report” style format in the social sciences, with a literature review, discussion of the context etc. and maybe an ethnographic introduction in social anthropology), one of the joys of editing is getting a glimpse of more creative ways of structuring writing that emerge over the course of a writing career.

  • Cohesion

Cohesion is about organizing writing and might be considered as the dynamic counterpart to structure. Cohesion is great fun to teach on the summer course, with students being given sentences to play around with and order appropriately!

When editing, I find that cohesion can be a big problem for academic writers who rush their articles, as well as those coming from very descriptive traditions in which the articles present lots of material but do not analyse it deeply. Less experienced writers keen to publish to establish their career are particularly prone to writing rushed texts that lack coherence. Perfectionists are less likely to have problems with cohesion.

  • Using sources

Students working with academic English for the first time on the course make very different kinds of errors to more experienced writers. Using quotation marks, paraphrasing, and summarizing material correctly are important skills taught on the summer course.

More experienced writers have issues with knowing when to cite, when something is common knowledge and with knowing which sets of authors should be cited for a literature review in a subdiscipline, for example. Some of these higher-level issues require subject expertise and academic editors can only point out more glaring errors, such as incorrect formatting of references, e.g. following the wrong capitalization rules, using the wrong or inconsistent punctuation in in-text citations etc.

  • Critical thinking and voice

These are two concepts that are often taught in a very specific way in Anglo-American academic language teaching. I have discussed voice in a previous blog post here. Critical thinking is often taught alongside a stress on originality and of looking at an issue from more than one perspective, which could be described as overcoming a kind of residual narcissism in novice writing.

Some of the higher-level essays I receive for editing show an awareness of these informal Anglo-American ‘rules of the game’, while others come from outside this tradition. Sometimes, demonstrating an implicit awareness of these points can be key to an article being accepted for publication and their lack can lead to savage comments in peer review. For these texts, academic editing is also about translating between different writing norms and expectations and pointing these out to the reader if necessary (depending on where the writer wants to publish).

  • Editing and proofreading

Finally, what about language accuracy, the elephant in the room? The short courses I teach do not focus on grammar. Students are expected to know the main principles already. If they have an issue with articles or tenses, there are numerous online resources that can help. Identifying each individual student’s weak spots is more important so that they can make a checklist they can roll through with every writing assignment.

The issues with language accuracy are usually much higher level with more advanced writers, although sometimes I receive a text that needs a lot of work. Some accuracy issues persist at all levels e.g. verb–subject agreement and use of certain tenses and are specific to the writer’s language background. When editing papers for publication, more subtle problems such as comma splices and dangling modifiers, as well as style and spelling preferences (e.g. focused/focussed?) are more common – all points I normally ignore when teaching on the summer course.

The PTC Basic Proofreading Course – A Review

From October 2019–July 2020 I completed the Publishing Training Centre’s Essential Proofreading Course. The course aim is to take you from being an absolute beginner at proofreading to being ready to work for publishers [disclaimer: I was not an absolute beginner!]. It is an online self-study course (around 50 hours) with tutor feedback, and it has been broken down into five sections (and a short introductory section). Each section contains study notes, lots of exercises to complete and a tutor-assessed task.

The first section includes making track changes in MS Word. It underscores the difference between proofreading from a publisher’s perspective and when a student, researcher or member of the public asks for a “proofread” or “language edit”. For publishers, copyediting may be completed in MS Word, while proofreading is typically completed using PDF or paper proofs.

The second section deals with proofreading on screen with PDF proofs (using markup tools), while the third and fourth sections focus on learning the BSI proofreading symbols.

The final chapter revises the most important points (e.g. ensuring you know your hyphens from your en and em dashes) and outlines the entire publishing process. The course has since been updated to include more exercises on proofreading on PDFs and online self-publishing.

Why take the course?

I run an editorial business and most of my work is in academic and policy-related copyediting and translation. I often work with ESL academic authors across Europe, and also with packagers copyediting titles for mainstream academic publishers. While I had learned a great deal on the job, I had had little formal training in editorial work and wanted to ensure I had all bases covered and understood all aspects of the publishing process.

