On 6 November 2020, SENSE organized REFOCUS • REBOUND • REPEAT: a free panel discussion on risk-taking and agility for freelancers in turbulent times. The panel consisted of four founders of international, creative-industry companies, and was moderated by SENSE CPD Coordinator Matthew Curlewis. Longtime SENSE members Carla Bakkum and Francis Cox share their respective takes on the event.
I had signed up for the REFOCUS – REBOUND – REPEAT panel early on, drawn by the prospect of fresh voices from outside our regular circles. And I was not disappointed with the panel that our CPD Coordinator Matthew Curlewis expertly put together and hosted: the geographical range – from here to down under and back – was spectacular, and the varieties of English were a joy to hear.
David Beckett, the nestor of the group, related how he reinvented himself in the 2009 crisis after a losing his big-company job – an inspiring lesson in soul-searching and discovering your true talents. Industry influencer Kerry Finch highlighted the shift toward stakeholder capitalism among the big brands she advises. Amsterdam-based recruiter and consultant Mariette Hoitink described the ecosystem of young talents she works with and their take on life: keen to create, experience and take care of the world and each other, while less focused on financial success (a great example for older generations, I would say.) Valerie Khoo reported that writers in her country were bearing up pretty well in the current circumstances, while also reminding us that there’s a world beyond Covid-19 – it already exists in Australia!
Over 100 participants tuned in, all of whom could post questions and add comments. I saw lots of familiar names come by. It saddened me a bit that I couldn’t share a drink with them after the event, but on the whole, I came out of the session feeling genuinely uplifted.
The word 'inspiring' is overused, particularly in the copywriting game, but it fits the SENSE panel discussion REFOCUS - REBOUND - REPEAT. I was worried at first that it was going to be too corporate-speaky (‘Amplifying a thought leadership position’? Spare us!), but it soon got down to brass tacks. As someone who's reinvented himself several times over the years, a lot of the strategies mentioned were familiar to me. I'm a strong believer in making small improvements and changes in order to reach a bigger goal. That's how I moved to the Netherlands. I particularly liked Valerie Khoo's comment that there are a lot more opportunities out there for professional growth and change than you might think. That's certainly been my experience.
I had a problem, though, with the idea of pivoting or doing a 180. It sounds too drastic. I've been a video technician, fundraiser, translator, copywriter and actor. For me, there's been a logical progression to that career path since all those jobs relate to communication. One strategy I would add to those covered in the discussion is: Listen to the signals you get from your network or the universe in general. That's how I became an actor. More recently, people have been telling me I have a great voice. Because of that, I've been developing myself as a voice actor throughout the last lockdown. By constantly growing and changing in this way, I feel able to face whatever life throws at me.
“Outstanding, thank you all!”
“Very interesting, a good combination of panellists.”
“Inspiring discussion, thanks to SENSE and speakers!”
“Really useful and enjoyable.”
“Plenty of food for thought.”
The panel discussion recording is available upon request until 28 February 2021. Please contact the Web Manager if you are interested in viewing it.
The Starters SIG meeting on 7 December 2020 was an enjoyable session packed with useful information about personal branding for freelancers. Graphic designer and identity branding expert Sarah Notley discussed using social media, getting started with email marketing and the essentials of website design. She started her presentation with the thought-provoking statement that ‘Personal branding is the story people tell about you when you're not in the room.’ Having caught everyone's attention, she went on to talk about the tools you can use to communicate your brand (your visual identity, your website etc.), where to look for your target audience and how to reach them (don't put all your eggs in one basket), setting goals and ways of measuring success, choosing brand assets and making them work for you (without having to invest more time and effort than you can afford) and effective marketing strategies. She also discussed the basic principles of search engine optimisation (SEO) and strategies to make sure that your website fulfils Google's preferences for ranking websites in response to users' search queries.
Besides providing a wealth of practical information and tips, Sarah also looked at the current websites of two brave volunteers. She then provided them with constructive feedback and suggestions for improvements. This was an extremely useful exercise (as well as an opportunity to see fellow translators' websites), since it provided attendees with practical examples of the elements she’d covered in her presentation. Maaike Leenders, one of the volunteers, had this to say about the experience:
‘I’d been thinking about redoing my website for a while and was struggling with the same questions over and over again: Where to start? What am I doing right and what can be improved? Should I do it all myself or get some help? So when the call came for volunteers to show their website to a brand identity specialist, I knew I had to get out of my comfort zone and sign up.
