METM21 Online Chronicles: Mary Ellen Kerans

Revising clinical titles so they don’t sound “off” – a report on doing evidence-based translation and editing of these small-but-key texts

In her rigorously researched and expertly delivered presentation, Mary Ellen Kerans made a compelling case for crafting manuscript titles in a way that looks beyond linguistic correctness. Mary Ellen’s deep knowledge of the research publication process and the expertise she gained as the lead author of two peer-reviewed publications exploring the content and phrasing of journal article titles were in evidence during her talk. She offered practical advice on how to analyse target journals’ preferred style and increase our clients’ chances of securing publication and being cited.

The presentation was structured around eight principles drawn from the scholarly literature, her professional practice and her own corpus-based investigations. Each principle was illustrated with real-life examples, which Mary Ellen used to lay out her approach, comment on trends in article titles over time, and present the system she and a fellow translator use to revise each other’s translated titles. Although I struggled at times to identify which principle she was referring to as she explained her decisions about past texts, she argued her points convincingly and kept her presentation relevant to her audience. I particularly appreciated her ability to isolate issues that are pertinent to editors and translators while avoiding aspects of clinicians’ knowledge that are less essential to the language professional’s remit; indeed, at one point she referred to a chunk of a clinical title as “a thing in medicine”, which I found refreshing.

Near the end of the presentation, Mary Ellen urged us never to work on article titles while on autopilot, but rather to revise them comprehensively to accurately summarize a paper’s content in a way that resonates with journal style. Such deeper revision is certainly more cognitively demanding and time-consuming, though during the Q&A Mary Ellen shared an anecdote from early in her career in which she felt that the outcome of one client’s publication attempt may have been quite different had she applied the same principles she does nowadays.

Aware of how a language professional’s mandate varies across different settings, Mary Ellen also stressed that the approach she takes when adapting titles not only reflects the type and field of a target journal, but also the extent to which she is able to negotiate proposed revisions to authors. When acting as an author’s editor, she explains her decisions at author conferences; when she is hired by bilingual journals, on the other hand, she anticipates the authors’ response to her reformulations, as she is unlikely to have access to the author. In both cases, Mary Ellen is keen to ensure that the author retains control over their work and can evaluate Mary Ellen’s contributions.

One aspect that I believed was missing from the early part of the presentation was a basic overview of what Mary Ellen referred to as “title phrasing”. A number of times during the talk she made reference to a typology of title content and the positioning of elements within titles, such as “topic-comment title” and “topic-specification title”. Though I am sure that compressing such a wide array of principles, analyses and examples was no small feat, this information would certainly be helpful when analysing client-authored titles for deep revision.

I congratulate Mary Ellen for an excellent presentation and hope to see more content like this at future METMs.

This METM21 Online presentation was chronicled by Oliver Shaw.

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