Translators’ and editors’ skill-set: add mind-reading

Earl Bush served for many years as press secretary for Richard J. Daley, a controversial mayor of Chicago who was a forerunner to another Bush, George W., in his mangling of the English language. Examples are:

“Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all — the policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder”.

“We shall reach greater and greater platitudes of achievement”.

You can read some of his more colourful (politically correct, not) utterances here.

Bush got pretty fed up with reporters gleefully quoting the Mayor’s mistakes verbatim and pleaded with them:

Don’t print what he said. Print what he meant.

Earl Bush and Mayor Daley often come to my mind when I’m editing texts written in English by non-native speakers, or translations for which, for whatever reason, I don’t have the source-language text. Here are some cases where I’ve had to “say what they meant, not what they said”.

“The common foreign and security policy for Europe is indispensable for the defensive piece of democracy in the world”

“The role of the diplomat is to act as a trade union and help build bridges between nations and cultures”

“The organisation has a duty to veil over peace and security”.

So what did the translators/writers actually mean?

The first should have read “…for the defence of peace and democracy”. In the second, “trade union” should have been “trait d’union”. I suspect that these texts were the work of translators who use voice recognition software. I also suspect that the translators didn’t print out and read their texts before delivering their work.

The last example was from a text written directly in English, by an Italian. To “veil over” peace and security had me puzzled, until I switched into Italian thinking mode and realised the writer must have meant “vegliare”: to watch over, to keep vigil.

In cases like these, you need to “listen” to the words — in your head, or by reading them out loud. That’s when the penny drops.

So, translators and editors, yet another skill to add to our already impressive range of expertise: mind-reading.

Do you ever find yourself having to read your clients’, or other colleagues’, minds? Let us know in the comments — we’d love to see your examples.

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

Join the conversation


  1. I’ve found mind-reading a very useful skill in my current editing project. Written in English by an Italian, I keep coming across the word “relevant” in places where it really shouldn’t be. I realised that the author had had a false-friend-moment: “rilevante” is synonymous with “importante” in Italian, but not in English!

  2. Excellent observation! I absolutely agree! I often “hear” the other language behind the translation, both regarding syntax and vocabulary. And I do read the text out loud – after all, it’s called proof-reading, isn’t it?
    As to how translators can hand in a translation, regardless of how it was done, without having read through it again, is a mystery to me – and worth a post, methinks… 😉

  3. I immediately saw what the translator must have meant, because I translated it back in my mind into Spanish by using either literal translation or the “false friend” mechanism…. The texts you quoted seemed a sort of inverted Spanglish. Sometimes I have a hard time “interpreting” (read “guessing”) what the author of the source Spanish text may have intended to say – and Spanish IS my native and dominant language! So I oftentimes end up, not only translating the source into English, but in addition editing the Spanish source text as well, because it would be quite incomprehensible if it were published “as is”. So yes, Marian, I totally agree with you: mind-reading definitely is included in our set of skills. Is there a prevailing rate to apply for this? 🙂

  4. Oh, goodness, Marian! As you say, most of these would/could/should have been caught in a thorough edit/proofread. I recently had a document referring to the “Reino de Canadá”. Hmm. We’re not a Kingdom. I’m assuming the author meant Dominion of Canada?! It’s so difficult when there’s no access to the person who wrote the text.

Leave a comment

Have your say!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.