No More Kōsei Trauma: A Japan Wordsmith’s Glossary

An oft-overlooked ailment among wordsmiths working with Japanese clients is “kōsei trauma.” The classic scenario begins with a client or manager breezily asking for kōsei (“proofreading”) of a manuscript, insisting it will only be a “light check” of the English. The good-natured wordsmith agrees and is then handed the Japanese text as well and told to feel free to check the original if there are any problems with the translation. Upon digging into the text, the wordsmith finds that by some reverse miracle every word and phrase is ill-chosen or poorly placed, and ends up spending more time fixing it than would have been spent starting from scratch. After submitting the much-improved text, the client wants to know the reasons for certain changes; and the wordsmith is obliged to compose mini-articles in Japanese to explain why “the” is needed here but not there, why they made major changes to fix jumbled syntax, and so on. Before long, what began as a “light check,” has ballooned into retranslation, rewriting, and prolonged consultations on English grammar and style. 

Very likely, more than a few SWET members reading this article have had this exact experience. The trouble always begins with the word “kōsei.” One of the best ways to avoid such trauma over kōsei is to know how the client is using that word before beginning a project. The wordsmith needs to look closely at the text, assess its problems, and make sure clients have a clear picture of the steps their manuscript needs to undergo to reach a publishable state. To do that, wordsmiths have to know about workflows in the (English-language) publishing industry, like copyediting and proofreading, but also need to have a basic grasp of the terms used in Japanese publishing, where editorial practices are somewhat different. Sometimes the expectations attached to Japanese terms are ambiguous. Kōsei may be the most common offender, but others like kōetsu (copyediting/rewriting), henshū (editing), or even honyaku (translation) can encompass a range of meanings in the mind of the speaker. This article is a tool to help wordsmiths “untangle” these terms.

Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards (free download) is an excellent document for defining these words as they are used in the Anglophone world, but their usage elsewhere may differ.

Honyaku (翻訳)

The ISO standard for translation services defines “translation” as a set of processes. However, in general usage in Japan, most people think of honyaku as a one-step process, mistakenly equating professional Japanese-to-English translation with their classroom experiences of English-to-Japanese translation.

Professional translation of text intended for publication cannot be done that way. The Japanese and English languages are so different syntactically and contextually, that translation has to go through a process of creating a rough draft, editing it for logical and natural flow, and final polishing for tone and style, depending on the purpose. 

Readers of translations into Japanese will tolerate a high level of unnaturalness, perhaps because of the ease of grasping meaning through the characters. English, moreover, is (usually) a lower context language than Japanese, where context can be everything in certain types of writing. Readers of translations into English are not so tolerant of unnaturalness, so the “translation” has to incorporate editorial and polishing processes to cater to their tolerance level. Even texts originally written in English have to undergo these processes before being deemed acceptable. But that is not well known among clients with less experience in putting out their messages in English.

Chekku/Shūsei (チェック・修正)

These terms refer to checking the Japanese content against the English content to catch mistranslations (誤訳) and omitted translations (訳抜け). This is a separate step from the initial translation and should be conducted by someone other than the original translator. 

In Japan, clients or in-house staff often do this step for outsourced translations, and English competency levels can vary widely. For many clients, and even some translation agencies, this is the last step in the translation process, and many English texts produced domestically never get the benefit of a professional edit.

Kōetsu (校閲

Kōetsu is the task of taking English texts prepared by non-native speakers or writing amateurs and making them sound clear and natural. In Japanese publishing, kōetsu is more like the term “proofreading” as usually used in English (fixing incorrect characters, punctuation, spacing, consistency of orthography, fact checking). Regarding English texts, this is sometimes the word, rather than henshū (see below), that clients may use for what many of us think of as “editing,” and may also be used as a catchall for “improving the English.” It includes fixing grammar, correcting idiomatic expressions, smoothing out syntax, and fact-checking. Depending on the quality of the original text, kōetsu may even be used for rewriting. 

Kōsei (校正

The word kōsei (lit., "correct the manuscript") has a wide spectrum of meaning in the minds of clients. It can refer to anything from “proofreading” (which even in English has various interpretations) to copyediting to rewriting and even retranslation. 

A first step in divining what kōsei means is to consider who the work is coming from: an author who has rather untested confidence in their English is likely to think that only minor changes will be needed; an author who knows English well will expect a high-level of editing and might come back for two, three, or more rounds; clerical staff acting on behalf of a busy professor or corporate manager to outsource work for print or online publication may be protective of their “sensei”; a publisher accustomed to the various steps of J-to-E translation may be cooperative, etc. It may help to find out more about the background of the manuscript you are looking at.

In this way, wordsmiths often have to ask pertinent questions and help a client nail down what is meant by kōsei before agreeing to take on the work and issuing a quote. When a client asks for kōsei for an existing translation, they might be asking for a translation check and copyediting, which is generally more time consuming than copyediting alone and requires significant expertise in the subject in Japanese as well as English.

Kōsei could also correspond to copyediting if the text has already been edited and translated by someone with professional experience. At other times, kōsei is requested for an English text that has already been corrected for naturalness and tone and just needs a final polish.  

