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.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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