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Issue for October 2009

Editing Foreign Authors

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2009 at 3:24 PM

Tips for applying your editorial skills to foreign writers.

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 "ambiance" -- 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 hebraique 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). 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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"Thanks for an outstanding article on sensitive editing of non-English authors, something I see regularly. Our authors are volunteers with impressive medical and research experience, and we want to help them distribute their information (and reap the benefits of publishing) without changing their meaning. Thanks for the great examples!"
--Bridget Struble, Program Director of Publications, American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition


"Good job, but I'd like to add a few words. I had an experience editing English speaking writers who wrote in Russian. There are always two traps on that trek. First, to edit correctly you have to clearly understand what on Earth the author means. If you don't--and it is too often you don't--you are going to make a mistake of speaking instead of him, of putting your thoughts and ideas into his text. Not always you guess correctly. Watch that! Second, sometimes it is important to preserve and convey the stylistics of the original manuscript, the aura of a slight deviance, an accent. It is much more easier to re-write the whole text to make it grammatically sterile than to keep it slightly imperfect to stress it personality." --Sergey Panasenko, Moscow, RF

Posted in Editing (RSS), Grammar (RSS), Writing (RSS)

Book Review

Posted on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 4:01 PM

The Magazine from Cover to Cover (2nd edition), by Sammye Johnson and Patricia Prijatel

The Magazine from Cover to Cover combines two previous editions: Magazine Publishing and The Magazine from Cover to Cover. This comprehensive edition is a must-have for magazine newbies and professionals alike, with coverage of editing, design, management, industry history and research, circulation, and many other topics. The authors have also added sections pertaining to new media and current advertising issues. Editors and publishers of various publication types (from consumer to association) will find this book a valuable addition to their bookshelves.

Of particular interest is the wide array of research pertaining to the magazine industry. The book includes data, case histories, anecdotes, and historical overviews of American magazine publishing.

The Magazine from Cover to Cover is published by Oxford University Press (416 pages, paperback). It is available for $38.00 on the Editors Only "Books" page under the "Books on Publishing" heading.

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Lessons from Books

Posted on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 1:38 PM

Some useful tricks from what the experts say and how they've mastered their craft.

By Peter P. Jacobi

It's been awhile since I focused on books. Permit me to do some catching up.

The Best American Magazine Writing

Each year, the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) publishes a volume devoted to The Best American Magazine Writing. It contains the winners and finalists of the society's annual awards. I'd like to use the 2007 edition as an example. And as per usual, it contains sterling examples, which you (as did I) can enjoy in the reading and from which you (as again did I) can glean lessons. The book is published by Columbia University Press.

Cynthia Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour and president of ASME, writes in introduction to the nearly 500 pages that follow: "For my money, we have the Oscars beat, and the book you are holding in your hands is the reason why. Magazines produce some of the most lovely and lasting writing of our time; though it's true there's nothing better than a quick dip into a magazine when you're stuck on the cross-town bus in rush hour traffic, the best magazine pieces also stand the test of time, working their particular brand of magic years after their time on the newsstand is gone."

Marlene Kahan, ASME's hard working executive director and administrator of the awards, says the pieces in the anthology reflect "moral passion, vivid characters and settings, zealous reporting, and artful narrative that transforms information into a compelling story."

We may not always have the time or opportunity or the appropriate platform to do all that Leive and Kahan speak of (nor perhaps also the level of talent exhibited), but within our limits, it's critical we do the utmost, striving for the best within our reach. Reading the likes of the included articles can inspire, as well as instruct.

There's the lighter material, such as Vanessa Gregoriadis' rollicking portrait of "Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion," prepared for The New Yorker. "What can one talk about while waiting for Lagerfeld?" she writes. "Lagerfeld, of course. 'Karl has the energy of...what? Twenty-five thousand Turkish elephants!' says socialite Anne Slater, wearing her big blue glasses and grinning up a storm. 'He's magnetic and powerful. I think he's absolutely, devastatingly attractive.'"

