On Swimming in Language

I will confess to having a fondness for astrology. Stars, Greek mythology, and the leftover trappings of the New Age movement captured my imagination at a young age, so that’s hardly surprising. I know enough about the topic to know not only my Sun sign, but all the rest of them. And perhaps—because my horoscope contains a good deal of Pisces, the dual fishes swimming in opposite directions, and I’ve consequently steeped myself in fishy lore—that’s why I think about editing and translating as swimming. Or maybe more like deep-sea diving.

(Not teaching, as much. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that the interactive and interpersonal nature of teaching means that I don’t have to imagine myself into someone else’s thoughts quite as often. They’re right there to interact with me, in the full spectrum of in-person communication.)

One of the psychology rockstars of the last forty years or so is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his “flow” model. If “flow” is a new concept for you in this context, you might better know it as “being in the zone.” Unsurprisingly, since I enjoy my work and am competent at it, I find myself “in the zone” quite regularly. It would be easy enough to simply describe this “swimming” state of being as flow, as being in the zone. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though. Swimming in language isn’t like getting lost in my own writing, or working on a new piece of jewelry. Swimming in language is something above and beyond “the zone.”

In any writing-related work that I do, there comes a point where I reach out to original writer, or speaker, or whoever generated the text I’m working on, and connect with them in my own head. I’m sure everyone in the field has their own personal metaphor for that connection; the arbitrary one that my consciousness and my physiology has lit upon is swimming. It’s like diving into an ocean with various currents that can carry you different places.

One current is the author: what did they mean? what tone are they trying to convey here? is there a better word to express what they’re getting at?

Another current is the reader: is this construction clear enough? will they get the author’s intention here? will this word disrupt their reading in any negative way?

Translating has a few more currents: the source language and all of its history and metaphors and idioms, as well as the target language. The tension between the two is yet another third stream that can catch me and send me circling for hours without going anywhere.

And beneath all of them is always my own curiosity, a nefarious undertow. A quick check on a given word’s etymology can, if I’m not careful, lead to a half-hour trip down the Google black hole: if these two are related, how about this third term? is there a Swedish equivalent of this idiom? what’s the name for this kind of grammatical construction?

(By now, anyone else familiar with Pisces as a metaphor for the dissolved ego and the collective unconscious can read a deeper meaning into all of this. But without the woo, the metaphor still holds.)

Conversely, if I can’t dive into the language and swim in the words, then work gets much, much harder. Not that editing or translating is all about inspiration and muses, of course, but when I’m properly swimming, the right word or phrase, the right comma or recasting, comes almost effortlessly. When I have to sit and consciously chop things up or look up word after word in the dictionary, the result is always noticeably worse (in my opinion). Most of the time, that belabored solution just gets replaced by something that comes to me, out of nowhere, hours later.

Like deep sea diving, some adjustment is needed to avoid getting the bends. “The bends,” in this case, being unable to communicate and express myself. Trying to think about something other than words, and trying to articulate what I’m thinking and what I want, is a little challenging after a long stretch of language work. It gets even weirder when I’ve been translating; that’s when I switch to an incomprehensible pidgin full of “non-standard” (that is, awful) pronunciation and rookie false friend mistakes I would never make in my professional work. I have to remember who I am, remember how to be myself.

Editors, translators, and other language professionals, I’m curious: what does your work feel like to you?

The Editor’s Social Network

One of the best aspects of freelancing, and freelance editing in particular, is meeting other word nerds (freelance and otherwise), and the Internet makes that easy to the point of banality.

Photo by Kevin Curtis on Unsplas

Every job I’ve worked on, I’ve of course enjoyed for its own sake. I’m glad to be helping women in their academic fields put forward their best, most polished work; I’m honored that people have trusted me with their life stories; I’ve edited manuscripts that changed how I think about things like art and aesthetics. In a vacuum, these things would be enough to make my heart sing.

