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It's not straight translation and it isn't editing.

In fact, if your humour tends to the black, you may be able to pierce the ugly euphemism with a glance. English polishing?

It has been estimated that well over half of the sanity routinely lost by expats during their tours of duty in Asia is lost on the polishing desk. Polishing combines the worst aspects of both editing and translation, and no matter how well it is performed is always a lose-lose proposition. But enought with the hints, let's see what English polishing really is, from go to "woe".

Imagine a notional document, say a one-page brief for an investment, perhaps part of China's developing "factory of the world". The company's officers are keen for this info-advertisement to have wide play, and so plan for it to run in both the Chinese-language press and the English-language press in Beijing. And so the document undergoes three phase changes:

  1. The advertisement is created in Chinese, using internal or agency staff, signed off, and run.
  2. The document is then "translated" into Chinglish, often using software. Alternatively a friend of the CEO who studied English at university, but is no native speaker, may be the culprit. After all, who has the money to pay for the time-intensive process of real translation?
  3. The document is then sent to the reptiles of the English-language press, or an agency of some kind, where it becomes obvious that it cannot run in its current form, at least not without embarrassment for all involved.

It's at this point that the "polishers" are called in. The only qualification for polishing duty is to be a native speaker of English, so the professionalism at this stage also often leaves a lot to be desired. Here is a typical selection of (sadly, completely real) "to be polished" text:

China is the country with the largest population. The incidence of disfigurement of newly born children is remarkable high, and this kind disease has caused great affliction to families and society, therefore the government carries out the basic policy of "super-quality bearing and cultivating".

And here's another selection from a completely different document:

We have a high-tech working team of manufacturers and R&D which consists of Doctors, masters, experts and technicians. We also devote to continuous innovation cooperation with universities and institutes and form an alliance to develop the high-tech products that have been granted a series of patents in China. The intellectual patent strategy has attached a great importance to the innovation of technology.

Now, I neither post these examples to ridicule the skills of the translator (or the translation program) nor, indeed, to have a clumsy giggle at the Chinglish. Imagine, instead, to follow the argument here, that one is the polisher. Easy, one thinks, to re-write that into "correct" sounding English. So what's the big deal?

Not so fast, dear reader!

What exactly is meant in the first example by "super-quality bearing and cultivating"? Incorrectly tip the wrong government policy, and you're in legal hot water and your Chinese visa is forfeit. In the second example, are we talking about the company's own patents, or are they boasting about their correct and legal licensing of another company's intellectual property? Get it wrong and it's a different business plan altogether.

Yes, it's easy to re-write this stuff — actually, it takes approximately 1 hour per 1,000 words once you get used to it — but re-writing it so it has the same meaning as the original is simply not possible. Even with access to the original and a passable knowledge of the original language, in this case Mandarin, unless you are also intimately familiar with the industry in question, terrible mistakes can be made.

And so to my central conclusion, that "polishing" is a mug's game, a lose-lose proposition:

  • If you get it right, you still get it wrong, because of the time and hair-pulling and sanity loss that has gone on to make it happen, and the "different culture/different focus" issues often present in the original, untranslated document. Wading through the 100 words I used as examples above is bad enough; imagine 100,000 and three days to complete! As the head of a big record label used to say to me, you can't polish a turd.
  • If you get it wrong, then may god and the angels help you, because even the person who asked you to polish will not stand between you and the government, or worse still, the angry head of a large corporation.

English polishing. It's not editing, it's sure as hell not translation; it's grinding, thankless, painfully hard work. Do anything you can to avoid it.

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