Historically speaking, proofreading referred to reviewing a “galley proof,” which was the near-final version of a publication that had already been typeset. At that late stage, any changes to the text needed to be minimal due to the additional labor of re-setting the type. (Think “Walt Whitman,” Leaves of Grass.)
Although we no longer use type-set, the essential role of a modern proofreader has not changed. And in the context of international legal translations, a proofreader is all but indispensable.
Generally speaking, proofreaders check for typographical errors and consistency in style, grammar, and usage. The standards for modern English, including modern legal writing, are based on the Chicago Manual of Style or The Elements of Style by Strunk & White.
In the context of translations, the role of a proofreader is a hybrid between that of a classical proofreader and what is typically known in the publishing industry as a “copy editor.” This is because although the proofreader is not permitted to change the meaning of the source text, he or she is expected to make minor editorial changes that enhance the accuracy of the translation so that it properly conveys the underlying meaning and tone of the source text
The primary directive of modern American writing is, “Omit Needless Words.”
It should come as no surprise that original foreign-language legal documents routinely violate this directive, often because native standards of usage are different. The role of the proofreader is to balance the competing interests of maintaining the integrity of the source text and assuring the highest degree of accuracy in the translation by fine-tuning the language to meet the expectations of a modern legal audience. In this way, the legal proofreader assures the highest level of accuracy in the final translation before delivery to the client.
Understanding what proofreading “is” therefore also requires understanding what it is “not.”
Proofreaders are not empowered to change the substantive meaning of the source text. They cannot “spruce up” the translation to make the source text sound better, which would be the traditional function of a copy-editor. This is because the role of the translation agency is not to improve the source text, which has already been published and is beyond the editing or proofreading stage, but rather to accurately convey the original meaning of the source with all its warts. Thus, the proofreader is not allowed to correct substantive errors, even if the original author might agree, although oftentimes a translator’s note can be used to alert the reader to inaccuracies in the source.
Thus, for instance, it would not meaningfully alter the source text to remove or replace needless words and phrases, or to use active voice, except where the author deliberately uses passive voice to minimize the role of the actor in the sentence. Nor would it detract from the accuracy of the translation to use modern idioms, in lieu of overly literal translations that fail to capture the colloquialisms of the source. Thus, for instance, the Spanish llueve a mares, which literally translates as “it rains seas,” is better expressed as “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Similarly, por si las moscas literally means, “if it flies,” but is more accurately translated as “just in case.” Likewise, lo que siembres cosecharás – literaly, “What you sow, you will harvest” should be “You reap what you sow.”
To effectively proof a foreign-language legal document, the proofreader therefore needs access to the original source and to be able to work together with the translator to accurately convey the original meaning of the source. Ultimately, the purpose of legal advocacy is to persuade judges. The proofreader makes sure that when a lawyer uses a foreign-language translation in court, nothing in translation will provide opposing counsel with any basis to challenge its accuracy.