Many international and multilingual authors think that translation is the final step before submitting for publication. However, they are not considering another vital step needed for success—line editing. Consider this example:
A physicist wrote up his applied research to submit for publication in a US journal. Having strong English language skills, he did his own writing and translating and sent it to the journal. However, it was returned with strong criticism from one reviewer. The physicist brought the paper and all reviewers’ comments to me. He was confused. He hoped that I, as a line editor specializing in academic writing by multilingual researchers, could decipher the critique and offer some suggestions.
It is well known that the academic publishing process is challenging. Add a language barrier, and it is even harder. Moreover, despite being an anonymous and blind process, peer reviewers have human biases and can react negatively to language choices and writing style.
In this post, I’ll explain how line editing differs from translating and why submitting a manuscript that’s only been translated and not edited can lead to misunderstanding and critique.
Translation vs. Editing
We have all typed a word or passage into an online translator like Google Translate or DeepL to express ourselves in another language. But have you ever reversed the translation and seen the original phrase change?
A simple phrase translated back and forth from Spanish to English makes the point: “You stay at home.” I typed this Spanish sentence into Google Translate, “Se quedan en casa,” and “They stay at home,” appeared. When I changed “they” to “you” and reversed the translation, the Spanish version was now, “Te quedas en casa,” or “You [singular, informal] stay at home.”
Weird translations occur because the AI has to make assumptions about the writer’s intent. The English language doesn’t distinguish between a formal versus informal, or plural versus singular “you.” Spanish does; hence, the inexact translation.
A human translator, too, constantly makes predictions about intent when overlaying the context of one language’s structure onto another. No matter whether you are writing a conference paper, journal article, grant application, dissertation, or book manuscript, the primary goal is that your message is clear. You want the audience to understand your meaning in all of its complexity and subtlety without misunderstanding.
Here is where a line editor’s expertise makes the difference. A line editor reads the piece with the reader in mind. Where a reader might experience confusion or misunderstanding due to translation choices, a line editor makes suggestions for clarity and precision. Later, a copyeditor will correct grammatical and mechanical errors. And, finally, a proofreader will review a print-ready piece once more before publication.
Your Audience Matters
By focusing on language choice and writing style, academic line editors improve writing that has been translated. One of the first questions I ask an author is where will the article be submitted? I want to know not only which journal or publisher, but in which geographical region. The answers help me to know who the intended audience is.
English language conventions differ across the globe and go beyond simple words used in one country and not another, like “queue” versus “line.” English language differences also include standards of tone and usage. A line editor will be on the lookout for words, phrases, and sentence structures that have not translated well.
While the primary task of the translator is to convert ideas from one language into another, the line editor imagines how the audience will receive that text. In other words, is the author’s message being presented clearly, without causing confusion or misunderstanding for the reader? Some refer to this work as English checking, language smoothing, or localization, which is particularly helpful for ESL/EFL authors.
What Does a Line Editor Do?
There are specific things a line editor will be looking for:
- Meaning: Words might have been translated correctly but, in some contexts, they don’t convey the author’s intended meaning. Fortunately, in most cases, there is a synonym with a better fit to aid in reader clarity.
- Cadence and phrasing: A sentence might be grammatically correct, but it is ordered in an unusual or confusing way, resulting in awkward phrasing. Another possibility is that multiple sentences follow the same structure or length repeatedly. Repetition of structure or length is considered an issue of cadence and is not recommended for readability—readers prefer variety in sentence structure and in sentence length.
- Tone: The overall tone of a piece and the tone of individual word choices should match the level of the intended audience. In the case of an academic audience in the US, the tone is formal, without too much flourish, but with an appropriate amount of jargon, or specific words and expressions used by a particular discipline. Too much jargon, though, reduces potential readership.
- Style: The preference in US English for academic writing, particularly in STEM, social sciences, and education disciplines, is to use a direct and active style. Language is used efficiently and effectively to convey the message as concisely as possible. It can be the case that a translated piece carries with it the style of another cultural context that prefers, for example, an indirect style. A line editor will guide the author toward a direct style without compromising the author’s message and voice.
- Sensitivity: Another important area of the line editor’s work is to promote language that reflects DEI—diversity, equity, inclusion. Academic culture in the US has embraced DEI awareness. A line editor ensures that an author is not unintentionally offending readers by employing language that is not inclusive, alienating people based on factors like ethnicity, gender, race, or religion.
Indeed, an important overarching goal for the writer is to write with the reader in mind. “How will the reader receive this word, this sentence, this passage?”
Not only does the writing need to be logical and compelling, but the writing style should also be varied enough to keep the reader’s attention, it should be clear enough to support reader understanding, and it should promote an inclusive mindset.
Underneath it all is the task of carrying the reader along in a flow of words that avoid unintentional offense or misunderstanding.
The Importance of Editing for International Authors
The physicist of my story had unintentionally committed an error of meaning. He had correctly translated the word “quality” throughout the article to describe a material he was testing, which presented an obstacle to getting his paper published. In the comments, the very critical reviewer pointed out those passages and raised doubts about the rigor of the research.
Was this peer reviewer reacting out of a bias against qualitative research methodology? I can’t be sure. However, since the other peer reviewers didn’t express similar objections, I suggested that a synonym might be substituted.
Together we consulted a dictionary and weighed the options. He chose “integrity.” A short time later, he let me know that the article had been accepted for publication! It was a lesson and an affirmation for me that a perfectly acceptable word in translation is not always the best option in all contexts. And that is just one of many reasons why line editors help authors “put their best foot forward” to achieve writing and publishing goals!
About the author
Rees is academic line editor with Flatpage. She has more than thirty years of experience as a coach, teacher, mentor of learners from all backgrounds, ages, and English-language skill levels. She edits and English checks all kinds of documents, although typically works with STEM, social science, and education researchers.