Sarah made it a very practical and pleasant experience. After talking to us about building a brand and the important elements of your (online) presence, it was time to look at the volunteers’ websites. I can’t deny I was a bit nervous about having everyone take a look at the same time! However, the positive feedback I received and Sarah’s presentation really clarified what I could tackle first – and how. This was exactly what I was looking for, and I’ve got my plan for a 2021 website revamp ready to go!’
The meeting ended with a Q&A session during which Sarah answered participants' questions and provided yet more information, suggestions and prompts.
Although I've been a freelance translator for quite some time, I've only recently started marketing myself and my 'brand'. A website is top of my list, so this session was just what I needed!
The importance of revision will be self-evident to SENSE members. It’s easy to overlook a mistake when you’re juggling two different languages, or editing copy or publications. So how do you revise effectively? Fortunately, Brian Mossop is a respected authority on revision and answered this question, among many others, during his two-part workshop. Because of the pandemic, Brian could not join us as planned at the 2020 Jubilee conference, but thanks to the marvels of technology, Brian could tell us more about revising without leaving the comforts of his home in Canada.
The first part of the workshop focused on revision in general and self-revision in particular. On the solid basis of academic research and forty years of experience, Brian shared his thoughts on revision, translation quality and the principles of making changes. He argued, for example, that revision should be primarily considered a reading exercise and not a writing exercise. Revisers should ask themselves if they really need to make a change, not whether they can think of a better translation. Furthermore, having a clear definition of ‘quality’ or ‘fit for purpose’ in mind can help you work more objectively, more justifiably and possibly even more quickly.
Rethinking what revision is and is not proved to be a valuable exercise in itself, but the workshop also included many hands-on exercises to put those new insights into practice. During one exercise, attendees identified which translation strategy comes naturally to them. If you know that you tend to start revising mid-translation or that you don’t look back before your first draft is done, you can adapt your revision strategy accordingly.
Attendees also had the opportunity to discuss their revision experiences and share their own best practices. One helpful tip was to revise ‘backwards’, that is to say, from the last sentence of the translation back to the first one. A few attendees reported this helps them when revising in a rush.
The second part of the workshop addressed, among other things, revising the translations of others. How do you check all possible aspects of a translation systematically? How much do you actually need to revise to assure quality? And how do you maintain a good working relationship between the revisor and the revisee, which can be the trickiest part of revision? One great tip was not to make changes you can’t justify, as well as remembering this is not your translation. If it is a good translation, it is perfectly justifiable to make no changes at all.
The workshop was quite intense, offering attendees many new insights as well as actionable best practices they could start applying right away. For instance, Brian recommended reading the translation before turning to the source text, which worked out surprisingly well for me personally.
If you would like to improve your revision skills, the fourth edition of Brian’s book, Revising and Editing for Translators, is now available.
Anyone familiar with John Linnegar’s erudition on all things English grammar and editing will not be surprised to hear that his contribution to this year’s SENSE Jubilee 2020 workshop series, ‘Applying plain language principles to creating accessible, reader-friendly texts’, was highly anticipated and well attended. The four-hour workshop on a Thursday afternoon in November was just the thing to wake us all from our social distancing slumber and get us thinking deeply about the tools of our linguistic trade. A former teacher of English in secondary and higher education, John has been a copy editor, trainer, and publisher for over 40 years. He is the co-author of many articles and books on English grammar, editing, and language, among them Oxford English Grammar: The Advanced Guide, Text Editing: A Handbook for Students and Practitioners, and two volumes on text editing in two of South Africa’s indigenous languages: Sesotho and IsiZulu. He has served on the board of the Dictionary of South African English and as the chair of South Africa’s Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) and is the current SENSE Member-at-Large. With 20 participants hailing from several countries across Europe and John joining us from his Zoom office in Cape Town, it was a truly cross-cultural and multi-lingual affair.
John is passionate about the plain language movement but applies its insights with a delicate touch. He cites the philosophy in a concise adage: ‘The message is important, not the fancy language wrapped around it’. The assumption here is that however complex or nuanced the author’s intended message, it can be communicated to readers in a straightforward style. If the text is too wordy or the sentence structure too baroquely complex for the intended reader to grasp ‘at first reading’, the task in revising should be to shear it of excess and allow the essential communiqué at its core to shine through. This promotion of the reader’s perspective and expectations will be familiar to any editor or language professional, as will the attention to intended audience, genre and discipline. But what of the author’s perspective in all this? Can or should the author’s voice and ‘insider’ discourse community find equal weight in our work?