There's the serious coverage of news behind the news, such as William Langewiesche's "Rules of Engagement" for Vanity Fair, a reconstruction of events leading up to the massacre by U.S. Marines of Iraqi civilians. It begins so calmly with description: "The Euphrates is a peaceful river. It meanders silently through the desert province of Anbar like a ribbon of life, flanked by the greenery that grows along its banks, sustaining palm groves and farms, and a string of well-watered cities and towns. Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha. These are among the places made famous by battle -- conservative, once quiet communities where American power has been checked, and where, despite all the narrow measures of military success, the Sunni insurgency continues to grow. On that short list, Haditha is the smallest and farthest upstream."

The scene is set for the tempest and terror to come. Langewiesche will not only detail the tragedy but use it as symbol for the larger picture of what he sees about the status of events in Iraq.

Esquire first published "The School" by C.J. Chivers, a harrowing account of the three day siege staged by Chechen terrorists of a school in the Russian town of Beslan. Take this moment, in an article comprised of such: "Karen Mdinaradze slipped in and out of consciousness. Once he awoke to see a woman over him, fanning him, another time to find children cleaning his wound with a cloth soaked in urine. He awoke again. A teenaged girl thrust an empty plastic bottle to him and asked him to urinate in it.

"'Turn your eyes away,' he said, and he pressed the bottle against himself and slowly peed. He finished and handed the bottle back. The girl and her friends thanked him and quickly poured drops to wash their faces. Then each sipped from the bottle, passing it among themselves, and returned it to him. Karen's dehydration was advanced; his throat burned. He poured a gulp of the warm liquid into his mouth and across his tongue, letting it pool around his epiglottis. The moisture alleviated some of the pain. He swallowed.

"He looked at the bottle. A bit remained. A very old woman in a scarf was gesturing to him, asking for her turn. He passed the bottle on."

Grim coverage of victims in despair: the details make the story hard to forget.

Before I leave the ASME collection, and I realize this column, as a whole, will turn out to be out of balance, with far more space allotted to the above than to the books that follow, but in that always-with-us question concerning the power of words versus that of pictures, here are thoughts from a commentary by Christopher Hitchens titled "The Vietnam Syndrome," written for Vanity Fair.

"To be writing these words," he says, "is, for me, to undergo the severest test of my core belief -- that sentences can be more powerful than pictures. A writer can hope to do what a photographer cannot: convey how things smelled and sounded as well as how things looked. I seriously doubt my ability to perform this task on this occasion. Unless you see the landscape of ecocide, or meet the eyes of its victims, you will quite simply have no idea. I am content, just for once...to be occupying the space between pictures."

The New Kings of Nonfiction

Ira Glass, the producer and host of the radio/television program "This American Life," has edited a volume called The New Kings of Nonfiction (Riverhead Books). It is a collection of writing he's saved across the years, pieces he couldn't bear "to throw away." Glass insists ours is an era of "great nonfiction writing." He speaks of the pleasure in reading some of this "great" writing, the "pleasure of discovery, the pleasure of trying to make sense of the world."

It is for each of us, of course, in our own way, to cause our readers to discover, to help them make sense of the world. The authors chosen by Glass surely make the effort. They include some bigwigs in the writing industry: Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Orlean, David Foster Wallace, Lee Sandlin, James McManus, among others.

There's Mark Bowden, too, whose contribution, "Tales of the Tyrant," first ran in The Atlantic in 2002. The piece is about Saddam Hussein and begins with this trenchant and sharply crafted paragraph: "The tyrant must steal sleep. He must vary the locations and times. He never sleeps in his palaces. He moves from secret bed to secret bed. Sleep and a fixed routine are among the few luxuries denied him. It is too dangerous to be predictable, and whenever he shuts his eyes, the nation drifts. His iron grip slackens. Plots congeal in the shadows. For those hours, he must trust someone, and nothing is more dangerous to the tyrant than trust."