But with all of this work comes an added bonus: a reason and an excuse to socialize. Some issues are so thorny or weird or obscure (or imaginary!) that it’s just easier to ask a person than consult a style guide. (This makes a style guide no less indispensable!) And there’s no satisfaction quite like watching your vocabulary or grammar inquiry in a Facebook group explode into a thread with over a hundred comments, as people engage in serious discussions on usage as well as toss jokes and animated GIFs back and forth. Or like using a query about a particular Arabic translation or Roman history terminology as an excuse to make conversation with old friends who are polyglots or classics scholars.

Is there a corollary to this? That a good editor will have a broad network of contacts that represents a diverse, multifaceted cross-section of society? I hesitate to make any proclamations about what makes a good editor from my obscure and humble little corner. But years ago, someone pointed me in the direction of an editor’s group on Facebook, and I’ve found it immeasurably helpful and encouraging. If a baby editor were to ask my advice on the field, it would be this: hang out with other editors. Follow their blogs, drop in on the Twitter chats, join the Facebook groups. Their collective wisdom will improve your editing, and their collective nerdery will make you (finally?) feel at home.

Critique Groups and Fiction Editing

No matter how busy I get, I try to always make time for critique groups. I run the Stockholm Writing Group Meetup’s critique sessions*, and I participate in two private ones. While they’re a great excuse to socialize according to the Swedish model of “plan out your social calendar two weeks in advance,” I also consider them indispensable professional development when it comes to fiction editing.

"What I sing when I forget to make plans 2 weeks in advance with my Swedish friends" and a gif of a blonde woman singing "All by myself"
Post from the extremely relateable An Immigrant in Sweden tumblr. Screencapped because Tumblr’s embed code is a mess.

Most of my editing has been academic writing (scientific academic writing at that), which is its own linguistic kettle of fish; the good news for me is that by the time I get a paper, I only have to worry about the mechanics of the language. There might be technical jargon I have to parse, and judgment calls to make on whether a turn of phrase would be unclear to specialists (as opposed to the layperson), but those are details that tend towards the relatively objective. Few people read academic articles for fun; “style” here is about clarity rather than sparkling prose, and as long as the sentence says what the author intends, with precision and no ambiguity, everything’s good.

The absolute opposite applies to editing fiction (and, to an extent, popular non-fiction). Suddenly you’re in big picture land. Where do you start?

Critiquing, for me, is a way to edge into the shallow end of developmental fiction editing. It’s easy to say whether I like something, hate it, or just don’t care about it; it’s much, much harder to pinpoint why that might be. But being forced to do that on a regular basis (I’d say that three weeks out of four I’m meeting with one of my critique groups) makes me slow down and pay attention to writing and think about what works for me and what doesn’t. Other people catch things that I missed, too, no matter how many times or how slowly or carefully I read a manuscript. They ask questions I wouldn’t think to ask; I can take those questions and apply them later to other manuscripts. They challenge my suggestions and force me to back up what I’m saying with solid argumentation beyond “I just like it better this way.”

More ambitious freelancers than me would call this “networking” and I guess it’s that, too. Except that’s not why I do it; I don’t anticipate picking up a single paid project out of my critique groups, and I don’t know if I’d want to. But I’m fine with making my editor self publicly available, so to speak. It’s my equivalent of a free trial. If you like the preview, you can purchase the whole version!

*Full disclosure: I’m also a sponsor of this Meetup, which basically amounts to splitting the annual Meetup fee with the other woman who runs it in exchange for having my logo buried three clicks deep somewhere on our page. I don’t really benefit from you joining it or anything.

Thoughts on Using Simbi to Find Tutors or Editors

Around Christmas last year, I stumbled on the website Simbi. The idea is simple: connecting people around the world to trade and exchange via bartering instead of money. Users list the services they can provide and the help that they need, and the rest is self-explanatory.

Lucky for the student of English (or, indeed, a lot of other languages), Skype sessions with native and fluent speakers are one of the most popular options available. If you feel that you need a tutor’s input to take your language study to the next level and haven’t had any luck with any other language exchange site, you can find someone on Simbi. Likewise, since the vast majority of Simbi’s user base is anglophone, this is a golden opportunity for native speakers of languages besides English to provide an in-demand service in their native language, whether it’s video lessons, writing correction, or translation. In this case, I’d recommend joining the group Language Learners to find other language students to exchange with right away.