While John exhorted us to ‘dress language down’ where appropriate and when possible, we were advised not to ‘dumb the author’s ideas down’ nor reduce the style to bland pap. ‘It is comforting to find’, John noted during discussion, ‘that we don’t have to dress down style’. It is this latter caveat against reductionism that gives John’s workshops and presentations such relevance to academic writers and editors. It avoids the trap many rule-based writing advice gurus fall into of alienating those of us who are moved by academic writing’s many inspiring functions and forms. While the purpose of some texts may be to broadcast a message to a wide audience, others are written with smaller communities in mind in the hopes of breaking new expressive ground, forwarding paradigm-shattering insights, highlighting marginalized voices, creating new theory, or dislodging its readers if only a little from their stock categories and patterns of thought. Plain and simple declamation is not always appropriate. Nor is it even always desirable.
Plain language has a place – an important one – to be sure. The movement’s democratic commitment to enfranchising those who have been historically disadvantaged by gatekeeping language is inspiring and long overdue. But like every stylistic choice, its usefulness is context-specific. When generalized to all writing forms and all writing communities, a censure against unplain style actually works against the democratic principles that are the movement’s prime motivation. In my preferred linguistic world, there is also a big place for the subversion of reader expectations. The rub, of course, is that to do that, you first have to know what those are and how to meet them. That’s where plain language comes in strongest.
Used descriptively and not prescriptively, plain language techniques offer writers and editors a valuable set of targeted skills we can have at our ready. Whether we’re looking to recast garbled draft sentences into clear and concise versions, spice up otherwise wooden texts, or craft a voice and style that is wholly outside the box, learning how to recast and move things around in a sentence can widen the range of textual effects we are able to produce. Splitting and reconnecting, shortening and reordering, substituting and recombining – all these devices can shake us loose from our linguistic grooves and expand the kinds and functions of sentences we use. As SENSE CPD Coordinator Matthew Curlewis taught us in his Writers' Stretch & Tone series, our writing becomes stale when we repeatedly fall back on turns of phrase, constructions and genres we know too well. Adopting new styles and voices can spice things up.
So while we may sometimes read, write or work with a perfectly good academic, literary or policy text that is all ‘dressed up’ with difficult words, jargon, nominalizations, noun strings, negative statements, subordinations and archaisms that are there for a purpose and not to be touched, dressing things down once in a while can enliven our writing, editing, and translating, if only by force of variety. If Oliver Lawrence’s insights on the many uses of sound in writing are to be believed, experimenting with and studying a wide variety of forms, styles, voices and linguistic strategies can make us all better writers and language professionals. Plain language is no exception and should form part, though certainly not the whole, of our study.
But just in case anyone missed my message here, I will not be straightjacketing my written or editorial voice to fit plain language style preferences any time soon. Unapologetically unplain is fit for purpose for the kind of editorial work I do and the discourse community I make my home in. Unless the tone threatens to undo the author’s ends, I consider voice to be out of bounds for my editorial intervention, even for non-native English speakers writing in English. My job as an editor is never to change the author’s voice but rather to help it come into its own through close reading and ‘deep hanging out’ with the text. I do that by offering my clients what Sally Burgess has recently called the ‘gamut of choices’ from punctuation to syntax, word choice to modes of expression, argumentation to rhetorical structure that together make up a writer’s voice. As University of Chicago Press copy editor Carol Fisher Saller argues, editors can take an adversarial or a cooperative approach to an author's choices, but not both. The editor must choose. Having been edited by John more than a few times, I can attest to his gentle editorial touch: he never outmaneuvers my voice, means of expression, or intended argument in favor of ideological cudgeling. He swims with not against the grain of the text he edits, a skill that sounds easier than it actually is. When wielded in his hands, plain language techniques become something of a marvel, making me wish I’d thought of that way of phrasing things in the first place.
I’ll therefore let the plain language presciptivists wave their ideological banners on their own and take on board instead what John’s gentler, more democratic approach has given me: some very valuable writing techniques I can pull out whenever I choose – choice being the operative word. I don’t actually believe, after all, that the sole function of language is to broadcast a message or instrumentally impart information to an uncooperative reader. My faith in the reader’s agility, the generative value of linguistic oddities, and the ‘pushmi-pullyu’ of bringing multiple styles and voices into conversation may be naïve or even utopian and silly, but I wouldn’t part with it for all the world.
Theresa Truax-Gischler is a developmental and substantive editor in the narrative social sciences and humanities and has served on the SENSE EC. In early 2021, she and long-time SENSE member Maria
Sherwood-Smith will give a MET workshop on editing humanities and social science texts.