The profile that follows is remarkable. But then, so are other selections in The New Kings of Nonfiction.

I mention James Wood's How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) despite the fact that the author's focus is on fiction, which is not our game. But the author happens to be one of this era's most influential literary critics. Consequently, his book has received an inordinate amount of attention. It deserves yours.

Granted, there is discourse that seems a distance removed from what you and I must deal with. But this gentleman has a keenly analytical mind, and he's got a verbal manner that can startle a response out of you.

At one point, as he turns to the subject of metaphor, he states: "Metaphor is analogous to fiction because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imagination process in one move. If I compare the slates on a roof to an armadillo's back, or -- as I did earlier -- the bald patch on the top of my head to a crop circle (or on very bad days, to the kind of flattened ring of grass that a helicopter's blades make when it lands in a field), I am asking you to do what Conrad said fiction should make you do -- see. I am asking you to imagine another dimension, to picture a likeness. Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story." Metaphors, of course, are an imaginative touch just as usable in nonfiction as in fiction.

The Art of Column Writing

Finally, if you do the column writing thing, there's Suzette Martinez Standring's new book, The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists (Marion Street Press). Sandring writes columns herself for The Boston Globe and The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts.

She's produced a solid "how to" guide, built on her own experience but heavily also on the advice of those in the book's title. I'm less interested in the who-these-people-are parts of the book than the how-things-are-done elements, but you can learn some useful tricks from what the experts say and, through samples, how they've mastered the craft.

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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Sentence Adverbs -- The "Hopefully" Debate

Posted on Friday, October 23, 2009 at 3:28 PM

Ideally, this article will shed some light on the subject.

By Meredith L. Dias

You have likely encountered the "hopefully" debate in your editorial travels. In one camp are the traditional grammarians, who advise against using "hopefully" as a sentence adverb; in the other camp are the modern grammarians, who assert that "hopefully" can function in such a capacity. So is one side correct and the other wrong? And what are sentence adverbs, anyway?

A sentence adverb, according to About.com grammar and composition guide Richard Nordquist, is "a word that modifies a sentence as a whole or a clause within a sentence." For example, consider this sentence: "Fortunately, the shampoo had a coconut scent." Without the sentence adverb, this would be a simple description of the shampoo's scent. However, the use of "fortunately" suggests that the speaker likes coconut scents. What you have just witnessed is a sentence adverb infusing an otherwise straightforward sentence with new subtext.

Many adjectives morph into sentence adverbs without controversy. We see adverbs like "obviously," "technically," and "actually" function quite often in this capacity. Few adverbs have faced as much scrutiny as "hopefully." Traditionally, the word means "in a hopeful manner"; however, it is used often in informal writing to denote the speaker's hopefulness about a given matter. Many are reluctant to accept "hopefully" in this context.

So why the controversy? Some grammarians fear that "hopefully" as a sentence adverb can obfuscate the meaning of a sentence. For example: "Hopefully, James will arrive on time." Does this mean that a hopeful James will arrive on time, or that the speaker is hopeful that he will arrive on time? Mignon Fogarty, known online as "Grammar Girl," weighed in on this issue in a 2007 podcast: "In most cases, the meaning is clear, especially when the sentence isn't about a person." She advises against using "hopefully" as a sentence adverb in sentences that involve a person (like the example above) to avoid confusion. Still, other grammarians shun "hopefully" as a sentence adverb altogether, citing the word's original meaning.

Thus, the debate continues. Do we adhere to tradition or change with the times? Though the original meaning of "hopefully" is clear, why can't it function as a sentence adverb? This is certainly not the first instance of grammatical microevolution that has faced staunch opposition from traditionalists. I suspect that for most editors -- myself included -- the instinct will be toward carrying the torch of tradition. However, Grammar Girl and some of her more modern contemporaries certainly make a compelling argument.

Meredith L. Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.

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Posted in Editing (RSS), Grammar (RSS), Writing (RSS)

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