Diplomats, politicians and stage managers
—Editors in academia

Jennifer Eagleton

Translation takes a text from one language and transforms it into another, in a manner sympathetic with the author's original intention, so that another audience, one that doesn't know that language can understand it. Editing tightens, renovates, smoothes over the rough patches in a text so that it reads well, flows logically and makes sense. Like translation, it is a tool that aids communication, one, which, if done well, remains hidden from view.

To edit as defined by Webster's Dictionary is "to prepare or revise (written material) for publication or presentation, as by correcting, revising, or adapting." In the Encarta World English Dictionary one meaning of "editor" is "text corrector" — somebody who prepares a text for publication by correcting errors and improving the flow of words and improve clarity. But the etymology of the word "edit", from the Latin edare, to bring forth, has a wider definition of editing than that, which is confined to writing. It also implies that the person doing the editing is concerned with anything to bring the writing to publication or notice.

Chinese translation pioneer Yan Fu's criteria for translation: namely, the principles of faithfulness, expressiveness and gracefulness, can also serve as general guidelines for the editorial process. Take faithfulness for example. One of the most importance tasks of an editor is to leave in the author's voice, so that is their own unique style emerges from the text. Expressiveness and gracefulness is involved when correcting errors and clarifying ambiguities. The editor, using subtlety and little tricks, attempts to enhance the natural qualities of the work. Knowing where to stop and avoiding the temptation to rewrite is a skill that not everybody possesses.

Authors are often very protective of their words, like children. They nurture them, see them to maturity and watch them leave home where they acquire a life of their own. In the university setting, they keep them particularly well protected, which is natural since their academic reputation rests on them. Editing in such a situation is particularly fraught with difficulty in a non-English speaking country like Hong Kong, because material often arrives in a less-than-perfect state exhibiting rather interesting use of the English language. English that is heavily influenced by the syntax of the local language, with words being used in wrong contexts. In a heavy-duty theoretical article, it is quite difficult to work out how to edit for clarity and still keep the intended meaning. This is also why it is important to liase with the author as much as possible. Therefore, academic editors have to go about stroking egos and need grow a thick skin in order to do their job properly. They have to be diplomats, politicians and stage managers.

It also helps to have a good understanding of the subject of the work. Reading up about the subject, knowing the jargon and looking at how other publications handle the subject are all useful practices. Some problems are unique to a Chinese-speaking society: how to handle Chinese names and characters in the text (they differ in Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan), consistency of translated titles and so on. Usually style and usage guides help solve most problems, but new problems frequently crop up requiring creative solutions.

Most editors prefer to read quickly through a text before they begin editing it. The kind and amount of editing to be done depend on the nature of the material (is it an academic piece, book review or conference speech?), the audience for whom it is intended (academics or the educated layperson), and the author's skill in preparing the manuscript — all factors that can be determined by a first reading or sampling. The first process is mechanical editing. This involves a close reading of the manuscript, consistency of spelling, capitalisation. Then there is substantive editing, rewriting, reorganizing or suggesting ways to present material. Wordy expressions, redundant or inappropriate expressions, clichés, and overused phrases are all noted. Scholarly articles are often quite complex documents, with extensive bibliographies, footnotes, appendixes and heavy theoretical content. These all have to be checked to see that they match up.

Firstly, articles submitted to academic journals usually have to be anonymously reviewed by suitable academics in a related field. Then the accepted articles have to be edited and formatted to fit the house style, typeset and the proofs sent out to the author. In subsequent proofs, the editor goes through the text with a fine-tooth comb looking for errors. We check to see if there is correct pagination, that the table of contents fit the titles of articles, that running heads match up, that text has dropped or duplicated, or widows and orphans (stranded lines of text at the top of a page) and ladders (hyphens that line up in several rows) are present. Hopefully, this weeds out all the inconsistencies. From there it goes to the printer for blueprinting, then more checking and then the printing of the finished product.

You can surmise from all this that the act of editing in the academic setting is indeed an interesting and challenging pursuit.

This article was adapted from a piece that appeared in a recent publication celebrating 30 years of the Department of Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.


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