At the latest online UniSIG meeting on 6 November, Mike Gould made a persuasive case for open access archiving. Open access publishing is a model in which published research is made freely available. Gold open access refers to publishing in an open access journal, where the publication can be accessed free of charge; another route is green open access, which refers to publishing in any journal and then self-archiving the publication, either in an online repository or on a website. It was this second route – archiving as opposed to publishing – which was the focus of the workshop.
The benefits of open-access archiving are numerous: research is available sooner and to a much broader audience; researchers can be more transparent about their findings; and in the long run, libraries may be able to redirect some of their funds from journal subscriptions to funding the peer review process itself. Luckily, in some scientific fields, open access publishing is also becoming the standard and seems set to become more popular in future.
Mike highlighted the interesting state of play in the Netherlands. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands now has an umbrella agreement with several large publishers, including Elsevier and Taylor & Francis. This agreement means that Netherlands-based researchers can publish in journals with full open access rights, free of charge. There are substantial advantages to the publishing author, which raises the question of whether authors’ editors should advocate for open access publishing. Mike’s advice is to consider what falls under your remit: if you have been hired as a communication consultant, then it’s worth advising your client to publish in an open access journal, or to self-archive in a digital repository.
Our follow-up discussion touched on a number of points, including the decreasing resistance to open access among PhD supervisors, the relative impact of journal articles and books in different disciplines, and whether subscription-based journals can continue to act as gatekeepers for quality control. As open access publishing becomes more prevalent, it will be interesting to see how the publishing industry responds, and whether our clients also become more receptive to the benefits of open access publishing and archiving.
In November of this year, the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), formerly the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, held their annual conference online. SENSE members Claire Bacon and Kate Sotejeff-Wilson gave us their take on the conference.
I’ve been a CIEP member for a few years and really enjoyed the 2019 conference. Like SENSE, the CIEP is filled with friendly and talented editors who are happy to share their wisdom, so I was thrilled to hear that this year’s conference was going ahead despite the pandemic and that I would have the opportunity to learn from my peers.
A highlight for me were the networking sessions; it was nice to have the chance to mingle and talk to people and add a few more academic editors to my network. I also enjoyed CIEP chair Hugh Jackson’s opening address. It has been a tough year for many of us, and Hugh’s heartening talk of the spirit and resilience of the editing community was a virtual hug.
The talks were not disappointing. In the first session, experienced editors Laura Poole, Erin Brenner, Amy Schneider, Sarah Grey and Lori Paximadis talked about the various ways their professional support group (called ‘The Quad’) supports them in their editing careers. Advice, accountability, emotional support, and knowledge sharing (or ‘brain back up’, as Sarah put it!) were among the many advantages of being part of such a group. They recommend setting up a group with people who have similar experience; that way, everyone benefits equally, and one person doesn’t get stuck being the mentor.
CIEP marketing officer Denise Cowle revealed brilliant interviewing skills in a conversation with lexicographer Susie Dent. We learned some interesting new words (like ‘Quarantini’, which is a cocktail made from whatever alcohol you have in the cupboard and ‘hufflebuffs’, which are comfy clothes you wear at home – something we editors are very familiar with!) and Susie told us about her horror when the wrong version of latest book Word Perfect was sent to the printer.
Our very own Marieke Krijnen gave a version of her SENSE2020 talk, sharing her tips on taking care of your mental health and physical wellbeing, something which is more important now than ever! Finding motivation online to do exercise (Marieke and I are both members of the CIEP Run On Editors group) and apps to help you avoid distractions while working were some of the many helpful tips that Marieke shared.
Although the CIEP did a wonderful job of bringing their conference online, I very much hope that we are able to meet in person again next year. Here’s hoping!
This was not only the CIEP’s first online conference, but my first CIEP conference ever. The best bit, as ever, was talking to colleagues and there were lots of opportunities to do this in the mornings, networking in small breakout rooms. I even got a request to edit an article for publication in an Australian journal!
The technical training on offer was varied in breadth and depth. Paul Beverley gave a session on macros for book editing and Karen Cox gave a useful session on macros for beginners. Daniel Heuman explained how to use house styles in PerfectIt in a more advanced way, including adding logos to your styles so your organisation or client can see that you created the style for them (see www.intelligentediting.com/ciepslides for more ideas).
My favourite session was given by Fraser Dallachy, who explained the Historical Thesaurus of English. It was originally published on paper in 2009, after decades of work, and its online edition was launched just a few weeks ago. You can access it via the Oxford English Dictionary. Designed for the study of semantics – the history of ideas in words – the thesaurus is used by history writers to check for anachronisms (did you know that the word ‘cauliflower’ was first recorded in 1597?) and speculative fiction writers to choose unusual words (eg, a steampunk writer might use some early terms for electricity). The data is organised into tiers, starting with the world, mind and society (apparently Aristotle’s categories) and you can visualise it in all sorts of wonderful ways.
