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Issue for March 2018

Editing Foreign Authors

Posted on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at 12:19 AM

NBC recently created an international incident. It was spawned by the network's faulty translation of Vladimir Putin's words in a Megyn Kelly interview. It took The Times of Israel to straighten it out. Now we figure it's time to re-run our classic article on effective editorial practices when dealing with a foreign source.

By Linda Johnson

A Frenchman who says "It's Hebrew to me," or a German who says "It's Spanish to me," has no way of knowing that his use of the idiom is Greek to us. That's because his own sentence contains no actual grammatical error.

The different ways an idiom may be expressed in various foreign languages may have been of little concern to you in the past. However, now that most publications have online presences or digital editions, they are gaining more and more international readers. Cross-cultural and cross-language nuances are now gaining in pertinence for any editor. All this online activity will result not only in increased foreign readership, but also increased submissions from foreign authors.

When editing a foreign author, you may run into problems like this, which generally do not occur at all when a native English speaker writes. It takes a special kind of sensitivity to edit a non-native English writer correctly. Consider that, for your colleague to be attempting to write in English at all, he or she must be very well educated. Your colleague needs to be edited in a manner that reflects his sincerity, candor, and intelligence.

Editing Foreign Material

How do you edit material written by a foreign author? Should you preserve his or her "ambience" -- even if that means the article will appear in less-than-polished English? We're not talking about grammar or punctuation errors here. I'm referring to writing that, while grammatically correct, still sounds foreign.

Some editors argue for leaving in the foreign flavor. It's quaint, or it's charming, they contend. But does such a practice really serve your reader? Is it presenting the information with the utmost clarity? Then there's the argument about the author. You know -- that he or she will be offended if you edit too heavily. Think about it. If you wrote an article in a foreign language, would you want to sound "cute" or "charming"? Indeed, most foreign writers would be grateful for the application of all your editorial skills to their work!

I've investigated some typical writing errors made in English by native speakers of other languages, and I'd like to share some tips on handling them.


Prepositions by their nature are so abstract that they just about never translate on a one-to-one basis. Just try to explain (let alone translate!) the preposition "up" in the following examples:

The runner-up is...
A follow-up on the article...
I wouldn't put up with that...
We put him up for the night...
The beggar hit me up for some money...
The mugger beat up his victim...

Idiomatic Expressions

Idioms, of course, are laws unto themselves. Though no actual error occurs, the speaker has somehow miscommunicated (like in our beginning example). Unfortunately, he has no empirical way of knowing this. If our French or German speaker looked in a dictionary for a translation of hébraïque or Spanisch, he would find in the English section "Hebrew" or "Spanish," correspondingly. Nowhere would it read "Greek."

And before you argue that our writer should invest in a good dictionary of idioms, let me point out that the writer is probably already relying too much on a dictionary to do his work -- and trying more or less unsuccessfully to apply it to what little bit of classroom English he remembers! English is, for your writer, a foreign language. Merely decoding vocabulary is the very least of his problems!


Cognates pose a problem similar to that of idioms. Speakers of any language may incorrectly assume that a word in their language has a cognate in English. For example, Maria von Trapp related in her autobiography an anecdote from an American supermarket. She overheard a German-born woman, amazed at the price of produce, exclaim, "For sixty cents less, I can become cauliflower around the corner!" In German, the verb bekommen means "to get."

Other Pitfalls

Of course, all kinds of grammatical problems that we take for granted will occur in the writing of a non-native speaker. A rule may exist in English for which there exists no corollary in the foreign language. For example, English nouns need to be treated as "countable" or "uncountable" to explain why we say "a chair," but not "a furniture." The distinction between "few" and "a few" is difficult. (Do you have "few" acquaintances in New York or "a few" acquaintances?) And confusion abounds in the present tenses (English has three): I speak English?, or Do I speak English?, or Am I speaking English? Finally, even as an editor, are you consciously aware that we do not use apostrophe "s" for the possessive form of an inanimate object (the cat's meow, but the picture frame)?

