Copy Talk

January 8, 2012

We Stumble into the Future

Today, I read a copyeditor’s comment on-line about how she enjoyed getting so absorbed  copyediting a book that she loses her sense of time. I recently had a different copyediting experience working on a project for a publisher of educational materials. It involved a series of teacher guides for a reading program. A version of the guides had been published previously. The copyediting was not a great challenge—mostly global changes to pages that did not contain much text and that barely changed from lesson plan to lesson plan.

There was only one problem—overpackaging! The company had an elaborate FTP system. Manuscript files from the compositors in India, as well as the foul copies, had to be downloaded to make sure that all requested changes had been made. We handled them in batches of five days of lesson plans each.

The goal was to do eight to ten pages per hour. Since the text was on the thin side, it would have been no problem with pen and hard copy. The company had an interface and gadgets that were new to most of the freelance staff. Again, not an insurmountable problem. We got used to them. The real problem came with the FTP files.

The foul copy of the first two pages of each day’s lesson plan was contained in a discrete file that had to be located (a process requiring a non-intuitive search feature that was omitted from the written instructions eventually given to us) and then broken up—we downloaded two of the three components of each file to our desktop hold files. We then had to download the manuscript copies from the compositors in India, a simpler process. Since we worked in batches of five, we were downloading ten foul and five MS files, ideally per hour.

We opened, moved, closed, and otherwise manipulated these 15 files during the following 50 or so minutes. Generally, no one screen was open for more than a minute or two. Then we had to relegate the old foul copies to the rubbish bin (no big deal, but it took a minute of time). The new, finished work was stored in an archive file (five moves) and five renamed copies were uploaded to another location.

All in all (and disregarding the files to the rubbish bin), this meant downloading 1.5 files per page of text, and uploading one per page of text. Even when all went well, we spent a large portion of our time handling files. Rather little time went into reading and correcting text. I could hear the others, including the supervisor (a capable, hands-on person), making comments under their breath that betrayed various levels of exasperation.

Before this experience, my frame of reference for FTP files had been a nightly putting to rest of an entire book in-house and two-to-three week intervals for books while working from home. The latter was like borrowing a book from a library. But this new experience seemed pointless. Even a computer techy must tire of endless, repetitive manipulation of files. For the word person, it was a disagreeable intro to the world of the teenage electronic gamer. And we know what they think of words and language.

When Things Go Wrong in Books

Few books get perfectly edited.   The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci translated her own book The Rage and the Pride from the Italian original, with little or no copyediting, in order “to have total responsibility for every word and comma I publish under my name.”  On the other end of the scale, at Newbridge Educational Publishing, we published science and  social science books for a reading program, so we strove to make the grammar and punctuation in our books perfect.

Publishers today strive to keep costs down, and errors are increasing.  To the degree that the jobs of designers and copyeditors are combined, the frequency of errors will increase.  And clarity will decrease.  Pace Fallaci  (if you will excuse the alliteration.)

May 23, 2011

Handling Other Languages

I have just finished Hitch 22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens.  Hitchens ranges all over the world, from Belfast to Kurdistan, discussing politics, history, literature, people.  That means a lot of proper names, languages, and cultural terms.

Generally, the copyediting in this book is very good.  But the book fails when it comes to Romance languages.  Las Madres, the protesting mothers of the desaparecidos in Argentina, are referred to as Los Madres (page 194), making them masculine. One of the mothers says to Hitchens twice, “todo mi familia!”  She certainly really said “toda mi familia!”

Those are Spanish 101 errors.  More such errors are Escuadrone de la Muerte, which should start with escuadrónLa Opinion (p. 193) should be La OpiniónLa Repubblica should be La República. (The French general Pétain is Petaín in the final chapter.)

Portuguese is similar to Spanish but there are differences.  If there weren’t, it would all be one language.  Italian is also a related language, and all three get mixed up here. The Avenida Libertad in Lisbon should be the “Avenida da Liberdade.”  Styling the country name “Qatar” as “Quatar” was also a clunky move.

One out of four Americans now learn at least basic Spanish.  The proportion must be higher among literate people.  It’s a shame these simple typos weren’t caught.  They will make a lot of readers pause.  Editing should be about keeping that from happening.

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