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?

Friday 5: Minding Your Peeves and Qs

A small owl sitting on a branch in the daytime, looking grumpy.
Image courtesy Gunilla Granfalk on Unsplash.

What’s one of your language-related (that is, something people say or write) pet peeves?

Editors are supposed to have an endless list of these, right? So the stereotype goes. We are the gatekeepers of language and so on and so forth. And I guess we all do, probably. But if you look at the layperson’s language pet peeves (“they’re/there/their”! “your/you’re”!) and the editor’s pet peeves, the overlap would probably be quite small.

My personal ones these days are: The New Yorker‘s bizarre house style guide (coöperation? no thanks) and The New York Times‘s practice of referring to heads of state with honorific titles instead of, simply, their names.

Not what you were expecting, maybe!

What’s one of your dining-out-related pet peeves?

It’s nobody’s fault, but somehow the waiter always comes over to check on you just when your mouth is full of food. Or maybe they do this deliberately so as to avoid getting sucked into an actual conversation with someone who wants to nit pick the seasoning of the vegetables.

What’s one of your technology-related pet peeves?

Windows updates.

What’s one of your television-watching pet peeves?

Romance. Any time a show (or book or movie, for that matter) features a close friendship or even working relationship between a man and a woman, romance almost inevitably gets shoehorned in. If not outright romance, then something like Will They Won’t They. It chafes for a lot of reasons (lazy way to add tension, heteronormativity, implying that the only possible relationship between men and women is romantic/sexual) but I think this one hits me personally because most of my inner circle are men. (Not for “women are just too much drama!” reasons; it just seems to have happened.) The close friendships I have with women are also way different than how they’re portrayed in media (much more random weirdness, much less obsessing over shoes and sex) but at least they’re not wholly misrepresented as some kind of waiting room for romance.

This is, incidentally, why I love Elementary so much. Sherlock and Joan are #FriendshipGoals to the extreme. Of course, now that I’ve said that, I’ve cursed the show to fall victim to exactly this trap. Sigh.

What’s something you do that you know peeves others?

Swedish has an expression: tidsoptimist. This is someone who lacks a solid grasp of how long it takes to get to places and (the implication is) is usually late.

I’ve been here for five years and I’m still a tidsoptimist. I still operate by American car-owning convenience and fail to take into account that I’m not leaving whenever I like, but according to public transportation’s time table. I’m stricter about this with clients, or with traveling, but socially? All bets are off. I get there when I get there. (Maybe this is why I don’t have many Swedish friends?)

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.

Friday 5: Space

A blue spherical nebula glowing against the darkness of space.


Of all the spaces in your residence, which is most powerfully your space?

We don’t have a lot of space in our tiny Stockholm apartment, but I’ve made around a third of our unnecessarily large kitchen my office, including my Art Wall corner.

I also have an entire bookshelf to myself, which is obviously very much me.

What’s the most spacious space in your everyday life?

The outside, I guess?

What’s a good song about space?


What’s under your bed?

The floor.

What are your thoughts on typing one or two spaces after sentences?

Two spaces are no longer necessary as we live in an age of digital typing and typesetting! One of the first things I do with every document I copyedit is find and replace two spaces with one. STOP DOING THIS.

Friday 5: Shhhhh!

What’s something sneaky you’ve recently done?

I’m not really good at being sneaky. It’s hard to answer this one!

Who or what do you feel the need to tiptoe around?

Facebook and politics has become an interesting place since the election. And by “interesting place,” I mean, “barren wasteland bereft of hope or goodwill.”

What’s the dirty secret about the field in which you work?

When it comes to editing, the truth is that none of us know everything. There are loads of words that I have to look up every. single. time. I see them. Some of my more elegant solutions in a project have been crowdsourced from the copyediting hivemind. We all do it!

As for teaching, I’d say that a lot of times the teacher is just as nervous as the student. When it comes to language study with native speaker tutors, students assume that we’re sitting there judging you, or that it’s at least a low-stakes environment for us. False! Even with students I’ve had for years, I still get nervous anytime I’m debuting a new lesson or I have to tackle a tricky concept. You never know if the lesson plan or explanation you thought up in theory will work out in practicality.

What was the subject of your last whispered conversation?

I’m not much of a whisperer. When that happens, I’m usually just talking to myself. “Talking through a process,” I mean. Not “having a conversation.”

What’s recently snuck up on you?

It’s tax season, y’all! In two countries!

As always, questions taken from The Friday 5.