Copywriter Q&A: Jennifer DeLay Talks Cultural Differences and Editing Work By Non-Native Speakers

06 May 2019


At The Writers For Hire (TWFH), our client base includes companies from all over the world. We love meeting and working with clients from other cultures – but collaborating on English-language writing projects with non-native speakers can definitely be challenging.  In this installment of Copywriter Q&A, the talented, multilingual Jennifer DeLay explains how to make the process go smoothly – and to ensure that nothing is lost in translation.

TWFH: Can you talk about your experience editing material written by non-native English speakers?

JD: In the 1990s, I served as section editor and then managing editor of New Europe, a weekly newspaper based in Athens, Greece. My boss and several of my co-workers were not native English speakers. Most of them were Greeks, but a few of them came from other backgrounds – e.g., Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia, Russia, and Georgia.

I then spent two multi-year stints as editor of FSU Oil & Gas Monitor, a weekly trade publication covering oil and gas developments in the former Soviet Union, between 1998 and 2015. About half of the freelancers I worked with there were not native English speakers. They were native speakers of German, Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Turkish, Chinese, and … I know there were more, but I can’t remember them all.

TWFH: What are some common editing issues/challenges that arise when working with a non-native English speaker?

JD: There are certain idioms or very specific ways of saying things that make sense in their original language but don’t make any sense when translated into English. For example, one colloquial way to express victory in Greek is “to make someone eat wood.” That doesn’t make sense in English. Or in Russian, the word for “oil pipeline” is neftetruboprovod. This literally translates to “oil pipe duct” in English, which doesn’t really have the same meaning.

TWFH: Are there any English-language conventions that are especially confusing to non-native English speakers? For example, one of our international clients prefers to avoid contractions and idioms as she says they can be unclear/confusing for non-native speakers.

JD: Figures of speech and business jargon can be confusing because they often don’t make literal sense and/or they draw on specific cultural trends that are off the radar in other countries.

TWFH: Do you have any tips/best practices for editors working with non-native English speakers?

JD:  Cultivate a basic level of familiarity with the topic. If you do this, then your alarm bells will ring loud and clear when you read text that seems to be at odds with the source material – and you will know what to ask about when drawing up questions for the writer. In my experience, it’s easier to get questions answered when they are phrased along the lines of “You said A, but I read B in source material X. Could it be that you meant C? If so, I’d like to rephrase this as D.”

Another practice that I’ve found helpful is to read the whole piece from start to finish before I do any editing at all. If I’m still shaky after that, I read it again – out loud. (Thank goodness for the home office.) The point is to get an idea of what the writer is trying to say before I get into the details.

TWFH: We’ve found that if a piece needs very extensive edits, we have trouble refining it once we’ve fixed the big-picture stuff. So we’ll do a bunch of work and someone else will look at it and see a ton of stuff we missed. Any advice here? 

JD: If something has been very hard to get into shape, I send it to another person to read because usually by that point I’m no longer seeing it. So I send it to someone with notes and explain that I’m trying to make sure it flows and that the narrative makes sense.

TWFH: A review by a fresh set of eyes can really help. We’ve also found that it also helps to set the piece aside for a couple of days and come back to it for a re-edit.

JD: Do both of those things if you can! Another approach is to communicate with the writer enough that you’re sure what point he/she is trying to make and then hand it over to another editor with some guidance: “So-and-so is trying to argue that A and B are not good options for scenario X. Please read with the intent of assessing whether that message is clear.”

TWFH: Is there a gentle way to basically say, “the way you wrote this sounds really wrong to a native speaker” without offending someone?

JD: I’ve found that most writers writing in another language are not particular about copy editing — unless it’s a trademarked name, such as the name of a product or a company. Some companies can be particular about using an ampersand instead of “and.”

Other than that, I haven’t had too much trouble with suggestions for moving text around or rewriting. Most people, when they’re not writing in their native language, are not going to make a point of saying, “Of course I spelled this name right! How dare you!”

TWFH: Do you have any other tips or advice for native English-speaking writers working with people from different cultures?  

JD: It helps if you have a knowledge of the culture. For example, if you’re working with a writer from Japan, it might be helpful to know that in business discussions, it’s rare for Japanese people to say “no” directly. Instead, they might say, “It would be prohibitively difficult,” or “This is not the right time.”

A few other examples: People in Israel can be blunt in stating their opinions. It helps to know that so you’re not taken aback by it. And in general, Italian and Greek culture is less formal than, say, Norwegian culture.

I also try to keep an eye out for things like how much small talk people prefer in their communications. Sometimes they get straight to the point, with no boilerplate cordialities, and if that’s the case I say something like, “Hello and thanks for XYZ” and then get down to business. Sometimes they ask me about the weather where I am or ask a question out of curiosity, and if that’s the case I make a point of doing something similar in future communications since that seems to make them comfortable.

TWFH: So it comes down to knowing the culture and how people work together and communicate.

JD: It helps to have that cultural understanding of what they are saying. Here’s another example that may shed some light: In Greece, I was tasked with editing a translated version of a piece written by a Russian trade ministry official. But the official never spoke to us directly. He would only communicate through one of his deputies. And even then, communication was difficult: If I tried to get clarification or talk about deadlines, I didn’t get a whole lot of communication back; my calls were ignored. Eventually, we went ahead and printed what we had. I got a panicked phone call from the deputy, saying, “You have embarrassed trade minister!”  

That incident led me to make a point about being clear about expectations on both sides.

TWFH: Do you ever run into situations where there’s not an exact English translation/equivalent for whatever the original writer was trying to say? What do you do in that case?

JD: If I know the writer’s native language, I try to reverse-engineer it into something that makes a similar point in English. If I don’t, I try to ask the writer whether a substitute phrase would work.

The Writers For Hire, Inc.  
At The Writers For Hire, you are hiring not just one copywriter, but a streamlined team of experienced writing professionals. We've perfected our unique cooperative writing model, so you'll have the advantage of receiving a fine-tuned final draft that has been reviewed by several editors.

Related Content

  • 0 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *