Copyediting for Stand-Out Style in Any Translation

“Style”—what a vague term! But don’t despair. Just answer a few simple questions at the start of every project to define your copyediting goals and provide consistent, quality work every time.

Style is the sum of all your drafting decisions, from choosing whether to be playful or serious or whether to use semicolons versus full stops. You don’t often have to make most of these decisions from scratch when translating—instead, you’re recording what the original author preferred. But to copy an author’s unique style, you first need to understand what decisions had to be made in the initial draft that resulted in the copy you’re rewriting.1

The following are proactive steps you can take to organize your observations about a text in order to apply them consistently to your translation. As you work through these steps, don’t just answer the questions in your head—write your choices down. The act of putting pen to paper allows you to make the decisions just once, and you’ll be more consistent in applying them later.2 (As a bonus, save your answers for future projects. Your clients will be thrilled with your “long memory”!)

Step 1: Getting Broad-Stroke Guidelines

First, make sure you understand the goal of the text. Read the source through once, then ask yourself: Is the author trying to convince someone to buy a new financial product? Explain a safe at-home soap-making technique? Describe the location of a prime stargazing site? You should be able to define the specific purpose of the text in one short sentence, no exceptions. For instance, the article you’re reading now aims to explain how to define an author’s style in terms of copyediting decisions to improve the quality of your translation services. If the goal of the source text isn’t obvious, consult your client immediately—you may have bigger editing issues than simple misplaced commas.

Next, define your audience. Will chief executive officers or lawyers read the final text on their computers, or will parents read it aloud to their children from print copies? Education level, age, and ability should absolutely change your word choice, sentence length, and argument structure. (This is why well-educated American presidential candidates have regularly drafted their speeches to the public at a 6th-grade level since the 1940s.3)

Step 2: Defining Client Preferences

Now, read through your source text one more time and write down any patterns you see.4 How does the author play with sentence length? Are there lists, section headings, or other structural features? Is the text humorous or serious; formal or casual? What word choice and punctuation preferences stand out or stray from the norm? I use a two-column table to organize my answers. (See Table 1 below.)

Table 1: Sample Table for Organizing Client Preferences


If time is limited (and it often is), you can always print a blank table to fill in as you begin to translate or revise. Take notes as you dig into your substantive work. By the time you’re about halfway through the project, you’ll have a complete style sheet without having eaten into your deadline too much.

Both the advance prep method and the ad hoc method provide the same result: a solid basis for consistency from the first paragraph of the text to the last, and from your first project with your client to the next. If you choose the latter method, just remember to go back to the beginning and re-edit the parts you looked at before your style sheet was complete. You have to apply your style rules consistently to the whole text for your efforts to show.5

Step 3: Identifying Additional Needs

Defining the source author’s style is not the end of constructing the copyediting roadmap for translation. Authors often make the decisions you notice in Steps 1 and 2 consciously, but few actively mull over the more subtle aspects of language that translators should.

Cultural references are an obvious example. Even Americans who have never watched a baseball game in their life use phrases like “She hit a real home run with that idea” or “Just give me a ballpark figure.” Baseball is often not a key theme to the documents that use these expressions. Just how literal should you be in your translation, then? Look at the goal of the text and the target audience description you wrote down in Step 1 to decide how to handle idioms. (A note of caution: you may want to discuss your decision with your client. Despite my attempts to dissuade him, a news website owner insisted that I translate idioms literally, every time, as a “window into the source culture.” The resulting expressions often sounded odd in English, but the client was happy!)

Idioms aren’t the only text feature that changes drastically between source and target. What about the strategic use of the passive voice? Gender and pronouns? Grammar and punctuation choices? The decisions you make (or at least suggest) regarding these more nuanced text features truly demonstrate your value as a translator or reviser.

French sentences, for example, often go on for dozens of lines longer than English readers like. However, the length of the “wordy” French sentence often has a rhetorical purpose; enter the strategic use of semicolons. They are a tidy compromise between the author’s desire to use longer sentences and the target language’s need for pauses to allow readers to process information.

Or consider this. In Hungarian, instructions are often given in the present tense, first-person plural (e.g., “First we open flap A, then we attach part B”). The author doesn’t really care what verb tense is used to provide directions. The goal is to provide instructions in the culturally accepted standard format for the target audience. In an English translation, then, we can switch to command form without straying from the original style intent (e.g., “Open flap A, then attach part B”).

These copyediting issues are far easier to track over time, rather than with each project. Reading the examples here probably made you think of recurrent issues in your own language pair—if so, write them down now! You can use a table here as well to organize the style preferences of your target language. Table 2 below contains a few into-English translation examples.

Table 2: Examples of Into-English Translation Issues


Final Thoughts

A bit of organization at the beginning of a project can save you a lot of time and energy during the review stage of your translation project, and customizing your review to each client’s preferences will certainly increase the quality of your language services. Remember, the goal of any translation is to successfully convey an author’s information and personality to a foreign audience. Whether you use the tools suggested here or create your own, invest some of your project time in defining style decisions clearly. Your clients will thank you!

  1. For even more detail than can be included here on the concept of style, try The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker (Pengiun Group, 2014),
  2. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Penguin Group, 2014), starting at 67,
  3. Thompson, Derek. “Presidential Speeches Were Once College-Level Rhetoric—Now They’re for Sixth-Graders,” The Atlantic (October 14, 2014),
  4. For a particularly good discussion of writing patterns that contribute to balance, rhythm, and suspense, read Building Great Sentences, by Brooks Landon (Plume, 2013),
  5. The goal of all editing is to ensure a text is “correct, concise, clear, and consistent.” Stainton, Elsie Myers. The Fine Art of Copyediting, Second Edition (Columbia University Press, 2002),

Carolyn Yohn is a professionally trained copyeditor who provides revision services to law firms, education consultants, and nonprofit organizations. She translates French and Hungarian legal and academic texts into American English under the name Untangled Translations. She was officially approved (agréée) by the Consulate General of France in San Francisco for translation in 2015. She is the Sacramento-area ambassador for the Northern California Translators Association, an ATA chapter. Contact:

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