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Editing Foreign Authors

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2009 at 3:24 PM

Tips for applying your editorial skills to foreign writers.

By Linda Johnson

A Frenchman who says "It's Hebrew to me," or a German who says "It's Spanish to me," has no way of knowing that his use of the idiom is Greek to us. That's because his own sentence contains no actual grammatical error.

The different ways an idiom may be expressed in various foreign languages may have been of little concern to you in the past. However, now that most publications have online presences or digital editions, they are gaining more and more international readers. Cross-cultural and cross-language nuances are now gaining in pertinence for any editor. All this online activity will result not only in increased foreign readership, but also increased submissions from foreign authors.

When editing a foreign author, you may run into problems like this, which generally do not occur at all when a native English speaker writes. It takes a special kind of sensitivity to edit a non-native English writer correctly. Consider that, for your colleague to be attempting to write in English at all, he or she must be very well educated. Your colleague needs to be edited in a manner that reflects his sincerity, candor, and intelligence.

Editing Foreign Material

How do you edit material written by a foreign author? Should you preserve his or her "ambiance" -- even if that means the article will appear in less-than-polished English? We're not talking about grammar or punctuation errors here. I'm referring to writing that, while grammatically correct, still sounds foreign.

Some editors argue for leaving in the foreign flavor. It's quaint, or it's charming, they contend. But does such a practice really serve your reader? Is it presenting the information with the utmost clarity? Then there's the argument about the author. You know -- that he or she will be offended if you edit too heavily. Think about it. If you wrote an article in a foreign language, would you want to sound "cute" or "charming"? Indeed, most foreign writers would be grateful for the application of all your editorial skills to their work!

I've investigated some typical writing errors made in English by native speakers of other languages, and I'd like to share some tips on handling them.


Prepositions by their nature are so abstract that they just about never translate on a one-to-one basis. Just try to explain (let alone translate!) the preposition "up" in the following examples:

The runner-up is...
A follow-up on the article...
I wouldn't put up with that...
We put him up for the night...
The beggar hit me up for some money...
The mugger beat up his victim...

Idiomatic Expressions

Idioms, of course, are laws unto themselves. Though no actual error occurs, the speaker has somehow miscommunicated (like in our beginning example). Unfortunately, he has no empirical way of knowing this. If our French or German speaker looked in a dictionary for a translation of hebraique or Spanisch, he would find in the English section "Hebrew" or "Spanish," correspondingly. Nowhere would it read "Greek."

And before you argue that our writer should invest in a good dictionary of idioms, let me point out that the writer is probably already relying too much on a dictionary to do his work -- and trying more or less unsuccessfully to apply it to what little bit of classroom English he remembers! English is, for your writer, a foreign language. Merely decoding vocabulary is the very least of his problems!


Cognates pose a problem similar to that of idioms. Speakers of any language may incorrectly assume that a word in their language has a cognate in English. For example, Maria Von Trapp related in her autobiography an anecdote from an American supermarket. She overheard a German-born woman, amazed at the price of produce, exclaim, "...for sixty cents less, I can become cauliflower around the corner!" In German, the verb bekommen means "to get."

Other Pitfalls

Of course, all kinds of grammatical problems that we take for granted will occur in the writing of a non-native speaker. A rule may exist in English for which there exists no corollary in the foreign language. For example, English nouns need to be treated as "countable" or "uncountable" to explain why we say "a chair," but not "a furniture." The distinction between "few" and "a few" is difficult (do you have "few" acquaintances in New York or "a few" acquaintances?). And confusion abounds in the present tenses (English has three): I speak English?, or Do I speak English?, or Am I speaking English? Finally, even as an editor, are you consciously aware that we do not use apostrophe "s" for the possessive form of an inanimate object (the cat's meow, but the picture frame)?

Likewise, the reverse situation may occur: the foreign writer may assume that rules in his language are consistent with those of English. He will want to use double negatives if they are permitted (or required) in his language. And a French speaker who says "it's me (c'est moi)" will not consider saying "it's I."

Generally, you can categorize types of writing errors by language family. The less the writer's native language has in common with English, obviously, the more remarkable the errors will be. Creative, sensitive editing will be required.

Romance Languages

Romance language writers tend to write in a style too complex or formal for English. This is because Latin, the basis of a Romance language, is the basis of formal English.

Examine this sentence:

"I find it often difficult to comprehend the people with whom I am speaking."

We need to correct an error of word order (position of "often"), a too-formal (but not incorrect) prepositional phrase, and non-idiomatic use of the present progressive tense (although there is no actual grammatical error). We choose more colloquial synonyms for "difficult," "comprehend," and "speaking." Native English speakers would prefer:

"It's often hard to understand the people I'm talking to."

Teutonic Languages

For native speakers of Teutonic languages (Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians), questions of word order will arise. You will also find total confusion regarding prepositions, particularly if they are used in conjunction with the action of a verb ("get up," "give away," "come from," etc.). Here is an example:

"I am learning English the whole time since I am ten years old."

In this example, correct the tense sequence and the word order:

"I have been studying English constantly since I was ten years old."

Notice that here we found a more sophisticated synonym for "the whole time," and changed "learning" -- which connotes outside assistance (teacher, school) -- to "studying," which can be done alone.

Slavic Languages

Predictably, speakers of Slavic languages have even more difficulties with written English. Their language is not as closely related to ours as the Teutonic languages (of which English is one) or the Romance languages (because English has incorporated so many Latin words into its formal register). Slavic language speakers tend to omit the indefinite and definite articles.

Here's an example from a Soviet author commenting on a visit by Gorbachev to New York back in 1989:

"...watching TV, reading newspapers, it was hardly possible to find out: what is essence of Soviet leader's speech to UN? He didn't asked economic credits. Still speech was almost only purpose to take a 8-hours flight."

Make corrections and see if you get something like this:

"Whether watching TV or reading the newspapers, it was nearly impossible to determine the essence of the Soviet leader's speech to the UN. He didn't ask for any economic credits. All in all, the sole purpose for his taking an 8-hour flight was the speech."


While the languages discussed above are all members of the Indo-European language group, Japanese is not. The structure of the Japanese language is totally different from that of English. English written by a native Japanese speaker is frequently characterized by convoluted superficial sentence structure. Consider this example:

"I was interest in foreign country when I was student. I was not good at English well. It was not benefited with me. Because I understood that learning English conversation is in need of positive and express myself."

A sensitive editor could try this:

"I have been very interested in foreign countries since my student days. But I was never very good at English. No amount of instruction seemed to help. But I realize that it is advantageous to know English, and I want to be able to speak English."

And So...

My advice to editors is this: go ahead and edit the foreign author's text. Keep it in the style of an educated native-English-speaking journalist. Don't correct just the spelling and the grammar. Determine what the author's message is, and restate it in good English. Correct the grammar and syntax and deliver the substance of the message unchanged.

Editors should use their skill with words to facilitate communication, to encourage dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Then they will be able to give exposure to both existing and emerging concepts, inventions, and ideas from cultures and countries we have ignored for too long.

Linda Johnson is a foreign language specialist based in Connecticut.

Add your comment.


"Thanks for an outstanding article on sensitive editing of non-English authors, something I see regularly. Our authors are volunteers with impressive medical and research experience, and we want to help them distribute their information (and reap the benefits of publishing) without changing their meaning. Thanks for the great examples!"
--Bridget Struble, Program Director of Publications, American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition


"Good job, but I'd like to add a few words. I had an experience editing English speaking writers who wrote in Russian. There are always two traps on that trek. First, to edit correctly you have to clearly understand what on Earth the author means. If you don't--and it is too often you don't--you are going to make a mistake of speaking instead of him, of putting your thoughts and ideas into his text. Not always you guess correctly. Watch that! Second, sometimes it is important to preserve and convey the stylistics of the original manuscript, the aura of a slight deviance, an accent. It is much more easier to re-write the whole text to make it grammatically sterile than to keep it slightly imperfect to stress it personality." --Sergey Panasenko, Moscow, RF

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