Of course, an online event is never the same as an in-person one, but the CIEP made this work by creating plenty of opportunities to meet and learn at different levels and with different people. I’m already looking forward to the next conference!
The Southern SIG is finally back in action! On Tuesday 24 November, a good number of SENSE members from all over the Netherlands – and even slightly beyond – celebrated the grand return of the Southern SIG. After everyone introduced themselves, a friendly and informal conversation ensued on a myriad of subjects ranging from bookshops and Dunglish to retirement. As SIG convener, I was also delighted to receive many great ideas for future Southern SIG events.
We had some great tips for members who like to keep developing their skill sets. The College of Media and Publishing’s online copywriting course came highly recommended, as they allow you to study whenever you find the time. What’s more, they don’t just offer great courses, but also frequently provide discounts. Another good website to get smarter is Coursera, offering MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) from top universities on many different subjects. We even learned that some Erasmus University Rotterdam MOOCs were edited by fellow SENSE members. If you struggle at times to muster the self-discipline to study, you might like to join an accountability group: a group of students who regularly meet to report their progress to one another – or admit to the lack thereof.
Another challenge we discussed is to get your UK passport renewed before the infamous and carefully avoided ‘B word’. During Covid times, making a round trip to Albion is unfortunately not an option. Luckily, you can apply online, but the process is a bit quirky. Rather than informing you of the requirements upfront, the procedure tells you what to do as you go. Be prepared to take a picture with your very own smartphone, for instance.
In short, the event was a resounding success and very informative. Hopefully, the Southern SIG will be able to meet in person next year, offering local fruit pie (vlaai, for the connoisseurs) by popular request.
As the author of Righting English that’s gone Dutch and a PhD thesis on Culture and conventions: writing and reading Dutch scientific English, who better to talk about language interference than Joy Burrough-Boenisch?
Joy has worked as an authors’ editor and translator for Dutch academics and scientists for decades and has also taught academic writing to graduate students. To get an idea of the language backgrounds of the participants, she first asked us which languages we speak. Thanks to Zoom, there were attendees from seven countries, speaking nine languages between us: an impressive reservoir of linguistic knowledge that we could draw on! Besides the influence of Dutch, her specialism, Joy also reviewed examples of English influenced by other languages.
Joy presented the eight of us attending the workshop with numerous examples of language interference and we discussed how best to deal with each of them. It was, in fact, an advantage to have such a small group of attendees: there was plenty of interaction, and everyone had a chance to say something.
We looked at ‘false friends’ between various languages, had fun dissecting a Dunglish lunch menu and puzzled over examples of interference from various European and Asian languages. The concluding overview of some striking cases of bizarre language interference included ‘Kiss and Ride’ (instead of ‘Patient Drop Off’), ‘symptoms of flew’, ‘toilet disabled’, ‘bicycle shed library’ and ‘(un)sterile gloves’.
Joy had sent us two short texts to edit in advance, so we started the workshop discussing that homework assignment in pairs. Then we compared notes. After a break, we divided into small groups to work on two more exercises which we received on the day. A group approach to editing delivered effective rewriting of some very challenging texts.
Joy is a lively speaker, so this workshop was both informative and great fun. The take-home messages were that we shouldn’t interfere unnecessarily with the author’s ‘voice’, should always deal tactfully with clients, but should also be authoritative, quoting trusted sources to support our editing choices.
You were telling us about the translation process for Humankind…
Yes, everything’s there in the draft translation when I start. And that’s no mean feat, especially with the tight deadlines Elizabeth had to hit. She did an amazing job.
[You can find Part 1 of Claire’s interview with Erica Moore here.]
So it’s all there, but maybe the sentences have gone a little long or complex. Or the tense passive. Or the people have gone missing. (Something I say a lot is: ‘Can we put the people back in here?’) Or the word choice has gone slightly academic. Or maybe the tone has shifted and no longer sounds right to me. Maybe the author’s voice doesn’t come through.
That’s where I come in. I can’t say it always works, but one of my aims is to make the thing sound like Rutger. To have the story unfold like I imagine he’d tell it (if he were an English-speaking writer). To recreate his style and put it in his voice, then come up with the words and phrases and metaphors and examples I think he would select if he could. To make key lines of the original as memorable in translation. And add some punch where I can.
