The following was written by Mima Simić regarding her recent experiences in publishing “My Girlfriend” in the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology. Enjoy!
Best European Fiction for 2011 has hit the bookstores and review sections of your favorite cultural papers, but there’s some pretty bad non-fiction behind the best fiction Dalkey offers.
Sometime in April of 2010 I was informed that my story (“My Girlfriend”) was to be included in the 2011 Best European Fiction edition (as the Croatian representative, yay!). This was, naturally, quite a delightful piece of news for me; an opportunity to reach the vast English speaking market, as writing in so-called small languages can be quite a limitation to one’s literary ambitions. Dalkey received my story not in Croatian, but in English; it was I who translated it. As a conscientious author, and not wanting to be misread nor derided for my command of the lingua franca of the universe, before I’d sent it in, I had it (proof) read by a few native speakers, including my American professor of creative writing (American as in born, raised, writing and teaching in the U.S.).
All seemed well; no one from Dalkey contacted me except to sign a contract that allowed the publisher to use the story, or parts of it, for their advertising and other purposes. There was nothing in the contract about the text of the story itself, nothing about editorial interventions, proofreading etc. And why should there be? Even in “uncivilized” non-EU and non-U.S. countries (such as mine) we know that a publisher/editor ought to consult the author should they think it necessary to change their text. And one would expect this to be doubly true of Dalkey who are hailed as the trailblazer of translated fiction in the English-speaking world, are producing a report on best practices in publishing translations and have in fact published a guide to editing translations (!)
As no one contacted me about any edits, I presumed everything was fine with the story. Imagine then my astonishment when the Anthology arrived at my doorstep (in December 2010) and I realized that a diligent Dalkey editor not only made quite a few interventions in the text, but they also inserted (!) a piece of text that changed/determined sex of my narrator! As this gender/sex ambiguity is one of the thematic pillars of my story, this benevolent editorial intervention (which made the narrator a man and the relationship heterosexual!) completely changed my story, its aims and effects. To be sure, the author is not, nor can they be, the owner of the interpretation, but surely they should be the owner of their text? The copy editor’s job is not to rewrite or retell the story in their own words—but rather to intervene as little as possible and if they do change something, to check with the author before the text goes to print. Is this too much to ask of Dalkey? And is it unfair to ask this: Would this have happened to me if I had been an American author?
Needless to say, I was utterly shocked, appalled and flabbergasted by this act—especially as Dalkey (and this ambitious publication) was the last publisher I expected to get this kind of treatment from (I had my stories published in the UK before; in Chroma Journal and on Pulp.net, and both editors communicated with me about any/every edit). Also, this editorial gender-(re)assignment surgery was to me not only an artistic but also an ideological insult. I’m a lesbian writer, or rather—a writer who happens to be a lesbian—and I also happen to be a gender theorist—so whenever I write I’m absolutely conscious of the factor of identity and how important it is to play with it, subvert it. I would have thought that a reputable American publisher would be aware of such issues and of how language constructs reality and vice versa.
I don’t write straight stories; and I don’t want anyone to be straightening my stories, in any way, sexual or textual—and certainly not without my consent. I wrote to Dalkey to say I was sorry my story was ever published in the anthology under my name because their “editing” turned it into somebody else’s. It’s a piece of fiction I would never produce. This didn’t impress them much. The editorial director, John O’Brien said he didn’t know why these changed were made and offered to have a conversation (between myself and Dalkey) published in their magazine CONTEXT in which we would, in a civilized manner, discuss the matter (and presumably allow them to call the shots again). A barbaric creature from the Balkans, I never replied to his email.
Finally, I’d like to share with you the concrete details of editorial/proofreading interventions, so you can judge whether they were needed. To be sure, even if they had been, the mere fact no one ever contacted me to confirm I was OK with them (and they had at least half a year to do so, for the meager 5 pages of my story), they never asked for my authorization. If you have a look at the list of the “edits,” you’ll notice that not only did they change the rhythm of the story, the syntax and the sound but they went so far as to (re)interpret the story for the reader. How patronizing—both on myself and the readers.
Here are some of the more problematic edits (the first one is horrific, but the other ones weren’t pretty to look at either):
Although she is blind, when we go out my girlfriend likes to make herself up. Sometimes I get a feeling she is flirting, but I suppose I’m just being paranoid.
Although she can’t see herself (why change this?), my girlfriend likes to make herself up when we go out. Sometimes I get a feeling she is flirting WITH OTHER MEN (nb: nowhere in the story do I suggest the narrator is a man!) etc.
Some will say it’s as good as cheating, but those are the dull people always ready to explain to you the difference between love and fiction.
Some might say this is cheating, but only the same sort of dull people who’re always happy to explain the difference between love and make believe to you.
There is a big difference between the word FICTION and “make believe.” FICTION also refers to WRITING. why they had to change this one is BEYOND ME.
Maybe some of the girls were boys, too.
Maybe some of the girls were actually boys anyway.
Why change this sentence?
And now, after four years, it’s sort of passé, a matter too inappropriate to discuss
And now, after four years, it’s sort of too late – it would be too delicate to bring it up.
PASSE is not the same as too late. It has its own register, meaning and TONE. If I used it, that’s because I WANTED to use it. There was NOTHING wrong with the original, so why change it?
She can tell the time by the smell of the stuff in the pan.
She can tell how long something’s been frying by the way it smells.
Why change this sentence? why, why, why?!
When they hear my girlfriend is blind, most often people will first remember the downsides of dating a blind person, like missing out on the best part – the exchange of meaningful looks, the foreplay of signals, the silent innuendos.
