The Value of a Good Editor

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Earlier on in my translation career, I had the good fortune to land an incredibly rewarding, interesting and ongoing assignment. It was right after the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami pummeled the Tohoku region in March 2011. Around that time, The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s major daily newspapers, was revamping their English website. Perhaps due to the international attention on Japan in the disaster’s wake, the paper decided to ramp up coverage in English.

This is where I came in. A translation agency contacted me and inquired as to whether I would be interested in translating news articles for The Asahi Shimbun on a regular basis. I was quite the news junkie back then, so I immediately jumped at the opportunity. For the next four years, I had the pleasure of translating three or four articles a week into English. Their contents were mostly editorials and human interest stories, while breaking news was handled by the paper’s in-house translators so they could be published faster. This suited me just fine, since I found that my articles were more interesting and in-depth.

None of those pieces I translated, unfortunately, are online anymore. The one that was the most enjoyable for me actually had nothing to do with Japan. It was about modern-day witches in Romania, where witchcraft is still a thriving business. According to the article, political candidates for national office will hire a witch to curse their opponent. Another article that stands out in my memory was about the discovery in Austria of “the world’s oldest brassieres,” made in the 15th century. In my first draft there was a humorous aside about medieval G-strings where I translated 股間 (kokan), which literally means “groin,” as “naughty bits.” Sadly, it didn’t make it into the final version, although the first-round editor did let it stay.

Which finally brings me to the subject of this article: the value of a good editor. If you’ve worked as a translator, copywriter or webpage designer or in pretty much any other creative profession, I’m sure you’ve had to deal with feedback of all sorts. Some of that criticism can be hurtful, unwarranted or just downright ignorant. As I’ve written before, that’s never fun.

The editor I began working with for the Asahi Shimbun translations, however, was great, as were the arrangements for our collaboration. The translation agency hired another freelancer like me, a native Japanese speaker, to check my translations for accuracy, i.e. that the meaning of my text conveyed the same idea as the original Japanese articles. This accuracy requirement, coupled with the demand of the end client (the newspaper publisher) for natural English that flows smoothly, made for quite a challenging balancing act.

There were many times, especially early on, when I clashed with my editor over his relentless feedback pointing out where the nuances of my translations differed from the Japanese. However, he was always patient and provided thorough, logical explanations to help guide me toward a more faithful rendering of the writer’s message into English. Over time, his tireless efforts made me into a better translator, which I deduced from the praise The Asahi Shimbun communicated to me through the translation agency.

And although now the newspaper has long since moved the work I used to do in-house and the translation agency is no longer among my customers, I continue to benefit from this wonderful arrangement. That’s because when I translate, I still imagine the same editor is going to review my work.

This affects how I approach certain tricky translations. For example, など (nado) is a word which essentially means “et cetera” and is often tossed with reckless abandon into Japanese text by writers who want to cover their asses just in case they forgot to mention something. It’s supremely annoying, especially if you have to find a way to translate it every damn time. The lazy approach would be to add “etc.” to the end of way too many sentences, resulting in a horrifically unsightly text. However, The Asahi Shimbun’s style guide specifically instructed us to use “etc.” sparingly, so I had to find workarounds like “such as” and “or the like,” all while striving to keep the English text flowing smoothly with a natural variety of vocabulary.

To accomplish this, an instance of nado may require some extra care, with a phrase like “and other” followed by a specific mention of the category under which the preceding word or words fall. Here is an example from an article about bicycle safety in Japan, with the original Japanese followed by my translation:

When a rider is issued a red colored paper notice for a violation that counts as a dangerous act, or causes a traffic accident that is reported to the prosecutor’s office, the perpetrator’s name and other information are recorded.

The translation contains the word “information,” but the Japanese equivalent, 情報 (jyouhou), does not appear in the source. I wrote it this way to delineate what the scope of nado encompasses.

Today, when I come upon words like nado that I’m otherwise tempted to just ignore, I still do my best to translate them into natural English phrases, even though my editors are not as strict now. However, the resulting text makes my customers, who are all based in Japan, quite happy and always coming back to offer me more assignments. While quality is not the top priority of translation customers, it certainly helps to retain business. And for this I can thank that excellent editor from The Asahi Shimbun project.

I remember once when a former colleague told me that his translations don’t need checking. Yeah, bullshit. Everybody needs an editor. Even best-selling authors and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists have editors. That means we all can benefit from a good second pair of eyes: an editor who provides constructive feedback as you work together as a team toward the common goal of producing a quality piece of creative work, whether it be a translation, an illustration, a webpage…or the like.

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