Likewise, the reverse situation may occur: the foreign writer may assume that rules in his language are consistent with those of English. He will want to use double negatives if they are permitted (or required) in his language. And a French speaker who says "It's me (C'est moi)" will not consider saying "It's I."

Generally, you can categorize types of writing errors by language family. The less the writer's native language has in common with English, obviously, the more remarkable the errors will be. Creative, sensitive editing will be required.

Romance Languages

Romance language writers tend to write in a style too complex or formal for English. This is because Latin, the basis of a Romance language, is the basis of formal English.

Examine this sentence:

"I find it often difficult to comprehend the people with whom I am speaking."

We need to correct an error of word order (position of "often"), a too-formal (but not incorrect) prepositional phrase, and non-idiomatic use of the present progressive tense (although there is no actual grammatical error). We choose more colloquial synonyms for "difficult," "comprehend," and "speaking." Native English speakers would prefer:

"It's often hard to understand the people I'm talking to."

Teutonic Languages

For native speakers of Teutonic languages (Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians), questions of word order will arise. You will also find total confusion regarding prepositions, particularly if they are used in conjunction with the action of a verb ("get up," "give away," "come from," etc.). Here is an example:

"I am learning English the whole time since I am ten years old."

In this example, correct the tense sequence and the word order:

"I have been studying English constantly since I was ten years old."

Notice that here we found a more sophisticated synonym for "the whole time," and changed "learning" -- which connotes outside assistance (teacher, school) -- to "studying," which can be done alone.

Slavic Languages

Predictably, speakers of Slavic languages have even more difficulties with written English. Their language is not as closely related to ours as the Teutonic languages (of which English is one) or the Romance languages (because English has incorporated so many Latin words into its formal register) are. Slavic-language speakers tend to omit the indefinite and definite articles.

Here's an example from a Soviet author commenting on a visit by Gorbachev to New York back in 1989:

"...watching TV, reading newspapers, it was hardly possible to find out: what is essence of Soviet leader's speech to UN? He didn't asked economic credits. Still speech was almost only purpose to take a 8-hours flight."

Make corrections and see if you get something like this:

"Whether watching TV or reading the newspapers, it was nearly impossible to determine the essence of the Soviet leader's speech to the UN. He didn't ask for any economic credits. All in all, the sole purpose for his taking an 8-hour flight was the speech."


While the languages discussed above are all members of the Indo-European language group, Japanese is not. The structure of the Japanese language is totally different from that of English. English written by a native Japanese speaker is frequently characterized by convoluted superficial sentence structure. Consider this example:

"I was interest in foreign country when I was student. I was not good at English well. It was not benefited with me. Because I understood that learning English conversation is in need of positive and express myself."

A sensitive editor could try this:

"I have been very interested in foreign countries since my student days. But I was never very good at English. No amount of instruction seemed to help. But I realize that it is advantageous to know English, and I want to be able to speak English."

And So...

My advice to editors is this: Go ahead and edit the foreign author's text. Keep it in the style of an educated native-English-speaking journalist. Don't correct just the spelling and the grammar. Determine what the author's message is, and restate it in good English. Correct the grammar and syntax and deliver the substance of the message unchanged.

Editors should use their skill with words to facilitate communication, to encourage dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Then they will be able to give exposure to both existing and emerging concepts, inventions, and ideas from cultures and countries we have ignored for too long.

Linda Johnson is a foreign language specialist based in Connecticut.

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Unlikely Inspiration

Posted on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at 12:19 AM

Useful guidance from friends.

By Peter Jacobi

Friends often tell me things without knowing they've opened an idea path. Of course, I let them know.

From Berkley Kalin, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Memphis, I regularly receive quotes authored by the famous from every field and profession. I have no idea where he gets them all, but they come along almost daily. I came to know Berkley well after his retirement. He moved from Memphis to enjoy the incredible music scene here in Bloomington. He spent a dozen or more years here, and we became dear friends. Now he has returned to Memphis, where his family lives, but we're often in touch, not just via email but also by cell. For this column, I will share with you one of his emailed quotations.

Velda Kaune, who lives in Bloomington where she studied (at Indiana University), is an avid Wagnerian, that is devotee of the music of Richard Wagner. As a singer with a dramatic soprano voice, she favors the operas of Wagner. As a scholar, she focuses her activities on the study of his operas and an analysis of how artists perform his very-difficult-to-perform music. We have developed an email friendship through which she generously shares what she's lately discovered in the process of her work. I will pass along a couple of her observations.

Both friends have refreshed me. I hope they will you.

This-Message-Is-Just-for-You Writing

Berkley's quote came from the late J. D. Salinger: "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."

That's a beautiful observation. It stunned me because it could -- if applied by a sensitive writer (and/or editor) -- do wonders in winning over a reader (or many). There are so many gillions of words being communicated endlessly one has to wonder how many get through. We're unable to take in anywhere near the number of words that come our way, not even to speak of those we sit down to actually read. Today's world of communication saturates us. Thus, even the relatively few words sent to you via this newsletter may get lost in the incoming flood, which seems impossible to totally turn off.

So we constantly try to help push our message through with clear writing and short writing and keep-to-the-basics writing and make-it-interesting writing and carefully structured writing and reduce-to-the-most-important-copy writing.

All to the good, of course. All necessary, of course.

But what do we do to make the reader feel he or she would like to know us, feel on a maybe-I-can-call-him (or her) basis, even though actual physical contact may not be possible?

Can we bring friendliness into our writing; genuine I-care-about-you into our writing; warmth into our writing; freshness and spontaneity and closeness and a giving nature and this-message-is-just-for-you (my individual reader) into our writing?

Salinger believed we must try, or at least he yearned for it in his stories. We won't reach everyone so deeply, but if we can reach some at that more intimate level, wouldn't that make you feel good? I'm going to try harder. Not that I actually want a hunk of people to try to call me, no! But I'd like to think Salinger's desire for a more bonding writer-reader linkage is possible and well worth working for.

A Song Is Not a Song Without Words

Velda lives in her music, studies it, sings it, analyzes it, writes brilliantly about it, talks engagingly about it. She could not do without it, which is not uncommon among enthusiasts of any human activity.

I remember, it must be more than half a century ago, attending a rehearsal of Gioachino Rossini's The Barber of Seville at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, this while producing an issue of the company's periodic newsletter. Into the orchestra pit came the conductor, a very aged Tullio Serafin. Actually, he didn't come to his place. He shuffled. That's all he could physically manage. At pit center, he picked up the baton. Suddenly, he was not near 90 but a young maestro of, say, 30, with energy to spare.

A while later, with the rehearsal in a break, he put down his baton and once again shuffled out of the pit, his gait again featuring all the elements of a person burdened by age. When I saw the entire performance several days later, the maestro repeated his entrance and what followed, weighted by the age of many years, then reinvigorated by his music-making. And so forth throughout the evening.

Forgive the memory, which has little to do with Velda, a mature but still vigorous woman. But to move on ... she recently wrote this paragraph, addressing another composer's masterpiece, the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler. Velda is comparing an oboe transcription of one song, performed without words, with a performance containing the words: "I keep thinking about that oboe transcription of the first Kindertotenlieder. I was immediately gripped by how the color of the instrument expressed the heart of the text, and it moved me to tears from the outset. [Baritone Thomas] Hampson brought out the meaning of the text via dynamics, rhythm, tempo, and slight variations of nuance. I had only one problem with it. The WORDS were missing!"

Velda went on to suggest what the oboist might have done to minimize the difference, but for her, to put it bluntly, a song is not a song without words. OK. A song is music, which is notes or tones that are puzzled together into melody, enriched by instrumentation or orchestration, and completed by language. We who write begin our story with letters instead of notes and out of letters puzzle words together, enriched into sentences and meanings, made possible by language. Not so different, these processes. And sometimes, when I'm listening to a concert (and certainly when I go to the opera, which is theater with music), ideas come to me on how I might better express something I've been trying to say. Music can tell me.

Also, consider Velda's words: color, dynamics, rhythm, tempo, variations of nuance, the absence of a missing element (words). Shouldn't these be considered as you labor through your own manuscript or someone else's?

It is guidance from off the side somewhere but potentially useful, wouldn't you say?

Friends like Velda and Berkley help me all the time.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at 12:19 AM

Assessing the readability of a Mashable.com excerpt.

This month, we've taken our sample text from a March 18 Mashable.com article ("If We Want to Solve Tech's Talent Crisis, We Need to Change How We Hire" by Chatelle Lynch). Here's the excerpt, with longer words italicized:

"These numbers tell us that the technology industry doesn't reflect the communities in which we live. What may be less obvious, though, is that this lack of diverse thought hurts our industry in many subtle ways. When we're surrounded by people with different experiences -- whether that's because of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or education -- our brains do something incredible. Research has shown that social diversity enhances creativity by encouraging us to uncover new information and perspectives, leading to better decision making, problem solving, and innovation -- all of which are critical to our industry's success."

Word count: 96 words
Average sentence length: 24 words (16, 20, 25, 35)
Words with 3+ syllables: 23 percent (22/96 words)
Fog Index: (24 +23) *.4 = 18 (18.8, no rounding)

Sentence length and longer words share the blame here for the inflated Fog score. In this 96-word sample, we have 22 words with 3 or more syllables -- nearly a quarter of the total word count. Still, because this article focuses on technology, there's only so much we can do to cut down on longer words. So we'll have to take a two-pronged approach.

"These numbers tell us that the tech industry doesn't reflect the communities in which we live. What may be less clear, though, is that this lack of diverse thought hurts our field in many subtle ways. When we're surrounded by people whose race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or education differ from ours, our brains do something amazing. Research has shown that social diversity enhances creativity. It inspires us to unearth new information and viewpoints. This leads to better decision making, problem solving, and innovation. All of these things are crucial to our industry's success."

Word count: 95 words
Average sentence length: 14 words (16, 20, 22, 8, 9, 10, 10)
Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (13/95 words)
Fog Index: (14+14) *.4 = 11(11.2, no rounding)

Our approach worked. We whittled away at the number of longer words, which got us part of the way there. Then we looked at which sentences might be split up into two sentences. This yielded the biggest results; by turning 4 sentences into 7, we were able to shave off several additional points.

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Will Magazines #DeleteFacebook?

Posted on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at 12:19 AM

In the news: The #DeleteFacebook movement is gaining steam, and one prominent magazine brand has jumped aboard. Will other magazines follow suit?

The recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal has prompted many notable Facebook account deletions, including innovator Elon Musk and actor Will Ferrell.

Now, a magazine brand is joining the movement: This week, Playboy announced that it was deleting its Facebook account in response to the scandal. Per Thomas Ricker of TheVerge.com, Playboy's official statement reads, in part: "There are more than 25 million fans who engage with Playboy via our various Facebook pages, and we do not want to be complicit in exposing them to the reported practices." (Note: The magazine still has an account on Instagram, which is also owned by Facebook.)

The statement raises ethical questions for magazines at a time when they are more reliant on social media than ever. Facebook has long been a hub for content sharing and audience development, but now the platform must rebuild trust with individuals and companies whose data was breached. Will other magazines join the #DeleteFacebook movement in the future? Read more here.

Also Notable

How Food Magazines Are Making Print Work

This week, the New York Times examined newer print food magazines, discussing their respective missions and challenges. Titles mentioned include Toothache, Whetstone, and Ambrosia. Writes Tejal Rao of NYTimes.com: "Many of these publications are beautiful and inviting, with ink-saturated pages filled with original art, and nuanced, complex stories you want to spend time digesting. Their cover prices are fittingly high, with many around $20, and a few don't even bother to post their content online, focusing entirely on print." Read more here.

A Post–"Pivot to Video" World

"What's next for video, now that the pivot to video is dead?" asks a recent Foliomag.com headline. Last year saw many writers and editors laid off in favor of video development and production staff. For some magazines, video content is proving profitable; for others, the hard strategic pivot yielded anemic results. Really, assesses Folio:'s staff, it's "far from video's final inning." It's simply too soon to tell whether video is a "panacea" or a "placebo." Read more here.

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