Quick, answer this question: How many sheets of paper does your office print in a day? In a month? In an entire year?
If you answered “I have no idea,” congratulations! That’s the correct answer. As part of a translation workflow, proofreading the translation is one step to make sure there are no typos, misplaced or missing punctuation and no problems with the publication’s layout. Because proofing a publish-ready document is a quality check, its cost is part of doing business, especially if you intend the document to be read. Otherwise, why bother writing it in the first place?
Twenty years ago, when I started my career as a translator, I was taught the value of proofreading. A manager at a Manhattan-based print shop gave me my first proofing assignment of galleys with a follow-up question, “Do you know proofing marks?” Before heading for the print shop that day, I took a crash course in proofing marks, which are printed on two pages in most English-language dictionaries. The purpose of marking a galley is to indicate the page editor what changes are requisite, such as misspellings, stacked hyphens, transpositions, letters that should be capitalized, etc. My exposure to proofreading galleys in those days was twofold: attention to detail when preparing the final pages and respect for the beauty of the printed page.
Translators and translation agencies knew proofreading as one of a two-step process to ensure the quality of a translation, editing being the second step. These two stages —proofreading and editing— are different because they fulfill different goals. Proofreading handles the mechanics and visual aspects of letters, words and phrases, columns, tables, graphics and the like. Editing concerns itself with the inner workings of language, mainly stylistic features. A proofreader may spot a misplaced or missing phrase, but he is not supposed to translate it, that’s the editor’s job. Because of the downward pressure on costs, the tasks of proofreading and editing have been fused together. Some translation vendors have done away with proofreading altogether, charging the editor —and even the same translator— with the responsibility of proofing and editing for an even lower price.
Concerns for the environment have also helped to port the paper-based proofreading process on the computer monitor, not the ideal medium to spot for minute errors. A recent Proz discussion on the subject (see it here) revealed that the majority of translators prefer to proof their work directly on-screen. Many of them do it for environmental reasons and refuse to print anything on paper. My answer lies below:
In the rock-paper-scissors game of proofing for things, paper usually beats screen. Why? It’s not our primitive need to touch. It’s not our desire to hold on to the old ways. It’s just simple optics.
The human eye grows fatigued after hours of looking at a screen, which sits at a fixed distance. So, fixed focus for the eye. Our eyes need to refocus and change focus ever so often to fight fatigue. Ask any eye doctor, he’ll tell you to look away from the screen. With a fixed focus, we fail to notice some things, especially smallish items like commas, letters or other glyphs. I find proofing on-screen is great if I only need to do some macro-level proofing (ie, desktop publishing jobs). I only have to check the shape and layout of things.
On the other hand, if the document is small (2-5 pages), nothing beats printing it and checking it under good light, even reading it out loud —like some of you suggested. I don’t buy the green argument for every piece of screen real estate. Some things are meant to be printed and checked. I learned to proof galleys at a printer’s shop in Manhattan, NY in 1992. I learned to use proofing marks, I learned to spot things, like stacked hyphens and words that aren’t supposed to be hyphenated, plus misplaced periods and missing paragraphs. Trust me, nothing beats the manual labor we can put in.
I think it is essential that we involve manual skills to verify the good quality of a written piece. Using a pen to mark errors, follow lines, jotting notes and other things help our mind become more aware of the medium the written piece will be on. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I prefer to read a manual, a magazine or a book in printed form. I can relate better to its physicality, its three-dimensional place in my world and its reality. Looking at documents only expressed in bytes is a bit limiting, in my view, and our eyes are overstretched in their function not just to view, but to measure, remember, bookmark, segmentize and categorize at increasingly faster speeds. We are punishing our brains to become simple receptacles of information, and leave their marvelous abilities underused.
Perhaps you’ll say that proofreading a long document on the screen is more efficient, especially with track changes in a collaborative environment. But an efficient process has to have some ground rules or else it runs amok. If you have a team of translators working on the same document, maybe you save time because everyone is working on a virtual document with little need for emailing a new copy of it with changes. And these collaborative environments are encouraged by the customer to be as horizontal in authority as possible. So, who has the last word? Who vets the editors? What is stopping an editor from sowing the page with red track changes? In my experience, the temptation to overcorrect and overproof is too great to resist, having handled pages and pages of electronic documents bleeding with track changes. Have you factored in the time it takes to review each proofmark in those track changes? A proof in print, on the other hand, helps to discipline the editor’s mind and only focus on the essential changes that are required. You still need to set some proofing and editing rules, however, so that everyone operates with the same definitions of what an error is.
All in all, proofing on paper counterbalances the mental stress of translating in a computer medium. Using my fingers and hands to manually proofread a written piece reminds me that I can bring craftsmanship to the process and take pride in it. Using proofreading marks is a useful tradition that underscores the art of publishing.