Knowing English doesn’t necessarily make you able to produce clean copy and quality graphic communications in English. Only experienced editorial and production people can do that. The same goes for any other language. In foreign-language communications, it is essential that a native speaker experienced with the subject matter do the translation and review the final produced copy. But this is in addition to the requirements of efficient quality production in any language. As with English, it’s often hard enough to find reliable foreign-language–speaking specialists in a given area. It’s usually asking too much to require that they possess, in addition, the professional editorial knowledge and skills needed to generate quality copy in their native language—let alone the graphic and technical skills to produce final pieces.
And graphic and technical skills, of course, don’t confer knowledge of foreign languages. A production artist, designer, or art director working in a language he or she doesn’t know won’t know where a caption ends and the text begins, won’t know which headline goes where, and won’t be aware of editorial conventions such as word breaks, spacing, punctuation, and special characters.
In publishing houses, the gap between production skills and foreign-language knowledge was traditionally filled by professional editors who had spent years acquiring a systematic technical knowledge of the tools of their own language, and could therefore identify and use similar tools even in languages they didn’t know. They couldn’t, of course, catch everything—but they could come surprisingly close, and they produced more-readable and better-presented copy than native-language subject-matter specialists who lack hard-core editorial experience.
My general production skills are discussed elsewhere in this site. Both as an editor and as a typographer, I am used to working with foreign editorial and typographic conventions. I am experienced in foreign-language production in specialized foreign-language firms and in ad agencies and general production houses that do large amounts of foreign-language work. I also read regularly and frequently in Italian, French, German, and Latin, for my own amusement. (I speak French pretty well, too.) I’ve lost most of my Greek and Russian, but can still transcribe copy accurately, and identify what copy goes where, in these languages. In addition, my German gives me some knowledge of what’s going on in Dutch and Scandinavian copy, what’s left of my Russian helps with other Slavic languages, and my knowledge of French, Italian, and especially Latin (the mother of them all) enables me to understand most of the Spanish and Portuguese I run into in the line of work.
But despite my foreign-language knowledge, I never forget where I stand in the foreign-language production process—in the gap between general production skills and native-language field specialists. I do not guess. I know that however well I know a language, that knowledge may not apply in a technical specialty that is more foreign to me than the language. I know that in foreign-language work, 99.99% certainty is not enough. In English-language production work, it is accepted and appreciated that I correct many minor mistakes in copy. When working in foreign languages, the most I will usually do is pass on a query for the attention of the native-language specialist. But, thanks to my knowledge of languages, I will catch a lot that way, while raising very few false alarms. My foreign-language clients have always appreciated the sensitivity with which I treat their copy—as well as my exceptional production skills.
I can also review your own internal production, and provide style guidelines to make sure that your foreign-language communications conform to the typographic and editorial conventions of the target language, so that customers can read and use your communications without hitches or misunderstandings—especially the “ugly American” impressions that can arise when recognizably American conventions are misapplied to non-U.S. copy, or when the typographic and editorial treatment is just plain wrong.