My life for the past month.
Herbert Rosengarten is a professor emeritus and former head of UBC’s English department. A textual editor and authority on the work of the Brontës, he contributed to The Oxford Companion to the Brontës and co-compiled the entry on the Brontës in The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. Rosengarten spoke at a recent Editors BC meeting about textual criticism and scholarly editing.
Textual editors study the creation of a literary work from manuscript to print and through its various editions. They also supplement the text with annotations, translations, and explanations of allusions or quotations that the reader might not be familiar with. “The goal is to present all the information a person needs to understand and interpret the work,” said Rosengarten.
The task begins with selecting the copytext—the version of the text the textual editor believes “best represents what the author wants the reader to see.” This seemingly simple decision is not so straightforward when the author’s not alive to consult. The textual editor has to make some educated assumptions, and a poor choice of copytext can derail the work of literary critics.
Typically, textual editors will choose among these options:
“All of them have their claim to authority,” said Rosengarten. But “every printed text has its own problems: inconsistencies in punctuation, spelling, word order—or the author’s meaning has been changed.” A printed book from the nineteenth century and earlier “is the product of a collaboration: authors, agents, compositors, proofreaders, binders, critics, booksellers, and libraries,” among others. The textual editor’s job is to know which text to choose, to weed out errors, and to understand the forces acting on the text. The goal is to act on the author’s behalf. “Don’t substitute your own judgment for the author’s,” said Rosengarten. Readers can also influence how a text is composed and transmitted over time: for example, Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations based on input from readers and critics.
Textual editors have to track the changes—both macro and micro—of a work and evaluate whether changes are errors or what the author intended. Sometimes this is obvious, as in the infamous Wicked Bible of 1631, which left a crucial word out of the Ten Commandments:
Evaluating other types of changes requires careful judgment. In the world of literary criticism, you have to be able to justify your choices. Were the changes consistent with the author’s other changes? Do they make sense?
In the days of manual typesetting, compositional errors could easily accumulate. Rosengarten gave the example from the first four editions of Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, first published in 1742:
Larger errors, such as omission or misplacement of material, could also be widely perpetuated, because new editions tend to be based on the most recent editions. Two chapters had been transposed in the US edition of Henry James’s Ambassadors (1903), for example, and this error persisted until 1950. Another example was Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Chapter 1 begins
You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.
My father, as you know, was a sort of gentleman farmer in —shire; and I, by his express desire, succeeded him in the same quiet occupation…
That’s how the 1948 edition of the book opened, and one might assume that the you is the author addressing the reader. Only in the 1920s or ’30s did scholars discover that this edition, and each one after it, which copied it, was missing a prefatory letter, which begins
When we were together last, you gave me a very particular and interesting account of the most remarkable occurrences of your early life…
The you in Chapter 1, in fact, is the Halford being addressed in the letter.
These changes were accidental, but other changes were the result of deliberate editorial intervention, such as Thomas Bowlder’s Family Shakespeare. An excerpt from the Bowdlerized King Lear (Act 3, Scene 4) seems fine on its own…
Lear. What hast thou been?
Edgar. A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, swore as many oaths as I spake words and broke them in the sweet face of heaven. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly. False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy pen from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend….
…until you see what he’d cut:
Lear. What hast thou been?
Edgar. A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart and did the act of darkness with her, swore as many oaths as I spake words and broke them in the sweet face of heaven; one that slept in the contriving of lust and waked to do it. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly, and in woman out-paramoured the Turk. False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, thy pen from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend…
We would be aghast today with such an adulteration of a classic work, but, as Rosengarten pointed out, Bowdler was meeting a need: he “created Shakespeare that was widely read,” as, at that time, reading aloud was a family activity.
After D.H. Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers, editor Edward Garnett made 88 substantive cuts (which, in Rosengarten’s opinion, improved the text) before the first edition was published. Cambridge University Press restored the cut passages in its 1992 edition of Lawrence’s book. Not all scholars agree the cuts should have been restored. Lawrence seemed happy enough with Garnett’s work to have told him, “You did the pruning jolly well,” and dedicating the book to him. It’s interesting the weight we ascribe to manuscripts of classic literary works; any book editor who works with living authors today knows at least a few writers who would be mortified to have a raw, unedited draft made publicly available.
Yet, said Rosengarten, that’s what makes the work of textual editing so fascinating. It can be quite pedantic and tedious—“You are counting syllables. You often don’t read what you’re reading. Sometimes studying text upside down.”—but by working with original manuscripts, you get to see what the reader has not seen before.
