by Síobhán Denham
Introduction to my career
I started out working with authors for whom English is a Second Language (ESL authors) almost by accident. As the spouse of an Irish diplomat, I had to abandon my career in science almost before it had really begun. Subsequently, following a conversation I had with another diplomatic spouse, I decided to train as a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) as it was a qualification I could move with from country to country. I enjoyed teaching English as a Second Language both abroad and on home postings for about 20 years.
About 11 years ago I could see from personal experience that there was a growing interest in editing for those whose first language was not English, as I was being asked to edit research papers and theses. In many European universities, courses are now taught through English; PhD theses are increasingly written through the medium of English. While the European Commission has twenty-three ‘official and working’ languages, the three procedural languages are English, French and German. With the enlargement of the EU in 2004 and the accession of ten former Central and Eastern European countries, many more documents are being drafted in ESL English and it is a requirement that documents written by non-native-English speakers must be edited by a qualified editor/proofreader before they are submitted to the European Commission.
With my background in teaching English as a foreign language, I felt I was in a good position to start editing some of these texts. I also signed up for a distance learning course on copy-editing and proofreading with the PTC (Publishing Training Company). And the rest as they say is history.
As I was living abroad at the time in one of the new EU member states, I decided to seek work with local public policy organisations and research institutes. I have never looked back. It has been very rewarding to develop a successful career later in life.
Why is editing ESL English different?
In addition to the issues that native writers have, for example, spelling errors, omissions, tautology and redundancy, ESL writers face additional challenges such as limited vocabulary, inappropriate register and ‘false friends’. These in turn can lead to:
- Lack of clarity
- Unwieldy sentences, because the different components are not arranged properly
- Difficulty in expressing technical terms, resulting in ‘less-than-plain’ English.
With time, I have come to recognise many of the more common mistakes that ESL writers make, including:
- Inappropriate use of articles
- Incorrect verb tense
- Errors in subject–verb agreement
- Leaving out prepositions (some languages incorporate the preposition into the verb, so non-native English speakers often omit the preposition in writing)
- Including unnecessary prepositions, which can make sentences unnecessarily wordy
- Confusing pairs such as until/by and since/for.
Editing the writing of an ESL speaker means that you must look at it through a slightly different lens and with more patience. You must understand that there are likely to be more errors due to lack of knowledge and experience, or due to grammar, punctuation and even phrasing errors.
Making and explaining changes
I explain my changes in more detail than I would for a native English speaker. If time allows, I try to treat each change as a lesson, explaining what the error was and why I made the change. It’s not possible to do this with every change, of course, due to time constraints, but I feel that if the writer or translator can learn even one thing from this text, then they will become better at editing their own text and need less-intensive editing the next time. And the value added for me is that explaining the changes forces me to think through the rationale behind these changes more than I might have done otherwise.
I try to make my comments as simple as possible by:
- Avoiding complicated clauses or technical terms
- Keeping comments short
- Highlighting the specific phrase/word in the paragraph.
Some texts are more challenging than others
I have come across writing where none of the above seem to help. The syntax and word usage are so unclear that I sometimes don’t know where to start. The message has certainly been ‘lost in translation’.
If it is possible and time allows, I simply keep reading to try to get a feel for the meaning behind the text and to get some understanding of what it is about. As I read, I keep a list of recurring mistakes/word usage. While this adds an unexpected phase to the job, it does save time in the end. When I go back to read it again, I find that having an overall picture helps me make sense of the text. But this kind of linguistically challenging text generates a lot of queries to the author, which have to be broached very sensitively! This is why it is particularly important to get a sample of the work in advance, before quoting a price and agreeing to do it.
The rewards of ESL editing
I get a real buzz from seeing the finished product and realising how much editing has improved it for the reader. And, of course, positive feedback from a satisfied client always means a lot.
Like most editors, I have read some very interesting texts: tourism texts that make me want to visit somewhere I hadn’t thought of, history books that have enlightened me, and reports on early childhood education that make me wonder how I managed to bring up my family at all.
Cultural awareness is key to successful client relations
I have lived in nine countries and would consider myself culturally aware. It is fine to address American or UK authors by their first name and adopt an informal friendly approach in communications. But my clients in Eastern Europe are more formal and it takes much more time to build up the relationship. ESL clients are less likely to query a change or respond to a comment, and sometimes I would like them to ask questions.
One last factor that I often need to remind myself about is that the text may well be translated into another language, so I try to avoid using idioms or language that is too colloquial.
Training as an ESL editor
All of my work is with academics and researchers, and they appreciate having a qualified editor dealing with their work. I don’t think I would have been taken seriously if I had not done the initial training. A basic qualification is vital for any profession, understandably, and great added value can be gained from continuous professional development programmes. My membership of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers of Ireland (AFEPI Ireland) and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, UK) also lends credibility. I have not done any specific ESL editing training other than my initial teacher training, which I feel has stood me in good stead, but I believe there is a market there for a good course.
Siobhán Denham is an experienced copyeditor/proofreader. She specialises in working with research institutes, universities, translation agencies and publishers in both Ireland and abroad. Her particular area of expertise is editing the writing of those whose first language is not English. She started her editorial business, English Editing Services, in 2009. She is a Full Member of AFEPI Ireland and an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). Connect with Siobhan on LinkedIn
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.