That can mean going back to the Dutch source text and trying to suss out why things aren’t working, where it is that things have diverged. Sometimes you have to combine lines that are short and sweet in Dutch, because it comes across as too staccato in English. Other times, I think it works really well in English to be short and punchy, so I put that back in. That sort of Dutch-direct style can sound lively and fresh in English.
At the start of Chapter 2, for instance, I added bits and moved things around, in an attempt to have the story unfold as powerfully in English.
Het decor: een onbewoond eiland in de Stille Oceaan. Een vliegtuig is net neergestort. De overlevenden zijn een stuk of twintig Britse schooljongens, die hun geluk niet op kunnen. Het strand, de schelpen, het water – het is alsof ze in een jongensboek zijn terechtgekomen. En nog beter: er zijn geen volwassenen.
The story takes place on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific. A plane has just gone down. The only survivors are some British schoolboys, who can’t believe their good fortune. It’s like they’ve just crash-landed in one of their adventure books. Nothing but beach, shells, and water for miles. And better yet: no grownups.
Those shorthand lines are perfect for sketching a scene: A plane has just gone down. Nothing but beach… for miles. And better yet: no grownups. That last one is even shorter than the Dutch. They work because we’ve got a longer stretch in the middle, anchoring the paragraph. I think you need more words there to show how a plane crash could possibly feel like good fortune. Afterwards, endless water and sand sound brilliant instead of bleak.
So I moved the line about books up a little and added crash-landed to make it a more vivid image. If we’ve done it well, then you’re up to speed on the boys’ situation within one paragraph, whether you’ve read Lord of the Flies or not.
Clarity and argument
Another thing I work on is making sure examples really work for US or UK readers, or for any readers without that Dutch perspective. And given my background, I’m super critical when it comes to argument, or pointing to a single archaeological find as evidence of some general truth, for instance, or introducing women in a book differently than the men. All kinds of cultural and scientific issues are things I look at.
Take Lyudmila from Chapter 3. Every reference I found to her indicated she was a talented, ambitious and devoted research scientist. But if you read the Dutch book, she comes across in the beginning more like the blushing co-ed who wants to work for Dimitri. That’s the kind of thing I try to adapt in translation. If you extend that kind of trust to your translators, cultural blind spots can be remedied, instead of repeated or compounded in 42 other languages.
Or take the book’s explanation of evolution. Rutger brilliantly gets that into a single paragraph, that ends like this:
…Stel je vervolgens een afvalrace voor waarbij triljarden broertjes en zusjes ten onder gaan. Hou die race lang genoeg vol – zeg: vierduizend miljoen jaar – en minuscule verschillen tussen ouders en kinderen groeien uit tot een enorme stamboom aan flora en fauna.
But I had questions. Brothers and sisters? Parents and children? Flora and fauna? I wasn’t seeing it. And do we mean an afvalrace here, or a relay, where you hand the baton off to those who come after you? Rutger patiently endured all my poking and prodding of this metaphor. The English version came out of my light-bulb moment, when I said: ‘Oh! So it’s that happy little game of run till you’re dead.’
So this is Darwin’s grand theory in the English edition:
…Now imagine a friendly game of run till you’re dead, in which billions upon billions of creatures bite the dust, some before they can pass the baton to their offspring. Keep this footrace going long enough – say four billion years – and the minuscule variations between parents and children can branch out into a vast and varied tree of life.
That’s it. Simple, but brilliant.
I’m sure Rutger got exasperated after about 10 chapters of me pushing him on the details of his arguments. But it’s important. And he responded with grace to every query.
I think that Dutch readers on the whole are more forgiving of that sort of thing. You can get hung out to dry in the US if you’re not rigorous in your writing, even in a book for a general readership. And that would be a shame. So I can be a little ruthless in that respect.
If we’re lucky, memorable passages come out of it that help tell the tale.
Are there lines you’re particularly proud of, or that were particularly challenging?
Yes! One of my favourite lines is from Chapter 1, right after Rutger introduces veneer theory, and before we move on to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The line in Dutch is:
Maar het is precies andersom: juist als de bommen uit de lucht vallen of de dijken breken, komt het beste in ons naar boven.
I felt like we needed this to be a strong, stand-alone line in English. But what to do with dikes? In New Orleans, those were levees, but this line is larger than the example about Katrina that follows. I wanted to get at a more general truth and a more evocative link with what comes next.
It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves.
