A Day at the Office

What exactly goes through the mind of a proofreader? Let me entertain you with what I might experience on a daily basis.

I’m a bit of an anomaly at the office. I’ve noticed that people tend to stare or glance at me with regular frequency which I find kind of strange. I guess there are a few reasons for this:

  • I’m not Asian so I can’t be considered one of the chemists or brains around there
  • I’m not in a custodial outfit so I can’t possibly be the janitor
  • I don’t wear a labcoat so I’m not in the R&D Department

As far as anybody knows, I’m a visitor around there and by the time they really do figure me out, I’ll be out of there (read: contract will be up).

My desk. It’s nothing more than a long table with illumination that is shared between four people, three of which are proofreaders. It’s also equipped with a file cabinet and overhead storage compartment where I can safely store my ubiquitous backpack and have it ready should I ever need to use it as a flotation device.

I’ve also got the tools of the trade: red pen, blue/black pens, magnifying glass, desk lamp. And my iPod. I have no computer but there is a phone between me and that other proofreader that sits next to me. Neither of us answer it when it rings.

While I’ve proofread before, this job has a different set of rules than my last one. My previous employer stressed the importance of proofreading as well as accuracy but quantity was more of a factor. Here, however, we’re dealing with documentation for medical devices so the emphasis is on quality. After all, how else will that Croatian doctor learn how to jam that balloon probe into his patient’s sphincter?

We log the time we spend on each document we proof and in fact, I’ve been told that I need to slow down while proofing just to ensure that things are as accurate as they can be. That said, it’s not unusual to spend anywhere from 3-4 hours proofing certain documents that have instructions for use in several languages.

And that’s when the job gets challenging.

Some documents can have up to 24 languages that need to be proofed against what’s called the redline, or marked-up copy that represent the absolute final draft of the document. Each document I proof is accompanied by a stack of supporting documents, include said redlines, attachments, and previously changed proofs. It’s my job to make sure that what I’m proofing matches the most recent redline letter-for-letter, accent-for-accent, umlaut-for-umlaut.

As you might imagine, sitting at a desk and proofing these things for eight hours a day an get a bit tedious. And while English is obviously the easiest to proof, things get ugly once you start some of the other languages, like…

Swedish. I’ve proofed stuff in Swedish before and it’s an amusing language just because some of the stuff sounds funny in English. Want an example?

  • Beslutfattande: decision-making
  • Sex: six
  • Farten troten: minute when
  • Designmonster: design patterns
  • Snart: soon

The list goes on and on. Not only that, but sometimes it looks like they just crammed a bunch of words together for the hell of it. I often thought that “soaker hose” would translate into “sökerhös” in Swedish.

Bulgarian. Here’s when I have to step away from the document and gather my thoughts because goddamn, that’s one fucked-up language. Here’s an example of what’s going on in my head while proofing Bulgarian letter-by-painstaking-letter:

Ectocooler…kayak…moxie…pi…lasik…backwards N…uh, 3…weird shape…Space Invader…

So today I was in the middle of a huge job when the foreign letters that sat in front of me began to taunt me with their nonsensical jibberish. I think I even saw a Greek letter flip me the bird. This is a common occurrence while proofreading jobs of this size: despite their near-perfect formatting by the time you get them, reading these documents for hours turns them into a kind of mushy alphabet soup that can gently lull you to sleep if you’re not careful.

I had to snap out of it so I dragged myself over to the coffee table. The funny thing is that I don’t drink coffee but at this point I was jonesing for something that would keep me awake—and keep those punk-ass Turkish letters in line.

I poured a cup of the blackest, nastiest coffee available and took a sip. No, I still don’t like black coffee and still don’t know how others drink that shit. It needed flavor for this Starbucks Frappuccino of a guy.

So I started to randomly grab shit and pour it in my mug, taking a sip now and then for quality control purposes. By the time I was done ripping, dipping and plunking the virtual mother lode of chemical additives into my Jack Skellington coffee mug, I had crafted a concoction that not only morphed from used-motor-oil black to a shade reminiscent of an animated character’s skin tone, but one possibly toxic enough to make my intestines cry uncle. But fuck it, the experiment worked and each sip kept me awake. Yes, I’m a frou-frou Coffee Pussy.

Coffee in hand, I made my way back to my desk and continued to read the document. The coffee kept me awake but I wasn’t surprised to see that the letters still weren’t making much sense—and still looked like a jumbled mess.

That continued the rest of my day until I went home at 4:30. Total documents proofed today: two. That’s it.

And guess what? Tomorrow I will do it all again.

I just hope there’s some coffee ready…