For this reason, I started my formal editorial training with a proofreading course, despite not intending to work as a professional proofreader. Several of the skills learnt (looking for grammar and editorial errors) are key to being a good copyeditor too – scoring highly in these categories on this course improved my confidence in my work. Besides this, the course covered a wide range of texts, from public information leaflets to academic and medical texts and fiction. As my experience has mostly been with academic texts and policy reports, these exercises improved my confidence in taking on a wider variety of editorial projects. I learnt that my skills could be applied to other fields, that I was particularly strong at spotting errors, and that I had to be careful not to make unnecessary interventions or author queries. I also learnt that I was better working on paper than on screen!

Some of the skills specific to proofreading also improved my work completed for existing clients – I am often asked to copyedit political policy papers and reports, which are then typeset and formatted, usually by a graphic designer. I am then sometimes asked to do one final check through (not a full proofread). I was able to better spot errors with layout, e.g. with rectos and versos, indented paragraphs etc. after completing this course, which meant that these final reports were more professionally presented. These may seem like small differences, but they can have an impact on whether a reader takes a text seriously or not.

I was also thrilled to get the chance to work on a fiction text, and I became aware of some other issues that emerge in fiction proofreading as compared with non-fiction texts. The feedback on the five assessments really improved the quality of my editorial work too.

Tips and recommendations

My recommendation for this course is to go slow: were I solely focused on becoming a proofreader, I would have repeated more of the exercises and perhaps used the full allotted 12 months to complete the course. Whenever I rushed a section, my marks slipped. It is worth remembering that each assessed text contains many more errors than you would expect in a regular piece of copy, and so it is worth slowing down and looking at each text several times with a fresh pair of eyes.

The course is focused on UK English language varieties and I would have liked to see a little more guidance on US/UK distinctions in the course materials (US English standards generally seem slightly more prescriptive, with numerous style guides, while UK English has taken on many structures and forms from US English language varieties), and a little more diversity of background in the texts, which I especially thought about as the Black Lives Matter protests began to have a big impact on the editorial communities I belong to.

Overall, I enjoyed the course and scored a merit. I feel this training has helped me lay a stable foundation that will boost my confidence when completing the next parts of my editorial/publishing training: the CIEP Copyediting Suite and PTC Creative Copywriting courses. The PTC and CIEP courses are also widely recognised as valuable in the publishing sector, so this will help me with finding future work with publishers. And learning the proofreading symbols was fun too!

Editorial Work as a Post-Ac Career?

This blog post is aimed at researchers who are thinking through possible exit strategies from the academy. Here are some tips on who editorial work suits, what setting up an editorial business involves, and what first steps you can take. I took these steps just over a year ago. The focus here is on researchers with a social sciences/humanities background, but much of what is written applies more generally.

What you perhaps have and know already (maybe without realizing it)

As a social sciences/humanities researcher you will already have highly developed writing and editorial skills, as well as a deep understanding of disciplinary conventions, certain historical or geographical contexts, and your areas of expertise. Depending on how long you have worked as a researcher after finishing the PhD, you may have published an academic book and worked as a journal editor, project manager, or both. All this experience will help you understand the writing and publishing process better and a good postdoc project building these skills and your academic network may stand you in good stead for a transition to editorial work.

Academic articles and books are some of the most demanding documents in terms of editorial technicalities. This means that your familiarity with them puts you in a good position for editing other kinds of documents with confidence (after editorial training). On the other hand, academic copyediting for mainstream publishers pays some of the lowest editing and proofreading rates available. This is probably because the books are often produced on tight margins, with relatively small print runs. The stakes are much higher, for example, with a course textbook. Nevertheless, when working with clients (researchers, students etc.) directly, you are likely to get decent rates at first, so one good piece of advice is to specialize first and diversify later.

What you perhaps don’t have and know (maybe without realizing it)

Most academic researchers have a fairly good grasp of MS Word (as discussed in this great book) and of academic referencing systems. As an editor, however, you will have to get to grips with MS Word on another level, finding your way around Word Styles, Find and Replace, Wildcards and Macros. You will also have to learn how to deal with clients, write and follow briefs and deal with issues that arise (such as version control, with occasional authors making random untracked amendments to documents etc.).