I like the symmetry of the rise and fall, and the manmade and natural disaster, and the gentle segue to Katrina. Some time back, I was watching Rutger being interviewed by Christiane Amanpour, and she pulls out her copy of the book, puts on her reading glasses, and launches into that line. I can die now.
One of the more challenging passages was the line that first appears early in Chapter 1, and that spawned the Dutch title. Rutger first has this comically over-the-top intro to the ’radical idea’ the book’s going to be about. Then this:
Het idee in kwestie?
De meeste mensen deugen.
Putting aside the translation of deugen, which presents all kinds of connotative dilemmas and cultural baggage, there’s the matter of humour and timing. That’s what was really key for me. How can we get that same over-the-top, epic intro and then fall into a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone in one go? This is where Rutger’s timing and wit and delivery come in. Find a way to emulate that, and we’re good. Oh, and then translate deugen, and preferably with a phrase that we can use throughout the book whenever human nature comes up, and oh yeah, can it tie in with the English title too please? Whew.
So I kept the intro section in these sweeping fragments of sentences, as if a voiceover narrator is reading them in dramatic tones:
This is a book about a radical idea. An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions, … ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.
And then we change register abruptly, to the super-conversational:
So what is this radical idea?
That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.
If it works, then the contrast and the timing show this is an author with a sense of humour, who thinks about big ideas, but doesn’t take himself too seriously. We’ve got ‘pretty decent’ in there, for later use of decent and kind throughout. And the down-to-earthness of the line conveys just how ordinary this whole idea of human decency is. Nothing special, nothing to see here. We’re all like this.
And that, after all, is the whole point.
Could you add a piece of advice for budding or aspiring literary translators?
First, enjoy reading and analysing text of all kinds. A lot of my intuition about style matters comes from taking lots of English classes back at UT a hundred years ago and writing lots of term papers about what I noticed, in everything from Hamlet to Hitchcock. And though I wasn’t always the most dedicated student, I got a lot out of it. Turns out it’s all useful for figuring out how to write to sound like author A or speaker B.
See if you can get work in a team with other writers, speechwriters, translators or editors. And then ask for feedback every chance you get. Or find some other way to collaborate. I can’t tell you how much I owe to working 15 years on site (which may be a thing of the past) with other people trying to do good work.
I worked for years with a wonderful Irish translator, Maria Sherwood Smith (also a SENSE member!). We reviewed each other’s work before taking it to clients. It’s the way to learn FAST – leaps and bounds. Then at the Ministry* I worked with British translators and Dutch speechwriters. Those positions are gold if you can get them. Not forever, but for a few years. A quiet attic office has its perks, but it can’t compare to a group of people feeding and challenging your work. Of course there’s a lot you can do remotely, in the way of feedback and collaboration. But having that sort of reliable step in the process, where someone hands you a better solution, or you have to justify why you’re keeping what you had, is really good training.
Finally, don’t be shy! (She says, as a terribly shy person herself.) No, by all means, be shy if you’re shy, but: get over your shyness enough to get to know your author. You may not have the chance to work at the same table for years. But you can listen to readings they do in their native tongue, or watch their interviews, or tune in to their podcasts. Hear the rhythm and cadence of their speech, the expressions they use. Not every writer writes like they talk, but certainly in the nonfiction world, a sense of an author’s spoken language can be a gift.
It can make your work sing.
* This was the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality when I started there. By the time I left, it was the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation.
I wonder if, like me, you were on the waiting list to read De Meeste Mensen Deugen by Rutger Bregman last summer. I found myself surrounded by family members utterly absorbed in this book, a bestseller which suggests that human nature is kinder and more generous than we think. My name was way down on the waiting list for the book, but then someone suggested I read the English version. And that’s what I did.
Curious, as I always am, to see who the translators were, I was delighted to discover that one of them, Erica Moore, has been a member of SENSE since 2015. I decided to contact Erica to find out more about this challenging assignment. She was delighted to answer my questions, pointing out that authors are often inundated with calls for interviews and articles. Translators and editors? Not so much!
I’m from Austin, Texas and came to Amsterdam for a year after uni on a Fulbright grant. I then stayed on for another year at the UvA, where I did Science and Technology Studies. At UT Austin, I majored in Plan II, an honours liberal arts program with classes in everything from English Lit. to Environmental History to Modern Physics. So I got a degree in a little bit of everything. Turns out that’s also the perfect foundation for being a translator. You’re keenly aware of how little you know, but you have a basis in a wide range of subjects, and solid training in critical thinking and writing. So you can dive deeper into any topic.
