Wood for the trees

treesOnce we were asked to prepare 200-word personal profiles for an international summit. The event was to be attended by various world leaders, captains of industry and a sprinkle of celebrities to add to colour.

Most of the attendees had clued-in PAs who supplied various information, often already summarised down to no more than 500 words or so. There is quite an art to conference publications and most of the participants were well aware about what to say.

It is always a challenge to get 500 words down to 40 percent of the original text without upsetting the client, but by the time you get rid of the padding it is often just a matter of leaving out the least important facts.

However, at this particular summit the PA of a very senior international music star sent us 45 pages of hastily written prose praising their boss. A polite inquiry ascertained that these pages had already been summarised and it was “impossible to say less about such a great artiste.”

We suggested to the eager employee that as even her president was only getting 200 words in the guide book perhaps we could shorten it. We were told to just take the “most important parts.”

We were astounded that she had just surrendered her employer’s image control over to a small team of contract editors, but not surprised. It happens more often than not with internal publications.

No doubt the PA was thinking that as no more than 500 people would ever have read it. However, when you consider the identities of those 500 in this instance, it is still strange that more care was not taken to tailor the profile to better suit that particular celebrity’s agenda.

In this case we focussed on the many awards and relevant recognition the star had achieved, taking care to lift key phrases from the original introduction so as to as far as possible keep the feel of the thing. However, it could so easily have gone wrong both us and them.

Ultimately it is hard to sustain the idea that 10,000 words being culled to a mere 200 was in anyway a summary. What we did was a thorough rewrite. If everyone had taken the same approach we would have to have edited around a million words in a week.

Lost in Translation

lostOne of the common challenges of recent years is the growth of Asia and the impact on international publications. It is not unknown for a simple editing job to become infinitely more complicated because through no fault of the client the source text is not as advertised. Then we are in a scenario where one is not so much editing text, but entirely rewriting or even researching it.

The difficulties here are obvious. Quite apart from the increased danger of inaccuracies, one suddenly finds there is less time for a job than had been allowed for. Then there is the issue that the author is particularly proud of his or her efforts and wants to see their own words in print or on a web post.

The trick here is to make the text appear to be more or less the same body of work, with the same tone and voice, but with grammar and factual errors ‘clarified;’ sometimes extensively.

The most common cause of these problems is that the text can be written by someone who not only doesn’t have English as a first language, but barely has any real English at all above the conversationally level.

Sometimes it is obvious that text has been run through Google Translate, so what began as artistic and well-crafted copy can end up as potential nonsense. One client had to contend with interesting assertions like ‘the company will float like a stone’ and ‘progressing into a noble and historical past.’

Then there are the problems that arise from the differences between American, Standard and some versions of International English. The latter being a kind of hybrid of US and British English that seems to be common in some European style books.

Once we worked until midnight checking and rechecking a text for a particular fussy customer only to come in the next day to face a memo about all the errors. Luckily the customer had faxed over his copy with the ‘errors’ circled. We had spelled it colour and flavour, as per the style book and the well-educated German gentleman had assumed that ‘color’ and ‘flavor’ were the correct usage.

Of course one cannot make the customer feel stupid; after all it is an easy enough mistake to make, and a rather diplomatic email had to be sent to explain the usage and to apologise for the confusion.

More challenging still is that there are often political or cultural issues to be sidestepped. Here we are talking about factual interpretation or even a diametrically opposed understanding of what is acceptable to say.

Sexist and racist terminology are obvious pitfalls, but often certain clients will make casual assumptions about the status of certain territories, notably where there are military occupations or border disputes. This can happen even when the author knows that citizens from these countries will be present at a relevant event or will be a recipient of the text.

Never is carefully editing more important.