Is it Important for an Editor to be Bilingual if Your Manuscript Includes Foreign Words?

I am surprised by the number of best-selling books that have errors in translation in them, errors that could have been caught by an editor familiar with that specific foreign language. An editor needn’t be bilingual since most of these errors could have been caught through more diligent research. That makes them all the more surprising.

For example, a book about the experience of the US diplomats held hostage in Iran for 444 days included misspellings of some of the Iranian leaders at that time. Maybe the editor felt the correct spelling wasn’t something most readers would catch, so why slow down the production? Or maybe the author felt including the misspelling would illustrate his contempt for the persons whose names were misspelled. Or maybe the misspelling was simply the result of an improper transliteration of the Farsi spelling.

Nevertheless, I was surprised. The names of people in the news during those days were burned into my brain since it occurred so shortly after I left Iran at the end of my contract. For example, Mehdi Bazargan was one of the rotating list of prime ministers during that time. His first name was Mehdi, not Mahdi, a name that refers to a spiritual and temporal leader who will rule before the end of the world and restore religion and justice. Yet, the book consistently referred to Mahdi Bazargan.

Similar errors in lesser-known books by lesser-known authors aren’t quite so surprising. In a novel about an American woman who manages to get herself assigned to world hot spots where she meets up with spies and international businessmen and eventually discovers the illicit diversion of funds donated by Muslims who follow the third of the five pillars of Islam uses a misspelling of that pillar, the giving of alms, written in Latin script as zakat. Her novel uses zatak, the name of a deodorant manufacturer.

But transliteration from languages with non-Latin alphabets isn’t the only cause of language errors. A book about an American woman who served both in the British SOE and the American OSS provided background about the German military and intelligence services, including the Gestapo, the abbreviation of Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police). The author spelled the full name the way it sounds, but misspelled it as one word and substituted an a for the final e in the first word: Geheimastaatspolizei.

Do these misspellings interfere with the stories? No. But in each case I stopped reading while I pondered how such small errors could have gotten past an editor.

I don’t claim to be bilingual or even fluent in the languages I am familiar with. The only language that I both understand and speak well enough to conduct business in is German. And that doesn’t make me a translator.

I have lived in countries where I daily heard native speakers of other languages on television and radio and I read articles in the newspapers. As a result, my ear is attuned to what sounds right and my eyes recognize patterns that fit or stick out, making it possible for me to recognize simple errors and correct them to make the works better. When I don’t have personal experience with another language, I do the research to ensure the names of characters and what they say make sense to native speakers of those languages. And if that’s not enough, I’ll recommend an editor who can do the job better than I can.

If your manuscript includes foreign names or words, consider having someone familiar with that foreign language edit it, or at least provide one reading pass to confirm the translations and transliterations are correct.

Categories: Writing and EditingTags: , , ,

1 Comment

  1. kathy meissner

    Interesting question. I wouldn’t be very good at knowing how to spell those names, but then research.  In the last 2 books I have read there have been mistakes. One was a verb tense, and in  the other they skipped a word. Hope that won’t become the new norm.   

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

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