Happy Friday, everyone!
I don’t normally talk about the specifics of projects I’ve been working on, but today I’m going to nudge that habit aside just for a moment, because it brought up some interesting food for thought. One of my recent clients works as a translator in addition to her own writing, and I was contracted to look over a short story that had been translated into English. The nature of the job and a friendly peer discussion on our freelancing careers subsequently brought up the topic of how to keep the integrity of the originals we work with — or in my case with this contract, an original translation of an original.
Of course I can’t speak for the challenges translators face, as I myself do not have fluency in a second language, but I have always held them in awe. Not only is there the technical accuracy aspect of translation, but to then balance that with equally-accurately translating the intent of the author and the subtleties of connotation is mind-boggling to me. Seriously, hug any translator you come across, or anyone using a language outside of their mothertongue to any degree for that matter. Having worked with several clients for whom English is not their first language, my admiration remains undimmed!
Editors encounter this balancing act to a lesser degree. While of course our primary job is to ensure readability and technical accuracy of a text, we too seek to preserve the integrity of the original, particularly when it comes to more creative texts. Otherwise, many would run the risk of sounding the same and your favorite authors would not have their unique voice, nor some of your favorite stories or poems their boundary-stretching (or convention-breaking) forms. For example, anyone who has delved into Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves will tell you that if an editor had gone through the (arduous) task of revising the novel to a typical layout and style and it had been published as such, then it would not be House of Leaves. Likewise, we would not have the technically-grammatically-incorrect but stylistically-significant punctuation and syntactic choices of e e cummings.
Herein lies your editor’s challenge: to determine whether you have set additional stylistic rules for yourself (and perhaps then broken them, deliberately) on top of the rules of the language (and form) in which you are writing. Then, once this is determined, to decide whether the breaking is worth it. Although I’m not familiar with the initial publication history of either cummings or Danielewski and thus how long it took their unconventional style to be accepted for publication, it’s safe to say that although they eventually found an editor and publisher that believed it was worth it, that this is not something that happens every day. Often, it will not be worth it because the rule-setting and -breaking has been done inconsistently, or weakly, and ends up crippling an otherwise perfectly decent text. Other times, the form in which you are writing simply cannot allow additional rule-setting or -breaking, such as a civil report or legal document with set styles. The key to helping your editor out in this regard — as well as being good advice for your writing in general — is as Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
We will do our best to retain your unique voice as long as it is worthwhile. While this may sound cold, remember that if a text is ultimately unreadable, it is useless — and surely that is the endgame for any writer in any medium?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject!