In two recent articles in the New York Review of Books, “Learning to Speak American” and "In Praise of the Language Police,” Tim Parks, eminent translator of books from Italian into English, raises all sorts of interesting issues about editing, translation, and regional differences in word usage. One example among many: he notes that the individual editing his forthcoming book about trains suggests he change the word “carriage” to “coach”—ninety-eight times!
A reader responds that in the U.S. a coach is something pulled by a horse; the appropriate word substitution would be “car.” And so it goes.
In some cases the editor appears to be right. There’s no harm in swapping kilometers for miles. Failure to do so would interrupt the flow of Parks’s book time and again, as the reader pauses to consider, Now let me see, 14 kilometers times .61 would be …
My favorite among Parks’s quibbles is this.
“ Does the position of “also” really need to be moved in front of the verb ‘to be’ in sentences like ‘Trains also were useful during the 1908 earthquake in Catania,’ when to me it looked much better after it?”
I have edited more than a few books myself—not on the vaunted plane across which Parks moves, perhaps—and am repeatedly amazed to come upon the “also” before the verb. Nobody talks like that; I’m wondering how that usage came to be considered mandatory in written prose.
Though Parks doesn’t mention it, I number the excessive use of “as well” among my own pet peeves. It sometimes seems that a sentence has been awkwardly rearranged for no other reason but to facilitate the inclusion of that unctuous expression. Perhaps we should come down off our high horses and give in to an occasional “too”?
But that’s a long-standing quibble. My recent gripe is against the excessive use of “multiple,” when it would have been easier and better to say “many.” I visited that theater multiple times!? Bad. Bad. Bad.
The readers' comments to these two pieces are a seminar in themselves, bringing out nuances of language and reading tastes that Parks himself hardly considers or doesn’t seem to know about.
For example, many readers are agreed that one of the pleasures in reading books from foreign countries derives from the oddity of the regional expressions involved. Why remove them?
Others suggest that such culture-translation is the price the foreign author pays to tap into the lucrative American market.
Here is one of the more comprehensive reader comments:
Personally, as a writer, I despise editors and accuse them variously of:
1. having no true feeling for prose or the importance of an author's voice,
2. merely substituting their preferences for mine (mine are doubtless better informed and result in superior writing),
3. being corporate flunkies willing to obey any order from above to keep their jobs or further their careers, and
4. being envious, wannabe writers.
As an editor, however, I despise writers because:
1. they think some higher talent or mission excuses them from studying grammar and usage,
2. they fail to recognize my ability to spot difficulties they have overlooked, because they fail to recognize that while they know what they have in mind, readers don't,
3. they view themselves as artists but think of me as a low-level technician serving corporate interests, and
4. they are envious of anyone who has a real job and a regular paycheck.
The list is funny and touches on some good points, though I have no sympathy for the animosity involved—perhaps it’s being delivered tongue in cheek. Parks, I think, would agree. Well along in his first essay, he writes, “On sending in my observations on the proofs, my commissioning editor turns out to be more than ready to negotiate.” Well, that’s how it ought to be.
By the way, Parks’s translation of Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is among my all-time favorite books, and I also enjoyed his early memoir An Italian Education. On the other hand, A Season in Verona, in which he joins his twin loves of soccer and regional slang, is perhaps too much of a good thing?