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Spring 2008

On Editing

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Barbara Epler

Actual editing consists so much of petting and patting beautiful writing.

With the poets, that means allowing for differences. One poet, alive like the inside of a light bulb, requires five or six sets of proofs: allow time. One might need a suggested re-jigging of the order of contents: allow possible irritation. Allow "grey" and "gray" in the same volume (the former greenish and the latter more blue: the opposite of what I'd guessed). Also allow the fact that many poets don't need you at all, except to run interference with the designers for fonts and cover art.

Translations allow and need the most tinkering.

The one thing I know for sure is that the better the translators, the more they enjoy editing. They like the queries and the complicity: the turning their new fabric to the light together, looking at its play, showing the gorgeous weave and colors and also maybe a few snags here and there. The best translators love pouncing on that snag: they might not pull it then in the direction you suggest, but they carefully undertake a new phrase. You fiddle with long, multi-clausal snakes of sentences, questioning colons and semi-colons and dashes, or eliminating serial commas between multiple adjectives when the sentence winds more than a half a page. You allow the utter twigginess of Robert Walser or the multiplicities of Bolaño but ask about this "saw-in-the-pants" (and the translator from the Hebrew says, "Ah yes, I thought you'd ask about that—the author doesn't know"). You might suggest monkeying with the verb tense or the tone or atmosphere or dialogue—how it might sound more idiomatic—but in the end a lot boils down to six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-the-other; your name's not on the book, you did your job by mentioning those spots. But in novels set in Madrid you do chase away the "blokes" in UK translations and you do talk a translator out of "in the warmth of the beers" (as a phrase for conviviality).

Your job is just to worry, to check and double-check. One study pointed out that the difference between competent people and incompetent people is that competent people know they might be wrong and double- and triple-check; incompetent people know they're right. (Or, as a Brazilian publisher joked, What's the difference between ignorance and arrogance? "I don't know and I don't care.") Editing doesn't seem to be a process of knowing but of asking. You just do the best you can. (And hope the book goes into a second printing to fix typos and add the right portrait to the frontispiece or turn the Japanese family crest upside up.) And after you do the best you can, you enjoy the beautiful book and people's pleasure in it. There is the more rare delight of a great success, of a marvelous book reaching a wider audience: the pleasure, as Graham Greene said of the success at the time of William Gerhardie, of watching your horse come in first. Merit doesn't always have its own reward and when it does, that's exhilarating.

Barbara Epler is the editor-in-chief of New Directions.

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