Less the case in Sweden (where I might be the only member?!), Simbi also actively encourages members to meet and exchange goods and items in real life, fostering local communities and bringing neighbors back in touch with each other. (These events are called “Simbi Swaps.”) Students, visitors, and new arrivals to English-speaking countries might find it helpful in meeting new people who self-select to be open, sociable, and curious.

(And, of course, Simbi has a “currency” called the simbi, so if you can’t barter directly with another user, you can still pay them for their time and effort!)

The downside is that to get much use out of Simbi for studying English, you’ll need to be at an A2/B1 level of English already; there isn’t a native version of the site in any other language. And since Simbi is a general service- and goods-exchanging platform and not strictly an educational platform, caveat emptor. Check someone’s profile to get a feel for how professional and knowledgeable they seem, including any outgoing links they provide.

Writers will also get a lot out of Simbi. If you want editing or proofreading for your manuscript but don’t have much of a budget, critique and editing is another one of the most popular services available. Again, joining a group like Writer’s Club will make it easier to find like-minded members who are more likely to be able to help you out.

I hope you’ll join me on Simbi! Perhaps I can entice you with one of the services I offer: turning your notes into a custom Anki deck or providing short story feedback.

Seanan McGuire Versus A Copyeditor

A couple of months ago, Seanan McGuire live Tweeted the revision process on a new manuscript and ended up venting her spleen about the decisions her copyeditor was making. Someone originally shared this with the Editors of Earth group on Facebook, which is how I originally came across it (as opposed to in my own Twitter feed). I can only hope that WordPress won’t mangle the following Storify code:


I’ve actually been aware of McGuire for years, via her blog and also my friends’ taste in novels, so I know (vaguely) who she is and what she writes without actually having read a proper book by her. In other words, I had something like context for the above Tweets, as did some other members. Some of my fellow copyeditors on Facebook, however, did not instantly recognize the name. The mix of the two made the discussion interesting and I should have saved the link, as the combination of months’ worth of subsequent posts in a prolific group and Facebook’s less-than-stellar group search feature is making it hard for me to find the post again and refresh my memory.

As a whole, group members were more or less forgiving of the anonymous copyeditor in question, though there was a lively discussion about celebrity author responsibility, anonymity, and the specific changes McGuire vents her spleen about. (Merriam-Webster actually lists “chain saw” and not “chainsaw,” for example.) I’m surprised, then, that a Google search at this time doesn’t really yield any blog posts from any aforementioned group members; many of the people commenting on this Facebook post were noted copyediting rockstars (if the field has such a thing!) who blog prolifically on all things editorial. Maybe they just didn’t find it interesting? Who knows.

Sometimes bad copyedits happen. That’s just how it is. Sometimes what’s bad about a particular copyedit is subjective (differing tastes of the editor and the author and the audience), and sometimes there are objectively bad practices and/or changes (not tracking changes, introducing errors). And while some of the changes McGuire takes issue with sound like they were probably for the better (egregious abuse of synonyms for “said” is one of my pet peeves so even without context I’m pretty sure I stand with the anonymous copyeditor on this one), and I can imagine plenty of extenuating circumstances (original writing that wasn’t as awesome as McGuire would believe; idiosyncrasies of the house rules and given style sheet; etc.) for others, some of the changes she mentions on Twitter are almost definitely of the objectively bad variety—every professional I’ve spoken with has long since made peace with singular “they,” for example, so reading about that kind of change being made was genuinely surprising and also secondhand embarrassing.

Basically, some small exceptions aside, I’m willing to believe that this was not a great copyedit. Was it the worst copyedit ever? That I can’t know without access to the manuscript in question, so some mysteries will just have to remain unsolved. My point in this post is not to suggest that McGuire didn’t appreciate the genius of her copyeditor.

