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The Journal of Specialised Translation

Issue 8 - July 2007

Empirical studies of revision: what we know and need to know Brian Mossop, York University School of Translation & Government of Canada Translation Bureau


Translators and quality controllers generally acquire knowledge of how to revise their own or others' work by trial-and-error, by working under an experienced reviser, or by attending workshops. There are also one or two publications and in-house manuals that purvey advice for successful revising. Recently, however, Translation Studies scholars have begun to conduct empirical studies in which they observe the revision process through methods such as recording and playing back keystrokes, asking translators to think aloud into a microphone as they revise their own work, or comparing different revised versions of a given draft translation. This article reviews a selection of studies of revision in English, and concludes with some suggestions about questions that need attention.

KEYWORDS revision, empirical studies, quality control

Almost all talk and writing about revision tells us what supposedly happens (“all our translations are re-read by a second translator”), or how revisers ought to go about their jobs (“make no unnecessary changes”), or what techniques they could use (“try reading it aloud”). But what do revisers and self-revisers actually do? In human affairs, what we imagine people do, or what we think people ought to do, or what people claim that they do, may bear little relationship to what they really do.

This is where empirical studies come in: people are observed in the process of revising, or the output of their revision work is analysed. For example:

  • Special software is used to record a translator’s screen actions,

including of course their revisions; the actions can later be played back or printed out and analysed (I’ll refer to this as the keystroke method).

  • Subjects are asked to utter their thoughts while they revise, or

comment on their revisions after they have finished revising, and these statements are recorded, printed out and analysed (think-aloud method).

  • Subjects are asked to revise a draft translation and the changes

are analysed; in addition the changes may be evaluated by an expert in the field: were the changes necessary? Were errors introduced? Were errors in the draft missed?

The various methods can of course be combined. In addition, translators’ claims about how they revise, as given in interviews or on questionnaires, are not without value, though ideally they should be combined with


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