Self-Editing for Bilinguals

© Jesse Burgheimer, CC-BY-SA

© Jesse Burgheimer, CC-BY-SA

Okay, we are two-thirds through NaNoWriMo. This means two things:

  1. I really need to update the progress meter, but first
  2. It’s about time to talk about editing.

Because I am me, let’s start with editing. Because doing so means I am writing something for my blog, which is something I should do more frequently anyway.

Of course, many people have already said a lot about editing and even about self-editing, its pros, cons and some approaches to it. That part you can probably google.

But my own self-editing process is somewhat different from those usually advised, mostly because it is something not everybody can do. This is for those of us who speak more than one language fluently. Luckily, English is the easiest language to gain fluency in these days, thanks to its ubiquity on the internet and in media in general. So yay for anybody who is not a native speaker of English reading this blog! For any bilingual who is a native speaker of English: Well done, you had the harder road among those two sides. Again, not because of any properties of the language, but because it is just harder to get a lot of practice in your second language.
So, let’s get to the point. In case the title has not given it away, this is it:

The Bilingual Translate-Edit Method

The short version of this is easy: Translating a text back and forth between the language it was written in and your other language, is a rewarding process, even if you don’t speak your second language fluently.

Now, the long version.

When learning a foreign language, the better you get, the more obvious it will become translation is anything but an easy task because languages tend to be very different from each other.

Obviously. Image: Natalie Moxam/Public Domain

You don’t say?
Image: Natalie Moxam/Public Domain

Different languages form sentences differently, have different figures of speech, different go-to metaphors, they even tend to involve different approaches to the world itself in some ways. This makes translation hard. This is why translators are very well-paid and why automated translation is just about the hardest task you can assign a computer.

When editing, this is good. The trick is this: Translation forces you to view your writing in context again. Thinking about the way you inform and/or entertain, many problems of a text will become obvious. You will clearly see points where information is missing because sentences suddenly become incomplete after translation. You will see redundancies when a sentence explains something you just described. All this happens because translation cannot be done word by word. When you translate, you force yourself to view every word in its context. This is what most self-editing is missing, often boiling down to a mere word-for-word grammar check.

To do this, you should be an advanced speaker of a second language, but you don’t need to be perfect. Maybe even fluent is too much. All you need to have learned is how not to translate by just replacing words with corresponding words in the other language using a dictionary (nothing wrong with using a dictionary, though). The better you are, the better your results will be, but you don’t need to be perfect to start. Remember, your goal is not really to make a translation, it’s to find errors by way of translating a work back and forth. Your finished text will be in whatever language you originally wrote it down.

How to do this

  1. Make a backup copy of your original text. Seriously, whatever you do, do not translate within your original document. I once accidentally saved a translation over the English original, destroying it. So, I can’t stress this enough, do make a backup copy. Preferably name one of them something like xyz-translation.doc
  2. Be sure you switched to writing in your translation copy
  3. Now, translate the text into your other language, ironing out flaws as you stumble upon them. Take note of any flaws encountered. This will be the hardest part of this editing process.
  4. Translate it back into the original language, again taking note of any flaws encountered. Do not check your original yet, translate this back independently. Chances are, the language will have turned clunky through the process. Don’t worry about that yet.
  5. Now, compare the original to both your list of encountered flaws and your translation. Change the original (or another copy of it for extra security) accordingly.
  6. Now, check the original again, this time for grammar, style, and spelling to make sure there are no visible “scars”, points where it is obvious something was added, deleted or changed.

Yes, this ends in another round of editing. The goal of this method is not to make editing easier or faster, it’s to make self-editing more reliable.

I hope this is helpful to a lot of you guys. Have fun! Good luck! Get all the success you earn!