I think this episode touches on one of the flaws of the modern book/author/”content creator” market. Whatever your preferred form of social media, it seems to be almost mandatory for authors to double as personalities or entertainers. (There is a cynical part of me that wants to suggest this personality cult model of marketing is why so many big-name authors these days sell mind-bogglingly well despite underwhelming books, but those are thoughts for an entirely different post.) I think this model is bad news for a class of people who have felt drawn to what is a largely isolated, or at least selectively social, profession. Fame is hard to manage for anyone, but public attention and accolade is probably easier to navigate when public performances, and not relative isolation, are the meat and potatoes of your craft. In this respect, I think McGuire dropped the ball. The kind of thing you can get away with texting to a group of friends to let off steam is not the same kind of thing you should, especially as a celebrity, publicly broadcast; there should be a balance between wanting to engage with your fans on a personal and/or funny level and realizing how you come off.

(I admit to a predisposition to be biased in favor of the anonymous copyeditor, for fairly obvious reasons.)

I don’t think a single lousy copyedit deserves the “point and laugh” Twitter treatment. A lousy copyedit isn’t really deserving of any commentary at all, unless it points to larger socio-linguistic trends or cultural norms. I’d rather read a single thoughtful blog post on a wide-ranging and pervasive issue from a general perspective, maybe like the publishing industry’s reluctance to embrace singular “they,” than a scattershot of complaints ranging from valid to trifling quibbles about a specific person’s work in between reaction gifs and pictures of cats.

This is the kind of thing that reads as acceptable because McGuire is an established author of no small amount of acclaim. Now imagine a Twitter account with only a handful of followers and a janky, amateur banner promoting a self-published  book with equally janky and amateur cover art giving that same rant. If it didn’t just get lost in the thoughtstream void that is Twitter, it might help propel sales and establish the writer’s career. Might. It might also turn off any prospective copyediting clients the author would like to hire in the future, because who wants to work for someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate the training or nuance behind the work that you do?

This seems to be a one-off incident; I don’t think McGuire is famously egotistical about her own work or derisive of all of the people who work on a manuscript to bring it to book life. But it still chafes a bit. I guess this whole post was a lot of words to say: I didn’t think this thing was funny that a lot of other thought was funny.

Quick Tips for Using Quotes in Essays: Entire Sentences

Last time I brought up quotes, I talked about how to incorporate short phrases and clauses into your writing. Generally speaking, I would say that using a handful of words here and there is a more elegant solution than quoting an entire sentence wholesale, but sometimes nothing but a copy-and-paste job will do.

If you want to include an entire sentence from the source, rather than just selection, things are a little simpler. (A little.) You no longer have to worry about ellipses, brackets, or grammatical correctness. Your biggest issue is punctuation.

If you are introducing the quote with a complete sentence (“Abrams described the results of a recent quantum physics experiment in his latest paper.”), you should introduce the quote with a colon (:).

Abrams described the results of a recent quantum physics experiment in his latest paper: “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)

If you are introducing the quote with a short introductory phrase (“According to Abrams . . . “), you should introduce the quote with a comma (,). Something like this:

According to Abrams, “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)

Be careful not to mix the two together. Something like this:

Abrams described the results of a recent quantum physics experiment in his latest paper, “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)

or this:

According to Abrams: “Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.” (2016)

would be incorrect.

The trade-off, in my opinion, is the quality of the writing. There are certainly instances where quoting the entire sentence is effective (or even necessary), but there are many instances where it’s much more appropriate to highlight a phrase or a couple of words, or to simply paraphrase or summarize the original source. Regardless, make sure to cite the source! You wouldn’t want to be accused of plagiarism, after all.

Quick Tips for Using Quotes in Essays: Short Phrases

An essential part of high-level academic writing in any field is properly citing and quoting your research. There are lots of great resources already out there on different citation methods and how to avoid plagiarism; today I want to talk about how to properly integrate quotes into your writing. This entry will focus specifically on quotes that short phrases and less-than-complete sentences and clauses. Longer selections require slightly different strategies; I’ll be covering them in later posts.

Writers, both native and non-native English speakers, seem to struggle with how to include short selections into their writing. Hopefully this post will demystify the process a little bit — it’s actually quite simple, once you get the hang of it.

By far, the most common problem I see is something like this:

Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speed.” (Abrams, 2016)

Can you spot the problem here? What’s the grammatical misunderstanding the author has that’s led to the problem?

Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

Here’s the big secret: when you want to integrate part of a sentence from your source into your own writing, you need to make sure that your entire sentence still works grammatically. One little word, like the above “which,” can throw a monkey wrench into things and turn what you thought was a proper sentence into something else (here, it’s a non-restrictive clause). You’ve probably already figured out how to fix this little boo-boo:

Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

Sometimes, authors (correctly!) alter the original quote, but they fail to indicate that they have made alterations. This is a no-no; you should always let the reader know that you’ve made changes, even small ones, to the original material. A quick refresher on the two tools you need for this job:

  • ellipsis: used to indicate words or phrases omitted from the original quote, whether for brevity or for grammar; consists of three periods with  a space between each one. ( . . . )
  • square brackets: used to indicate characters, words, or phrases altered or added to the original quote for the sake of orthography, grammar, comprehension, or readability. ([])

For example, let’s say that the original quote from that Abrams paper was something like this:

Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.

(I know it’s not the most elegant example. Sorry.)

To do things 100% by the book, our citation would have to look something like this:

Scientists on the project were excited that “[s]ome photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

Or like this, if you’re not a fan of the square brackets look:

Scientists on the project were excited that some “photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

There is an aesthetics argument for avoiding square brackets as much as possible, as they have a tendency to slow the reader down. Here, the sentence can be recast without them, but sometimes that’s not possible.

If you’re not comfortable with omitting text in this way, or if doing so somehow significantly changes the meaning of the original, then you need to reword your writing. Sometimes this is tricky; in my fictional example above, however, it’s pretty straightforward:

Scientists on the project were excited about some “photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

There are usually two or three different ways to recast a sentence in this way. If you’re having trouble figuring out how, a colleague (or professional editor) can often have the distance and perspective needed to see how to proceed.

Mystery solved! Hopefully, anyway. If you have any questions about this, or would like me to look over your work to check for these kinds of errors, you can contact me on Twitter or with the form over there on the right.

Happy citing!

Translation, Editing, and Voice

I’ve written before about my secret dreams of becoming a translator. (I guess that makes them not so secret anymore.) Truthfully, there is some amount of translation that I do as an editor; many of the projects I work on are from EFL writers, and oftentimes in these cases, editing becomes the translation of the idea or concept that they’ve described into how a typical native speaker might phrase it. This is not to suggest that the manuscripts I work with are garbled messes. They are not! But there are levels of flow and idea organization that can be difficult to achieve in a foreign language–I’ve experienced this firsthand. When I look anything of at least some complexity that I’ve written in Swedish and think about how it would be translated back into English, the result is never a perfect alignment with what I originally had in mind. In fact, it’s often clunky and childish. The struggle is real.

The question is trickier when the English is not clunky or ambiguous; when it sounds like how a native or fluent speaker would actually phrase something; when not only the meaning but the stylistic intention is clear. Is this repetition of a word deliberate, or is it because the writer couldn’t quite reach for an acceptable synonym? Is this unorthodox usage intentional, or is it the result of a misunderstanding? (My Swedish friends will tell you that I default to menar (“mean” as in “intend”) instead of betyder (“mean” as in a neutral dictionary definition or logical consequence). While one could interpret this idiosyncrasy as a poetic attempt to give words or sentences souls and wills of their own, since that’s not entirely impossible to imagine, the truthful answer is that menar is just closer to “mean” and so that’s the one I hit upon when speaking.)

Generally speaking, I prefer to think of my editing as minimally invasive, especially when it comes to EFL clients. In my opinion, as long as your writing successfully communicates your intention, without ambiguity, unintended double entendre, or distracting word choices, then I will leave it untouched. I’m more than happy to recommend style guides and the like if you want to work on developing your English voice–but I want it to be your voice, not mine.

In my undergrad years, I took a fair amount of writing workshop courses. The final project in one of them was to re-read the entire corpus of work a given classmate had produced over the semester and write a little blurb on them and their style, as well as provide detailed, private feedback on their work overall (as opposed to the feedback provided publicly in workshop sessions). We didn’t get to pick our partners for this assignment; this was a mandate from the professor. To this day I’m not sure if it was a random selection or a deliberate pairing, or something in between.