The way in which you approach time is completely different to at university too. At university, you expect to receive a salary and in turn spend your time completing a variety of compulsory (lecturing, writing articles) and voluntary (e.g. peer review, committees, impact/visibility) work. The “voluntary” activities (albeit necessary to progress) rely on a certain amount of goodwill and academic citizenship, and this means that deadlines can be missed and they can drag. The same goes for writing articles, with researchers regularly missing publisher deadlines. In contrast, as a freelancer, you have no salary. You simply have billable hours (e.g. an hour of editing) and unbillable hours (an hour of marketing, doing your books, writing a blog) each week. If you don’t have enough hours billed at a rate you can afford to live on, your business will collapse. In my case, this meant that I became much more organized and conscious of meeting all deadlines and ensuring I had enough work most of the time. In contrast, I recently received peer reviews on an article fourteen months after submitting it – this is a completely different time-logic to running an editorial business.

Finally, you have probably not had any editorial training – and this is crucial.

Who does editorial work suit?

The stereotype is that editorial work suits perfectionists – those among you who spend hours checking every sentence and reference before submitting a text to a journal. I don’t believe this is true and I was never one of those people. Too much perfectionism can be a bad thing as you work to a budget and need to know when to stop and say “this is good enough.” The kind of perfectionism an editorial eye requires is not innate and is much improved through practice. I believe a focus on clarity and conveying writers’ messages clearly, and a love of language and managing the author–editor relationship is just as important as attention to detail.

The tech side to editing (e.g. macros, advanced find and replace routines) suits people who like solving problems or even computer programming (no programming skills are required though). Based on my own experience, I would also say editorial work suits academic researchers who:

  • Enjoy reading up on a wide variety of subjects and not just their (disciplinary) specialism
  • Love writing and working with text
  • Enjoy helping and serving other writers (you and your ideas are not in the spotlight)
  • Have a love of language – grammar, register, style, tone, texture, punctuation etc.
  • Are looking for a job they can scale up or down (many editors work part-time and it is particularly suited to those with variable time commitments, e.g. people with childcare obligations)
  • Don’t want to completely cut themselves off from their academic work and network (perfect for a transition)
  • Are happy working by themselves at a desk almost all day, every day
  • Are not motivated to earn lots of money (but who want to be comfortable)
  • Want a leisurely daily routine (no commute, breaks when you want them, home cooking etc.)

Crucially, editorial work suits researchers who like the research and writing part of their job, but are unhappy with other aspects of the academic system and career path, or who are looking for a role that can be part-time and balanced around other obligations.

How can I transition?

Start telling people you are available for editorial work. Complete your editorial training, preferably with a recognized provider (e.g. the CIEP or PTC in the UK). You can do this alongside your main job, as there are online, part-time courses available and it is best to not rush through the materials. It is probably worth doing a proofreading course, even if you want to be a copyeditor or structural editor. When you are ready, set up a website (or repurpose your academic website). Remember that the most interesting jobs will probably come via your existing network/employer at first, and so even if you want to specialize in something different, such as fiction editing, it is worth focusing on your current specialism first.

Good luck and feel free to contact me if you have any questions!

VAT and me!

When I set up as a sole trader, relocating from Germany to the UK, I decided to register voluntarily for VAT. Today I will discuss why I did this (was I crazy?!) and what it has meant for my business during my first year of full-time trading. [Disclaimer – no tax advice is offered here and I am not in a position to give it – here I explain my reasoning and the knock-on effects on my business].

Why register for VAT?

In the UK, the threshold of VAT-taxable turnover for VAT registration is really high (around £85,000) compared with other European countries. In Spain the threshold is nil, whereas in Germany it is € 22, 000. Obviously, a full-time sole trader would hope to earn more than €22, 000 after a year or two, and definitely more than nil. This means that understanding and dealing with VAT is the norm in many EU countries, while it is not so common in the UK. For many companies across Europe, having a VAT number is a sign of professionalism as my business advisor in Germany highlighted when we discussed VAT. This alone is not reason enough to register though!

The main reason I registered is because several key clients in Slovenia, Croatia and Germany told me they could not do business with me if I did not have a VAT number – and unlike in those three countries, it is impossible to get the number in the UK without registering for VAT itself. Periodically, debates occur on UK translation forums about whether VAT registration is a requirement for UK–EU transactions – the answer is unclear and seems to be confused around questions of UK–EU sovereignty and whether individual EU states actually apply EU tax directives to the letter [the smaller, newer EU-states appear to]. This will all change again after the Brexit transition period anyway.

What does it mean for me?

