Book Trends Blog

October 28, 2011

Editing Non-Native English

For those who edit books and articles professionally, occasionally you might run into a special challenge. How do you deal with works written by clients for whom English is not their native language. I certainly can’t claim to be a trained linguist; however, I have faced this challenge a number of times in my past. As a retired intelligence professional, I have been interested in other languages and have lived in other countries where languages other than English are spoken. Here is a list of languages for which some of my editing clients spoke as their primary languages:

  • German
  • Spanish
  • French Canadian
  • Korean
  • Chinese
  • Farsi
  • Japanese

What can you expect if you find yourself working for such a client? First,English is one of the more difficult languages in the world. We have so many exceptions and sound alike word choices. We have been influenced by so many other languages. When you couple these with the usual writing and punctuation mistakes we see in native speaking English writers, it’s not surprising that writers from other languages have problems.

As editors, we owe these clients two important aspects. First, we want to help them get their English correct. Second, we want to try to insure we help them communicate what they really mean when transitioning from their own languages. The following are some hints that you might find useful for accomplishing these two goals:

  1. Watch for patterns in sentence structure and word order. Usually these will become noticeable as you read through their work. If these sound funny or unusual, they may express how the client’s native language is structured. I have edited a number of clients who first wrote their book or article in their native language and then directly translated over word by word without considering how we arrange our words in sentences.
  2. Watch for unusual ways of saying things. My Korean martial art instructor had funny little ways of driving points home. For example: “If you hit him here, he should be die.” He was a professional translator with a degree in English from Seoul University, yet he still used these little idiosyncrasies in word choices.
  3. Sometimes clients will use idioms from their native languages that don’t make sense in English, just as we have many that don’t translate into their languages very well. You’ll need to ask what the client meant when you run into these. Idioms are the mark of true fluency in foreign languages. For example, I remember one phrase in German that translated into English thusly: “That place is so strange, that foxes and hares greet each other and shake hands.” This is not something I’ve ever heard used in American English, but it was common in Bayrish Deutsch (Bavarian German).

The bottom line is that editing folks for whom English is not a native language requires a lot more work and care in communicating. For this reason, I charge higher rates for such jobs because of the extra time, thought, and care they take. Such a client needs to understand this up front. It is always a good idea to ask for a sample of the work before coming to terms. I have had jobs that have required a complete re-write. They always take more time and effort. You may find you just don’t want to take it on, and that’s OK as long as it’s determined up front.

Editing non-native English can be challenging but not impossible. It can lead to frustrations, but it can also lead humorous situations. It also can open doorways into a better understanding of another culture. Although I was initially raised as an Indiana farm boy with no travel experience or exposure to other languages and cultures, that certainly changed when I went to college and into the military. For these reasons, I always provided foreign cultural opportunities to my four children, which has held them in good stead in their lives. As editors, we must be open to learning about other languages and cultures in order to improve our abilities of communicating with and understanding of people throughout the world. Editing non-native English users is a good place to start.



  1. Informative and timely–thank you, Bob!

    Comment by reddirttown — October 28, 2011 @ 12:49 pm | Reply

  2. You also have to know how to be exceedingly tactful and polite– some people (especially those with fancy degrees and/or who work as translators) can be very sensitive and even hostile about being told that their English has mistakes or, most importantly, doesn’t sound natural. They often demand to see the rule proving them wrong. They may not be violating any grammar law, but every native speaker knows what constitutes natural writing and what doesn’t. Good editors know how to diffuse this tension and not step on any toes.

    Very interesting article. Thanks for writing it.

    Comment by vocabat — October 28, 2011 @ 1:15 pm | Reply

  3. You make a very good point. So far, I’ve been fortunate.

    Comment by bobspear — October 28, 2011 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

  4. Quite accurate, I have used this very method successfully innumerable times. It will serve as am excellent guide to others who may wish to or have a reason to attempt a translation.

    Comment by Valentino Incanto Profferi — October 30, 2011 @ 7:41 am | Reply

  5. Good post and good comments. I don’t have your extensive experience, but I do have some . . . also on the other side of the coin as I try to write in German and although I’m fluent, I’m not a native speaker. I had a pertinent experience on my blog yesterday. I had written about an experience in Germany (in English on my blog) and translated the German phrase “schlecte Augen” as “rascally eyes,” which is correct because of the usage, but not a literal translation. A new reader suggested that I didn’t know what I was talking about and should have looked it up in a dictionary. 🙂 A dictionary would not have been very helpful unless it included such idioms. He was right literally but not about the meaning of the phrase as used.

    Comment by Jerri — October 31, 2011 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

  6. I see that I was typing too fast. The phrase should be “schlechte Augen.” Left out the second h.

    Comment by Jerri — October 31, 2011 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

    • You are so right, Jerri. For our non-German speakers, the literal translation of that phrase is “bad eyes,” which is a good illustration of the importance of idioms.

      Comment by bobspear — October 31, 2011 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

  7. For me there is nothing worst than seeing a peice of work which has been destroid by bad translation. It is important that interpreters understand the language fully before attempting to translate.

    Comment by grace — November 21, 2011 @ 1:01 pm | Reply

    • Yes, although in this case, we’re not talking about translating a foreign language but correcting incorrectly rendered English. There is a difference.

      Comment by bobspear — November 21, 2011 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

  8. I have to type reports each day at work, which are dictated by doctors for whom English is not their native language, I often have to rewrite the script to make it make any sense. It is a nightmare. But how do you do this without offending.

    Comment by amelia — November 22, 2011 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

    • That is such a valid concern since so many doctors have huge egos. Courtesy and patience are hallmark attitudes in cases such as these. If you have a background in English as a field of study, that might help because doctors do respect education.

      Comment by bobspear — November 22, 2011 @ 12:27 pm | Reply

    • Folks in our business generally don’t hand off their gigs to others; however, what you can do is join writers email lists and writers groups to seek out work. You can advertise on writers’ websites and become known and advertise in writers’ magazines and literary journals. That’s how most of us do it.

      Comment by bobspear — November 22, 2011 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  9. Hi I wonder if you could help, I am looking for a job editing and proof reading on a self employed basis, would it be possible to question whether you may have any jobs?

    Comment by sophie — November 22, 2011 @ 1:45 pm | Reply

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