I met Rutger when I joined De Correspondent back in 2015. And I sat across from him for the next few years at the old newsroom on the Amstel. I was hired to help them get set up to go international. I put together a team to translate pieces by the Dutch correspondents, edited the work of US writers like Sarah Kendzior and Bill McKibben (US environmental activist and founder of grassroots movement 350.org), and started an English newsletter to go out once a week and generate interest in the stories and the writers and the DC brand of journalism. I wore a number of hats at the startup, but my mission as head of translations was to ensure the voices of the different correspondents, and of the organization itself, would resonate with English speakers.
I met Elizabeth that same year, when I was scouting translators for an English edition of Rutger’s 2014 book Gratis geld voor iedereen. I handpicked a group of ten or so American translators – many of whom I found through SENSE – and asked them to take a crack at the first page or two. All ten samples were great, but one translator stood out because she showed a real feel for Rutger’s style from the get-go.
So Rutger, Elizabeth and I all met in a vast and empty pub in Utrecht, the city they both called home, and we got started. That was the beginning of Utopia for Realists. We’ve been a team ever since.
After Elizabeth has completed her draft [translation] of a chapter, she’ll share it in a Google doc. It’s the best system we’ve found for collaborating on a text. Then I’ll go through and mark my edits and ask for changes, and Rutger and Elizabeth can respond whenever they get the chance. I ask them to leave all mark-up intact, so I can go through again and finalize everything, taking everyone’s input into account.
Sometimes we openly ponder what the best solution would be, with comments back and forth. Mostly, I’ll make a call or rewrite a line and that’s that. Sometimes, I’ll leave an issue open until the arc of the book becomes clearer to me, then I’ll go back and decide on that metaphor in chapter one, because it never comes up again. Or because it repeats in the epilogue. Rutger helps point out those sorts of links, too, since he knows the Dutch text through and through. I generally don’t read far ahead in the Dutch but look first to the English translation and how it works or where it lets us down, and try to fix that. I’ll pick up the Dutch book when I see a problem.
At the start of a project, I write up a style guide – ostensibly for the translator and the editors and the copy editor, but mostly for myself. It’s my way of trying to get at the nuts and bolts of the author’s writing style. We can all add to it as we go. One of the things I put in there, for instance, was to keep in mind that Rutger is a skilled storyteller, with a great sense of timing and rhythm. It’s key we preserve that wherever we can.
Another point was to stay personable and breezy, close to natural spoken English. I’d edit a sentence like ‘It makes no difference whom you ask.’ to ‘Doesn’t matter who you ask.’ Or introductory clauses with commas, like ‘Consequently,…’ or ‘As a result,…’ get replaced by ‘And so…’. I found I could get rid of whole mouthfuls of clauses with that one: ‘The consequence of this inaction was that…’ becomes ‘And so…’. I also edited out more didactic phrases like ‘Let’s now imagine that…,’ replacing them with the friend-talking-to-friend version: ‘What if…’. These may seem like little tweaks, but the effect over 400 pages – if we got it right – is a text that sounds personal and draws you in close, like Rutger’s sharing a story with you, instead of aloof scene-setting and armchair observations.
For my fellow language nerds out there, here’s a couple more points from the guide:
Key: Avoid the subjunctive where possible. This book’s a grounded argument for what’s actually possible, not a string of lofty hypotheticals, e.g. ‘What if real democracy’s possible?’ not ‘What if democracy were truly possible?’ Rutger wants to take us beyond what we know and put us inside new, very real possibilities. That’s different from somehow transcending our current situation and gazing back down from a distance.
Key: Where possible, keep the personal perspective intact. Keep the people in the sentences, e.g. ‘Thanks to DNA testing, we now know…’ not ‘Recent DNA research has revealed…’. The edit sounds upbeat, accessible and includes the reader. We hear the person behind the writing. The old version sounds more distanced, stuffier, academic. (Nothing wrong with that, just not what we’re going for.) Writer and reader are absent.
Once everyone working on a manuscript is aware of that kind of thing, then odds are you won’t kill it. Take the subjunctive for instance, a deliberate choice on my part for Rutger. If you don’t make explicit your decision to avoid it, an earnest editor could correct out the author's style. Don’t get me wrong. That was not a problem here. Lots of fantastic people behind this book!
Having worked with Elizabeth on three book-length projects, and several shorter ones, I know that I don’t have to check her in a traditional sense. If she’s put a quote in, I know that she’s checked and double-checked it, and if there’s an original English version, that’s what she’s used. Because Elizabeth has done the heavy lifting, I can then focus on style and storytelling and argument. It’s a dream job – especially working with a fantastic author and a fabulous translator.