Most translators, especially in their first few years of trading, do a lot of Business-to-Business (B2B) work – e.g. for translation agencies. Early on, there is much to be gained from the feedback, guidance and learning of industry standards that occurs through working with agencies and publishers. VAT registration does not affect work for these kinds of customer, except for a little bit more paperwork each year. This is because businesses can claim VAT back. However – and here’s the sting – it does mean that the price of work completed for individual customers (B2C) has to take into account the extra 20% in tax that must be paid.

This means that I either have to cover the VAT myself or charge private customers more. Most of the time, I have opted for the middle ground, perhaps charging 10% more than I would were I not registered for VAT. However, private work completed for individual customers often pays slightly better as there is no “middle-person” (an agency, publisher, packager factoring in their costs). This does mean that some clients may be put off by the slightly higher prices, but then, competing solely on price is not viable for everyone in the long-term, as Louise Harnby describes well here. [Personally, I think a tax that charges all individuals a blanket percentage and companies nothing is not a fair way of doing things, but that is another issue entirely].

There is a clear loser in registering for VAT, however, and that is in sourcing work through peer-to-peer platforms. These are sites (e.g. Upwork, Peerwith), where you pitch services directly to end-customers, who find you and hire your services through the platform. The platform then takes a cut (e.g. 20%). Where you are contracting directly with the end-customer, you lose out on both the VAT and the platform fees, which may be 10–20%.

When working with academic researchers, VAT registration means it is much better for me if I am paid officially, via a university out of project funds, rather than privately, out of their own pocket – this is usually also better for the researcher. This has encouraged me to seek out more “professional” projects (e.g. book copyediting and developmental editing) and turn me away from, for example, editing masters and PhD dissertations. I believe this is also good for my business as I can advertise the published books I have worked on.

To conclude, in my first few years of full-time trading, I expect to do more work with VAT-registered companies. The lost income when contracting with private customers is compensated for by the generally better rates I receive, and I learn how VAT works. I have avoided peer-to-peer platform gigs and VAT registration has skewed me towards working with larger institutions and organisations.

I will likely review this decision in the future – particularly if I plan on working with indie authors – but for now, it makes sense!

The Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic on My Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has already reshaped our relation to work and life in big ways. Certain sectors will never be the same again, while some are working under extreme pressure (respect to all health workers!). Many small and medium-sized companies are likely to be especially badly hit – especially those that rely on big flows of people and material goods. The joke is that nothing has really changed for translators and editors – we still sit in front of our computers in home offices, working away on texts. But we also depend on relationships with people outside of our homes, and this world is reconfiguring. How have I been affected by COVID-19 and the sectors I work in more widely?

My Work

I have noticed a moderate slowdown in translation and academic editing requests as many universities close operations and researchers are more focused on online tuition, balancing work–family life, and reduced or no access to archives. Luckily, I have had an academic book translation to work on and this has given me stability and a routine over the “Corona” transition period. Further down the line, I expect that these requests will return to normal, while copyediting for publishers (all completed remotely) is as before. Perhaps the isolation conditions will result in many academics and writers staying at home and writing more. Yet, on the other hand, finding funds for editing, and translation work will not be top of people’s list of spending priorities.

I have responded to the moderate slowdown by working on my CPD as I have a proofreading course and SDL Trados training I have been wanting to complete for months!

Wider Effects

As concerns translation, the effects vary across sectors. Marketing has seen a surge in demand for COVID-19 related translations, while there has been a slowdown reported in legal and medical translation, supposedly now easing off. Public service interpreters have been particularly badly affected.

For editorial services, my guess for the sectors I work in is an initial continuation of “business as usual”, followed by a medium-term slowdown of work from academic packagers and publishers, and an almost immediate initial slowdown of direct requests from researchers and writers, which might later subside. Obviously, these circumstances are new, and unprecedented, so it is hard to make predictions, although it will be interesting to revisit them six months down the line!

Given that I and many other editors & translators have few overheads (in principle I can get by with access to a computer and fast internet), there are no direct large costs associated with keeping the business running – a stark contrast with café, pub, shop, and other kinds of small business owners, who will be much more drastically hit. Those of us who have saved up an emergency fund will be able to get through several months of a reduction in workload as well. The longer-term consequences are more difficult to predict.

For now, the priority is staying safe and well, and adapting to the changing circumstances in a way that keeps the wheels turning! More tips from a wider range of perspectives can be found on the CIEP blog post on this very same issue.

How has your work been affected (or not) by COVID-19?