Editing non-native English

eCPD Webinars’ introduction to editing non-native English took place at 12:30 CET on 10 February:

The many types of non-native written English have common characteristics that academic language professionals tasked with editing or proofreading should know to look out for. Focusing mainly on European languages, the presenter will give examples of non-native-English textual features and explain why authors produce them. Understanding what drives the author is only part of the story, so we will also look at what drives the editor or proofreader to change text. Though aimed primarily at novices, the presentation will also benefit more seasoned practitioners, by consolidating their knowledge and enabling them to put their editing in perspective.

Led by Joy Burrough-Boenisch (LinkedIn), who doesn’t look like a novice, so I gave it a whirl, along with ~27 other attendees. It still feels weird to pay for a webinar, but this one was interesting and thought provoking.

I’ve worked as an editor for many a year so I was interested in what would be highlighted as specific to editing non-native English, as opposed to poor English, or even English written in a different style from that required. And what are the particular pitfalls in editing the English written by someone whose language you do not know? (That sentence could do with a little help.)

Like me, but unlike most of the webinar participants, Joy came into translating via editing. She stated however that the translation angle gives you a different way of looking at things.

Useful skills:

  • subject knowledge – gives you access to jargon and ‘tribal usage’
  • cultural knowledge – but bear in mind how personal and other factors can affect your editing, including your knowledge of a language (cf going Dutch)

From old friend NASA’s Levels of edit (1980):

[the levels are] not applicable to editing copy by a foreign born person who is not familiar with idiomatic English usage

This is a non- professionalised field – many people who edit non-native English are not necessarily experienced in the types of editing that professional editors perform. Equally, the English word ‘editing’ means different things to different people, depending on their mother tongue and their field of work. Different connotations are attached to editing and the terminology to describe text processing, even within the language professions (journalism, publishing, copywriting and translation, for example). (See Copyediting and proofreading: similar yet different and Can you pass a proofreading test?)

Traits of non-native English:

  • the writing of non-native authors of English is likely to have faults and inadequacies common to all draft texts, such as typos, spelling errors, omissions and inaccuracies, tautology and redundancy, poor writing – ie the same as in native English, which can be a comfort to the non-native author
  • specifically ‘non-native’ characteristics can be grouped into two categories:
    • learner English problems, not always picked up by spelling and grammar checkers, such as limited vocabulary and inappropriate register
    • transfers from the author’s language and culture, such as idioms, ‘airing cupboards’ (cultural things which need explanation), The Egg of Columbus
  • it helps to be able to speak, or at least to be familiar with the author’s language: ie to be able to use translation strategies
  • language transfers – spelling a word according to how you ‘hear’ it
  • convention transfer – punctuation, eg Danish comma rules, overuse of !; Dutch/German paragraphs (incidentally, are English paras universally still indented?)
  • limited vocabulary, leading to overuse and repetition
  • formal vs informal
  • US vs UK English
  • false friends
  • differing usage of Latin words – someone’s probably written a paper on that
  • different writing cultures – sentence length, linking words (English uses lots, eg moreover, in addition), ways of emphasising words
  • absences may also be transferred – in/definite articles, tenses, gender pronouns, lack of a precise word

Strategies for problem solving:

  • consult web resources on common errors made by writers sharing your author’s native language
  • think laterally
  • back-translate – Google Translate can help here

Usage of corpora was bigged up. Ideally the corpus should cover the area you are editing, but you can always create your own.

Editing skills:

  • general editorial principles – remove redundancy, ensure accuracy, edit to achieve clarity of expression and logic of presentation
  • importance of consistency – adhere to a self-imposed or prescribed style (spelling, the use of abbreviations, the formatting of references, appropriate standards for international symbols for units of measurement)
  • follow a style manual which prescribes spelling, punctuation, use of typefaces (italics, for example), capitalisation etc
  • be aware of conventions and practices of both main forms of English (in practice, many non-native-speaker authors write in a mixture of British and American English)
  • consult publicly accessible corpora and build up own corpora of published texts
  • awareness of genre theory – analysing and comparing genres from the author’s culture with the equivalent genres in English can be revealing (eg meeting minutes tense)
  • usage of the mark-up techniques used by (proper) copyeditors is not essential

Translation skills:

  • familiarisation with differences between the source language and the target language acquired from translation means you become particularly alert to false friends and other linguistic and cultural transfers
  • comparing style guides in English with style guides in the author’s language (sprogpolitik) reveals differences in conventions (punctuation, alphabetisation and usage of Latin)
  • back-translating ‘nonsense’ sentences or phrases into the author’s language.  The Internet translation tool will reveal alternative translations for a highlighted word, and this can lead the editor directly or indirectly (via a false friend) to the editorial solution

Some of the above comes from Joy’s article on editing non-native English. See also Supporting research writing: roles and challenges in multilingual settings (co-editor with V Matarese). Finally, membership of  SENSE (Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors; mainly NL, has some DK members) and MET (Mediterranean Editors & Translators; lots of lovely links) can help avoid language attrition, and also be good for networking.

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