I asked Rosengarten what technological tools he uses to identify and track the changes to a text, and he told me about the Hinman collator, which uses mirrors to superimpose two pages. Switch quickly between the two views and any differences appear to flash. Today this kind of collation can be handled digitally through tools like Juxta. Rosengarten’s talk, with its focus on showing the reader what the author intended they see, also made me wonder about the controversy surrounding Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Was that the book she wanted us all to read? This case shows how fraught that question can be even when the author is still alive.
I’ve had this post in my drafts for years, and I’ve vacillated about the merits of posting it. Interest in topics like diversity in editing and publishing seems to be growing, though, so I figured I’d throw this one out there, if for no other reason than to get it out of my drafts folder. Maybe it will spur some interesting discussion.
“I’m changin’ my name to George,” fellow editor Grace Yaginuma emailed me in 2012, when we were both relatively new to freelancing after leaving our respective in-house jobs. She linked to a blog post about how much more easily a freelance copywriter landed work when she went by “James Chartrand.”
“You know,” I wrote back, “I’ve never considered my gender to be a problem in our line of work—there are just so many women doing what we do—but I do often wonder if the ‘Cheung’ and ‘Yaginuma’ lead to assumptions that we don’t speak English.”
When I started my business, I hadn’t yet built up an archive of blog posts that (I hope, anyway) give me professional credibility. I had a strong network within Canadian book publishing, but, outside of that industry—which is brilliant and fulfilling but notoriously low paying—all anyone had to go on when I looked for work was my name. What kind of first impression does it give?
It’d be wonderful if people took the time to look into their editors’ qualifications before deciding whom to hire, but we know that doesn’t always happen. I’ve undoubtedly missed out on the odd contract because a prospective client saw my Chinese name and moved on to other editors, but I tend to take a sour-grapes approach to these cases, convincing myself that I probably wouldn’t have wanted to work with them anyway. I think this attitude, delusional or not, has served me relatively well.
To be perfectly clear: I have never once felt overtly discriminated against as an editor because of my name or ethnicity, and I’m lucky to be one of a group of bright, industrious, and conscientious colleagues who don’t hesitate to recommend one another for work. That said, I wonder sometimes if I would have tried as hard to find ways to show that I know what I’m talking about if I hadn’t felt that my name gave me a bit of a disadvantage.
I’m likely better off for it, but the initial impostor syndrome, some of it definitely name induced, was something I had to work through. When I started freelancing, I was acutely aware that anything I wrote—whether an email or an invoice or a blog post or a tweet—was a work sample, and I attacked these writing tasks with probably unnecessary fastidiousness. Only in the past couple of years, knowing that the people who matter to me will take me and my work seriously, have I let myself relax somewhat and embrace nonstandard constructions more playfully in my own writing.
Has your name affected your work? I’d be keen to hear others’ stories.
Robin-Eliece Mercury is an editor and applied linguist who taught composition in Japan and the Czech Republic. At the November Editors BC meeting she moderated a panel discussion about the particular challenges and considerations when editing authors who are not native English speakers. On the panel were
Mercury framed the discussion by asking us to think about whether our national association has role to play in creating guidelines, strategies, or tools to help editors approach this kind of editing. “All of us have our personal preferences or policies when editing copy from a non-native speaker of English,” she said. “How can be aware of and sensitive to non-native speakers of English” while meeting the expectations of those who publish and read their work?
Heng Hartse began by pointing out that he’s the only non-editor on the panel, although the work of academics and editors does overlap a lot. His research interests are in the globalization of English and World Englishes. “The pluralization is very intentional,” said Heng Hartse. “It’s ideologically purposeful. We want to emphasize the pluricentricity of English. English is increasingly not the sole possession of a single people, nation, or cultural group.”
Just as we wouldn’t say that a Canadian speaks worse English than an Australian, we can apply the same attitude toward those who speak Singapore English or Indian English, for example. World Englishes “recognizes each variety as legitimate and having its own norms,” said Heng Hartse, which can lead to some interesting controversies. We are seeing more situations in which writer, editor, and audience are working with different norms.
“What responsibility do individual editors have to learn about World Englishes and their role in the global context?” Mercury asked Zhong.
