15 Jun/15


At EVS Translations, we talk a lot about proofreading. We can tell you that for us, proofreading means that a separate expert translator checks the translated text against the original for typographical and formatting errors, consistent terminology and the correct transfer of meaning from source to target language. In fact, if you want to read more about our proofreading process read our entry: What proofreading involves. But, if we think a little more about the word proofreading, where does that word “proof” actually come from?

Traditionally, a proofreader at a publishing house receives a proof copy of a book to perform the final stage of checks before publication, so this is why the process is known as proofreading. Proof, here, describes that which establishes or demonstrates something and it derives from the word in classical Latin “probare” meaning “to test”. Over the centuries, the verb “prove” developed into a noun with the “v” changing to an “f” (in the same way as “believe” and “belief”, and “relieve” and “relief”). In Chaucer’s poem The Legend Good Women he writes “proof” as “preve” as shown in the sentence: “We han noon other preve”; but by the mid-sixteenth century the spelling had developed to its modern form. When a proofreader receives a proof copy of a book, then, they are testing it to prove the accuracy and quality.

Proofreading in history

Considering that the written word has been around for about 5,000 years, you can assume that the task of proofreading has also been around for quite some time now. One of Japan’s most revered pieces of literature The Tale of Genji was written in the first half of the eleventh century by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. It’s a complex and highly sophisticated tale of court life during Japan’s Heian era (794-1185)—you have to wonder if anyone proofread the manuscript for her. When the Chinese military general Sun Tzu wrote his masterpiece of military literature The Art of War somewhere around the sixth century B.C., did anyone offer to check his spelling?

It was a lot later than this when the term proofreading first appeared in English print, making its debut in 1811. The papers of Thomas Jefferson: retirement series (2004) is a collection of papers from the end of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and range from 1809 to 1826. Included is a letter dated March 15, 1811, in which William Duane, a Philadelphia journalist, comments on the “drudgery of proofreading”. In 1845 Nathaniel Parker Willis, editor of the New York publication Evening Mirror, offered a more positive perspective on the task when he wrote his book Dashes at Life with Free Pencil. It’s here he writes: “The publishers and booksellers have a good deal of work for educated men—proof-reading, compiling, corresponding…”

Thankfully, at EVS Translations, there’s very little drudgery but a good deal of work for our proofreaders who are testing the accuracy of our translations and proving the quality of our work.