I remember the classmate I was assigned fairly well, and the general tone of his work (abstract, experimental). I might have used the words “ethereal,” “dream-like,” and “otherworldly.” But what I remember really well is what he said about my writing: that I had a really distinctive voice, and that even without looking at the name on the piece he could tell which submission was mine. He phrased it as a negative, and while at the time I was a bit miffed that he thought that was a bad thing, years later I finally understand that it’s rightfully a mixed blessing, especially when editing.

(That “distinctive voice” all but disappears when blogging; apparently I can only coax it out in the privacy of work that never has to see the light of day. As a result, I rarely feel like myself online. But anyway.)

The urge to go to town on a manuscript and move things around to how I would say them would be overwhelming if I ever let it out. In that respect, I’m like an editing Hulk. Or, more appropriately, when I edit, I’m Bruce Banner: by focusing purely on meaning and (sometimes) flow, I keep the HULK REWRITE urge at bay. I stay the mild-mannered word nerd and let your writing take the spotlight, for better and for worse.

Image courtesy Eneas de Troya

I have been known to let the Hulk out, but only after people have explicitly asked me to do so. I recognize that writing, especially creative writing, is personal. There needs to be a level of trust and openness between writer and editor before those kinds of changes should even be on the table. The best creative writing comes from places of vulnerability and uncertainty; if you can’t be vulnerable and uncertain, the writing will fizzle out.

Literal Translations Versus Fixed Phrases

When is a cup not a cup? When is a glass not a glass? Does it depend on what’s inside? What is the balance between literal translation and the adoption of fixed, familiar phrases in the target language?

For example, if a native English speaker were to offer someone tea, there would be a number of different ways to do it. Outlining all of them here would be tedious and beside the point, but I want to focus on which vessel would be named (if named at all). Pop quiz! Fill in the blank:

“Would you like a _____ of tea?”

And let’s put aside partitives like “bit” or “spot”; let’s look specifically at “cup” and “glass.” Is there one you prefer?

For me, and I think for many native speakers, the appropriate semantic unit for tea is a cup. It’s what flows (ha, ha) naturally. And, indeed, we usually have tea in solid, opaque drinking vessels that can’t rightly be said to be made of glass.

Image courtesy Miya

So the discussion over on DuoLingo’s Russian partitive lesson about glass and tea is fascinating and (as of this blog post) has over 100 comments!

Here is the explanation of the vocabulary word “стакан” (stakan):

Russian differentiates between a number of drinking vessels. Стакан is what you call a “glass” in English: typically, a cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle.

But when faced with an expression that would literally be translated as “a glass of tea,” should you translate the words literally, or translate the concept of “a vessel of tea” into the most common and most likely English phrase?


Of course, the point of DuoLingo is to teach you vocabulary and grammar, not to teach you how to translate longer pieces of writing in context. To that end, it sacrifices a natural-sounding English answer to drive home the difference (in Russian) between a “glass” and a “cup.”

But for many users (myself included) it just feels…wrong. This question has a few simultaneous discussions of essentially this issue; this one is the most typical and the most informative.

duolingo-glass-tea-2 duolingo-glass-tea-3


Things also segued into how tea is consumed globally, with users from other parts of the world (north Africa and Turkey, among others) pointing out that having tea in a glass—the “cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle” described by DuoLingo—is commonplace where they live.

Black tea in Turkey. // Image courtesy Henri Bergius

So if DuoLingo is insisting on a subtlety that sounds unnatural to many English speakers because of the customs of our particular countries (to have tea in one kind of vessel but not other), how about in translation? If I’m reading a story where the character in the original Russian has a стакан of tea, has something of the nuance or subtlety been lost if the translator chose “cup of tea” instead of “glass of tea”? Is the purpose of a translation to remain as literally faithful as possible to an original (to translate), or to take a story and convey its concepts in the most natural way possible in a target language (to localize)?

I think the same day I stumbled over this thorny issue on DuoLingo, someone shared an article from the New York Review of Books on new attitudes on Russian to English translation and the work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is the same issue writ large; it’s moved from mere teacups and glasses to entire sentences and syntax. It’s turtles all the way down, only instead of turtles it’s semantics.