“It’s like any other aspect of professional development,” said Zhong. “We need to become familiar with what they are, in what context they’re used, how we can best serve writers and their audience—with sensitivity.” Ultimately, we have to make sure that the document’s readable. “Other academics all over the world have to understand what someone in Singapore has written.”
Fleury wanted editors to understand that “nonstandard is not a mistake. The challenge is to understand what is standard for the audience.”
Zhong says that tries as much as she can to maintain an expert’s voice and style, but context is important. Sometimes authors will write a term or word that they’ve heard somewhere but haven’t used in the right way. Her example was an author’s use of “significant others” to refer to other important people. She explained how that term is usually used and suggested other possibilities that might be clearer to the reader.
Zhong also adjusts her level of editing depending on the purpose of the document. “I edit course material for the Open University of Hong Kong,” she said. “It takes place the place of a lecture, so it has to be accessible to the students. And it has a certain degree of informality that you don’t get in a journal article. So I edit more intrusively: students have to understand the material without the instructor.”
“I query a lot,” said Zhong. “You have to be as clear as possible and always give options. ‘Did you mean X, or did you mean Y? If you meant X, you’ll need a comma here. If you meant Y, maybe you could say it this way.’”
“Is it fair for editors to assume that non-native speakers of English need extensive editing?” Mercury asked Fleury.
“No, it’s not,” she said. “You will find native speakers who are working as writers and need extensive editing. It’s not a problem of second-language speakers or writers. It’s a misconception that second-language writers are not good writers that will give more trouble than pleasure to editors.” Those who are serious about a language, Fleury said, will never stop studying it. “If you can choose, just work with the right writers.”
“How can we edit with a sensitivity to authors who are non-native speakers of English, when standard English is expected?” Mercury asked Heng Hartse.
“The first thing is not to assuming a non-native speaker has a deficit compared with a native speaker,” he said. “There are many ‘literacy brokers’ between author and publication.” The process could involve many people—family members, colleagues, editors—“all of us making contributions to the text.”
“Approach their work in an open-minded way,” said Heng Hartse. “We need to step back and be reflexive about our perceptions. Build an ethic for yourself of continually asking—What is style? What is grammar? What is just a pet peeve? It’s incumbent on us to develop a way of dealing with other people’s text that respect them, while bringing our expertise.”
“What’s your approach in getting agreement with you and the author in terms of how far you would edit the text stylistically?” Mercury asked Zhong.
“Authors normally tell me what they want me to do,” she said. Some authors want her to focus only on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. “If you have any questions, ask. Don’t go ahead and make changes.”
Heng Hartse warned us to be aware of “rules” that are actually a product of folk linguistics—like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” “None of us are immune to the ideological dimension of making language choices,” he said. “That’s where we have to be careful.”
Mercury asked Fleury if she’s encountered editors’ prejudices as a writer whose first language isn’t English.
“Sometimes an editor will say, ‘Oh, this is good!’ Was there a prejudice or an expectation that it wouldn’t be good? There’s a misconception that native speakers are better writers in that language and that non-native speakers wouldn’t be good writers and would need a lot of work. That’s behind why people are surprised.”
“I’m aware of my weaknesses and strengths,” said Fleury. “I wouldn’t submit anything as a final product if it’s not good enough. If I don’t think I have the skills to write about a specific topic, I will refer a friend.”
“My two prejudices,” said Heng Hartse, “are that (1) I’m right, and (2) I understand what the writer means.”—and it’s important to check these, he said.
Mercury asked the audience if it would be helpful for an organization like Editors Canada to synthesize some of the considerations we’d discussed into guidelines to help the growing number of editors working with non-native speakers of English.
Ruth Wilson responded: “I haven’t heard anything tonight that wouldn’t apply to any thoughtful, sensitive editing in any other discipline. All of the [Professional Editorial] Standards apply equally to this. We’re just opening a window to a new discipline.”
“It’s good to have an open discussion about bias,” said Wilson, but what we’re talking about isn’t a new skill set but an expansion of existing skills.”
Kyra Nabeta asked the panel if they considered it important to know the writer’s language and culture.
“It’s important to be familiar with it,” said Zhong. “I feel I have an advantage. I’m familiar with historical events, place names, expressions, people… It’s not as if you can’t learn that, but for me it’s like a shortcut, because I have that background that gives me an advantage.”
(The evening ended with a few questions about editing translations that got directed to me. For interested readers, I’ve summarized some past sessions about writing for translation, Global English, and editing books in translation. Or check out my posts under the “translation” tag.)