Gera Kōsei (ゲラ校正)
Galley Proofreading

Gera kōsei is the same as galley proofreading in English. It is the final step in the publishing process when the text has been laid out as it will be printed and just needs a final proofread to make sure everything is displayed properly and reads well. Ideally, this is not a stage for major changes, but if a professional wordsmith has not been involved with the previous stages—and this happens all too often—it may turn out that the “proof” has been created from so poorly prepared a text that two or more rounds of galley proofreading are required. 

Henshū (編集 )

Henshū (lit., knit together) has the broad meaning of “editing” in the sense of improving the readability and quality of writing. But it can also encompass “compiling,” as in combining texts from several sources into a coherent whole, such as curating parts of a website, pamphlet, or book. It may also involve decisions about how to gloss terms, revise headings or tabular material for presentation in English, and other big-picture elements of a larger text. In Japan-related wordsmithing, often Japanese and non-Japanese professionals work together in resolving the translation, layout-and-design and other problems that come up. 

Suikō (推敲 )

Suikō is a process generally performed by the writer for Japanese texts. For English texts, the word might be used when the writer or publisher is not satisfied with the level of polish or tone of a text and requests a professional make the writing more readable and natural.

“Native Check” (ネイティブ・チェック)
The term “native check” is problematic, as it is not a defined professional service, and many clients assume any amateur “native” will do for their translation, copyediting, and proofreading needs. Due partly to the relatively small number of trained professional translators and editors available in Japan, those who generate English text have long turned to whatever “English native speaker” they can find to help them improve the quality of their output. This can work very well, but sometimes not so well.

SWET stresses the importance in this era of professional translation, editing, writing; that is, work done by people with experience and training (formal or informal). If people want their garden nicely trimmed they would hire a professional gardener; if they want their tatami changed, they hire a tatamiya; if their plumbing breaks down they will call in a plumber who is certified for the work. Clients can be led to understand that the same impulse to rely on a professional should be transferred to the English wordsmithing trades. 

For business purposes, requests for “native checks” should be broken down into the appropriate translation processes and listed on a quotation accordingly. Clients asking for “native checks” may initially expect only a light edit of an English text, but typically what they end up needing is a translation check and revision as well as copyediting.

Post-Editing (ポストエディット)
Post-editing (also called MTPE) refers to asking a translator to edit a machine translation (MT) or English generated by software like ChatGPT. Organizations should be particularly wary about using machine translations for the Japanese-English language pair due to misassigned subjects, plural/singular mix-ups, misuse of definite and indefinite articles, dropped translations, and double translations (重複訳), among other significant quality issues. Relying on MT or AI for the initial translation often introduces errors that a human translator would not. 

Somewhat tellingly, the Authors Guild in the United States recently advised American writers to add a clause to contracts clearly stating that written consent is required before using MT or AI to produce translations of their work, because such translations have lower quality and simply do not resonate with the reader the way human translations do.  

Nevertheless, wordsmiths may be approached by clients or translation agencies hoping to cut costs and save time by having a machine take a whack at the first draft. SWET advises translators and editors to take on such work only when compensation is reasonable for the time involved. Charging per character for adding dropped translations and by the hour for the translation check/revision as well as copyediting is advisable, though some clients may baulk at the final price tag of what they believed to be the “cheap option.”

A Note on Rates and Charges
Translation and editing rates usually depend on the subject, volume, and lead time. The more specialization required, or the tighter the turnaround time, the higher the cost is likely to be. Rates are higher in the fields of science, technology, patent, and advertising and lower for humanities and social sciences, tourism, literature, and general cultural material.

SWET’s usual advice to translators and editors is to decide how much they want to earn per hour for their field of specialization, then figure out the volume of work they can do in an hour, and charge by the hour, page, character, or word accordingly.

When clients ask for multiple processes, each process can often be charged as a separate item. For example, a client may wish to update their existing English information to match changes made in Japanese, while also checking if the previous translation had any errors in it. For this type of work, the quality of the original translation is an unknown factor, making it difficult to determine the amount of time revising it will take. As a compromise, the translator could charge by volume for the new translations and by the hour for checking and copyediting the existing translations.  

Another common scenario is that a client wants a highly-polished, publishable translation and has only asked for what is conceived as “one-step” honyaku. Often, this is simply because the client does not have much experience in translation or publishing. After explaining translation processes to the client, they may be amenable to a quote containing additional lines for kōetsu, gera kōsei, or other processes that they wish the manuscript to undergo. 

Other fees and discounts can be applied at a wordsmith’s discretion, depending on their relationship with the client and the financial resources behind the project. Some examples that are frequently used in Japanese business include: overhead fees (kansetsu keihi 間接経費・sagyō kanrihi 作業管理費), express fees (tokkyū ryōkin 特急料金・chōtokkyū ryōkin 超特急料金), research fees (chōsa ryō 調査料・risāchi ryō リサーチ料), and consulting fees (sōdan ryō 相談料).

Business models vary, and what works for one wordsmith may not work for another. But clients are often willing to pay extra to improve the quality of the final product or “jump the queue” and get their work done faster. How and what you charge is up to you, but clear communication about the steps involved in taking a Japanese manuscript all the way to publication in English is important for clients and wordsmiths alike. 

Related articles:

What’s in a Page?

Editing in Japan: Three Perspectives

Six Simple Rules for No-Fail Texts and Signage


© 2023 SWET. Compiled for the SWET website by Rebekah Harmon and Lynne E. Riggs