There is also the question, again, of who an English translation is really for. Considering the prevalence of English worldwide (and the fact that non-native speakers vastly outnumber the native speakers), I don’t think we can rightly claim that an English translation is first and foremost for native speakers. Should native ear qualms over a glass of tea, or larger issues of “awkwardness” or clunkiness, really matter?


“The Invoice”: Thoughts on Translation and Localization

In my private life, I follow a lot of book bloggers. Sometime last year, at least one of them brought The Room to my attention. No, not Tommy Wiseau’s “masterpiece.” This The Room is a novel by the Swedish Jonas Karlsson. The premise sounded interesting and I looked high and low for the original Swedish edition, only to turn up empty-handed. I shrugged and moved on to other things.

One of those other things was NetGalley. I finally bit the bullet and signed up a few months ago. I could rationalize that decision with “it’s important to stay abreast of literary trends when you’re an editor” but really I just wanted free ebooks. (When you live outside the US and Canada, you don’t get the free physical copies.)

Last week I noticed a new title in the Literary Fiction section: The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson. I recognized his name immediately and requested the book as a way to give him a test run. I was also curious about how the translation was handled, as my luck with English translation of contemporary Swedish books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) has been much worse than with English translations of Swedish classics (Doctor Glass). Where would The Invoice fall in this spectrum?

Image courtesy Crown Publishing
Image courtesy Crown Publishing

The answer: somewhere in the middle.

In the case of The Invoice, there was something clunky and choppy about the writing. I noticed it, frowned, and continued reading, because at least it didn’t use any archaic or awkward turns of phrases I had seen elsewhere, and by elsewhere I mean in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (No one uses “anon” anymore; at least, not to mean “soon.”) I eventually stopped noticing the choppiness, but only because something bothered me even more: an uncomfortable mix of American and British English.

I’m all in favor of standardizing English; it would make my job (both as a tutor and as an editor) that much easier. But we haven’t accomplished that standardization yet, and while usage may dictate rules, I don’t think individual publishers deciding on their own “blends” will successfully further the International English cause. When it comes to The Invoice, this blend was:

  • American spelling
  • American punctuation
  • British terms

So we had a character walking into a gray granite building, taking a lift up to the eleventh floor, and talking to a Mr. Something-or-other.

This is a minor quibble on my part, I realize. Once I figured out was going on, I was able to put my discomfort in a box and read the story for the sake of the story. It certainly didn’t hamper my understanding in any way. But I think it’s a point worth discussing: when translating into English, how much should consistency and localization matter?

What we have here is a failure to communicate. // Image courtesy Matthew Hull.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. // Image courtesy Matthew Hull.

After all, I had no trouble understanding the writing. The differences between British and American English have been thoroughly documented, to the point where any adult English-speaking reader (usually) knows there are differences and can (usually) switch between the two without difficulty. And how many people, exactly, really notice those differences? Literature translated into English isn’t done for the exclusive sake of native speakers. There is a huge market for non-native speakers as well; readers who might not be attuned to the differences, or who might prefer “color” and “analyze” but also “lorry” and “dustbin.” Does that make the distinction between conventions nothing more than a shibboleth on par with “rules” about ending sentences in prepositions?

For me, not quite, though I couldn’t give you a satisfactory answer as to why. I just like consistency! (Hobgoblin of a little mind it may be.) If I had been working on this project, I would have favored American terminology and made the appropriate changes, with a comment explaining why.

I asked other editors (informally) and the majority response seemed to be that this was an inconsistency, and one that “should” be rectified, validating my own thought on the issue. A not-insignificant portion replied that they had been instructed to mix conventions in similar ways, or had heard of that happening to other editors. I was surprised to learn that this is something that deliberately happens, but if that’s how a publisher or author wants to roll, that’s what they’re allowed to do.

But something that bothers word nerds might not bother the general public, so I put this question out to you, Internet: how do you feel about mixing different English conventions?

Legal “CYA” moment: in case context didn’t make it clear, I received a free preview copy of The Invoice in exchange for honest feedback and review. The translation issue I described here (in as much as it’s an “issue”) may be addressed by the time the book goes to print.