When they hear my girlfriend is blind, most often people will first remember the downsides of dating a blind person, like missing out on the best partS OF BEING IN A RELATIONSHIP – the exchange of meaningful looks, the foreplay of signals, the silent innuendos.
WHY ADD THAT BIT? Those are NOT the best parts of being in a relationship, actually.
They’re part of the DATING.
I hope this letter will be a valuable lesson to the reading/writing/translating community and the publishers of the world. I know editor’s job is stressful one, but this fact by no means should relieve them of the responsibility for the mistakes they make. If I had a dentist pull out a wrong tooth or plumber flood my bathroom instead of fixing the pipe, I’d do my all to make them face to the consequences of the crappy job they’d done. As I’m sure Dalkey editors would do, too. Because no one likes walking the world toothless; and this is how things are done in the civilized world.
Before posting Mima Simić‘s story of the offensive edits done to the story/translation of hers that appeared in this year’s Best European Fiction volume from Dalkey Archive Press, feel like I should provide a sort of frame and preface that explains my professional interests and personal concerns about running this. (I swear that if you read this whole rambling post, it’ll all make sense by the end.)
Since we’re nothing short of professional here at Three Percent (ha!), I’ll start there: When I first received this piece by Mima, I was fascinated. This semester I’m teaching a “Translation & World Literature” class that focuses on how to evaluate translations as translations, what biases lay behind our statements that something is a “good” or “bad” translation, and how one should approach the editing of a work in translation. We’ve looked at samples that have been sent into Open Letter, we’re doing a whole session on retranslation, we’re reading a number of translator intros and reviews.
The one major downside (so far), is that aside from the stuff we receive at Open Letter, the books we’re looking at are all published and, in my opinion, damn good. So to puzzle out who contributed what to the overall greatness—the author, translator, editor—is a bit tricky. Which is why we’re Skypeing with a number of translators: so we can talk to them about the process, about the challenges they faced, and why they made the choices they made.
In my years in publishing (more than a toddler, less than a octogenarian), I’ve heard a ton of anecdotes about interactions between translators and their editors. Unfortunately, most of these stories consist of a similar litany of complaints: “the editors made my translation ‘more smooth,’ losing the texture and meaning of the original”; “the publisher screwed me on the contract”; “the editor didn’t show me her/his changes before sending the book to the printer”; and “the publisher didn’t even put my name on the book.”
On the other side of the literary world, editors gossip amongst themselves about which translators are “easy” or “difficult” to work with (this is usually a function of how resistant the translator is to the editor’s “suggestions” multiplied by the rate of pay the translator is demanding), about linguistic snafus particular translators made, about how the success of the book was due to the brilliant work the editor did with the translator (obviously this is never true of the books that fail—that’s on the translator & author).
So we have people in two camps, rarely communicating with each other, except under stressful circumstances in which emotions are polarized and discussions aren’t necessarily as genteel and literary as one might imagine them being. (Martini & cigarette meetings in a hotel bar have been replaced by impersonal email screeds.)
What’s really lost here is information about the actual edits that are made and why. Egos overshadow content, and valuable lessons on how to translate, and how to edit, are transformed into shadowy, nearly salacious gossip.
For years, I’ve been wanting to run pieces written by translators (or editors) about specific instances of either fantastic or questionable editing. I want to share the stories of the great editor who found the perfect solution to a knotted line, and analyse objectionable choices. In a idealistic sense, this might help bring the two sides together to help further the conversation on good (and bad) translation editing practices. In a scholarly vein, these pieces would be interesting to expose (or throw out) certain biases. In a storytelling light, these piece would be fun and make the publishing industry look less like an impenetrable, mysterious process, and more like what it is—an interaction between various artists (and businessmen) trying to do their best by authors and culture (sometimes).
So along came Mima’s piece. Which is all that and more. It provides a compelling backstory (with a lesson about what to look for in contracts), a sordid situation, and a series of crappy edits (in my opinion, and hers) that have both political and aesthetic implications. In many ways, it’s the perfect piece to kick off this series.
(And on the “editing lesson to be learned side” of things, my main objection to these edits are that they “literalize” the book. They try and make sure everything is stated in ways that are fairly reductive and lead to very strange sentences. You’ll see in a minute.)
That said, I had a few worries about this . . . Well, just one, actually: that this piece takes aim at Dalkey Archive.
My relationship/Open Letter’s relationship with Dalkey is pretty well documented, and the three Open Letter employees used to work there. But seriously, all that bullshit is in the past. I love the books Dalkey publishes. I’m very glad they’re receiving the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the NBCC.
Sure, I have justified complaints, and disagree with some of their business practices. I want our books to be as popular as theirs; I like when articles are written about Open Letter that don’t reference Dalkey; and I’m sure they like “beating” us at stuff as well. These things are human.
Nevertheless, when I first got it, I worried that running Mima’s piece would be the literary equivalent of publishing “athlete dong pics.” That we’re exposing something that can only result in a storm of shit, and that Dalkey will feel like I’m attacking them for no good reason.
That feeling lasted for about 15 minutes . . . I’d run a piece by one of our translators questioning our edits. We’ve linked to a story by Larry Venuti on edits that a Grove editor (someone I know and respect) performed on his translation of Melissa P.‘s novel. Sure, I wish the first piece in this series wasn’t about Dalkey’s cash cow, but whatever, if they want to respond and explain their edits, they should feel free. I’m happy to run a piece from someone at Dalkey, or they can always reply in the comments section. In the end, what’s most interesting and valuable is what can be learned from the edits themselves.
And to that end, check out the next post to hear from Mima.
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