|When the Author's First Language Is Not English
Writing fluently in your non-native language is challenging. My own writing in Spanish and French, languages that I purportedly know, is abysmal.
Creative writing can and should keep the author's original voice. But often multilingual writers whose first language is not English must prepare a report, email, or other piece about their area of expertise for a U.S. audience. You may be this writer, or you may work with the writer to revise the piece. Or you be assigned to edit a literal translation into English.
How can you help turn what is generally proficient English into something that flows more smoothly for U.S. readers?
Consider the ContextThe first issue that U.S. readers often notice is length. We expect short, to-the-point prose, but this is not a universal preference.
Intercultural specialists like Jo Ann Hinshaw Ross explain that cultures tend to be high-context or low-context, and languages are influenced by this orientation.
High-context cultures focus on relationship building and more indirect communication. Romance and Asian languages, among others, may reflect high-context cultures.
Low-context cultures are more direct, to the point, and task-oriented. According to Ross, English (especially North American English), along with Swiss German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages, reflect low-context cultures.
At the outset, then, consider the influence of the author's cultural context on his or her writing style. If you are a "low-context editor," you can't expect "high-context writers" to easily change their ingrained method of communication.
Consider the AudienceIf multilingual writers want to connect with a U.S. audience, however, their writing may need to adjust.
"It could be that what is written is not wrong, but it sounds awkward in the U.S.," said freelance editor Karen Holmes. "If it causes the flow to stop, readers might not keep on reading."
Holmes stresses the importance of meeting the needs of the reader. "My rule is to be brave," she said. "People are generally delighted to sound more like a native speaker," referring to economists and other technical experts who write the policy pieces that she edits.
In contrast, building on Ross's observations, low-context writers who aim for a high-context readership may also need to adjust how they express their thoughts.
Consider the AuthorIt helps to know a little about the author's primary language. If you don't have this background, you can glean some basics online. Carefully reading an email from the person and conversing will also clue you in, as you recognize patterns they carry over into English.
"You're learning what the norm is in their language," said Beth Kalikoff, former head of a university writing center and now director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Washington. Examples include using the passive voice, flowery (to our ears) language, or under- or over-assertive phrases.
When Kalikoff works with students, she asks them to take a broad look at their assignment. "People tend to jump to the sentence level prematurely," she said. "If they talk through their main point and argument, the language often improves, too."
Even if you do not work directly with the writer, knowing how their primary language works will help you revise more respectfully.
Consider the AssignmentA practical question: how can you estimate how much time it will take to edit or revise the piece? The best way is to scan the entire draft, then experiment with a few pages
You'll also want to check with the author or project manager about the extent of the revisions desired. Holmes said she has sometimes been asked to focus on these larger style issues in parts of a document (maybe the Executive Summary or the Introduction) and only correct grammatical and spelling errors in other parts (such as the Appendices).
Next month, we will look at some of these grammatical and idiomatic issues. Do you have suggestions or insights that you have encountered that you can pass on? If so, let me know.
In late 2012, I compiled many of the articles first published in this newsletter into an ebook. If you haven't seen it yet, view or download a complimentary copy on my website.