Reflecting on my practice – three pillars of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

I was chatting the other day with my friend Erin. ‘Editors are Gods’, she wrote, ‘I don’t know how someone could do it and not make mistakes. Like how do you learn how to do that?!’

As an editor, I felt surge of pride. I also took this opportunity to reflect on how I learned my skill. As I was drafting a reply, I came to realize it came from three main sources.

First, I trained in Greek philology. I spent large amounts of time, in a classroom and at my desk, reading passages from speeches, history, philosophy and literature, written in a language that is no longer in use. The goal was to train my brain in accessing the mental world of people who lived in a different context from mine, through the linguistic traces they left. It was also to make their meaning accessible to my contemporaries, through translation and commentary. More generally, the art of translation, which I practiced extensively through my studies, is probably the closest approximation to the art editing. You must understand the logic, meaning and style of an original, disentangle them from their linguistic form, then find the right equivalent in your language. Success is making your presence invisible: leave no scars after your intervention.

Second, I trained across a broad range of disciplines. When I prepared for Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, beside Greek philology, I studied history, philosophy, literature, English, German, and some geography. Later, I complemented my training with neuroscience, anthropology, sociology – and a smattering of design, ecology, politics, computer science and business. A good editor must have an extensive culture, because they need sensitive antennae, to pick up whatever seems ‘not quite right’ in areas where they have no deep expertise. Whether laziness or hybris, I see many writers follow the poor example of journalists, politicians, and public intellectuals. They like to use blanket statements to make a point; except the statement is often unverified or untrue. Common culprits are sentences that begin ‘people have always’, ‘our ancestors’, or just ‘everyone. When this happens, the role of an editor is to play the risk management game with their authors. In comments, I often write things like ‘you’re making generalising statement x, y, z. I am quite ignorant of this domain, but I’d like to double check with you that all the sources confirm what you’re asserting without ambiguity, or whether there is some debate, and some sources could invalidate your claims. If the latter, I would suggest possibly rephrasing as x, y, z. Please, accept my apologies for my ignorance, and simply disregard if what I’m writing is confusing or naïve in any way.’ Generally, my comment is neither confusing nor naïve, and the author tones down their bold statement for something less brassy, but more accurate. 

Third, I learned the art of flattery during my short-lived experience as a film director. In 2010, I wrote, directed and coproduced one short-film. When I describe the experience, I like to say that it was a perfect dom fantasy. On set, I told people exactly what to do, and everyone obeyed. They were looking for someone to give them orders. Earlier, during rehearsals, I observed how actors craved attention. As long as I gave it to them – describing what I saw them try with care and precision – they would happily try whatever I suggested.  Editors need gentle firmness. Writing is very personal, egos easily wounded, and trust needed for suggestions to be taken on board. Like a good dom, the editor must have the pleasure of their partner in mind, and be thoroughly guided by benign intentions. In that, we differ most from the critic who points out flaws in an argument, or props up their own ego by stepping on someone else’s shoulders. There may be suffering involved, or effort, in perfecting a text, but It’s all about helping an idea find its ideal shape, and shine through. Editing, then, comes with a measure of eroticism. Like diplomacy, it is a subtle power game, where the goal is mutual victory, and the weapon language.

On monolinguals

Learning new languages played a critical role in my education. I like to say that I learned how to think through classical philology, translating Greek texts into French, and reflecting on the distance between those two languages. But it all really started seriously in middle school. Back then, I was playing adventure games, and learning English was the way to explore this passion, and gamer identity. They were text-heavy games – anyone remembers King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, or Leisure Suit Larry? – and none of those were translated. English was also a major subject at school, and I was well-aware that mastery would impact my academic success, and future social positioning.  

Not long ago, I posted the following on Facebook: “Facetious but real question to my multicultural friends (and others): are there any (good) program or resources out there to help multilingual migrants (or minorities) help build empathy with monolingual people? As in – what is it like to live with only one language in your brain? How does it affect your vision of the world? What are the associated blindspots? This is for a potential project I’m ideating on. I’m not looking for a rant on how monlinguals are the worst, but rather, ways to genuinely empathise with what it’s like to * not * have multiple languages, which I believe is deeply inconceivable to many multilinguals.” (The project, incidentally, is a new turn in the Marco Polo Project story, supported by a City of Melbourne grant, under the codename ‘migrants to citizen’. Keep posted for more.)

My post attracted interest, and it seems there is no model to build said empathy. One friend though (thanks Armelle du Roscoat!) raised the following question: ‘aren’t multilinguals able to remember how they used to think before they have multiple languages in their head ? What that opened up in them?’ This triggered a new insight. Sure, I can sort of remember what it’s like to be monolingual, but I was a child back then. Learning foreign languages was so central to my education that, at some level, it is inconceivable for me to be an educated adult, who speaks and understands only one language.

Which means, when I think of, or speak with, monolinguals, I have three ways of relating to them. The first is, those are uneducated people. Which is fine, unless they’re in professions and positions that call for education – teacher, lawyer, doctor, manager, or any role of responsibility. Then I cringe. The second is more disturbing. I came to realise that I tend to think of monolinguals as radically immature, some sort of monstrous child-like narcissist, trapped in an adult body. Here, there is an odd mixture of repulsion and fascination. But the third mode offers a way out. My multilingual identity, the capacity to shift across languages and cultures, emerged from puberty onwards. I became able to decode various social cues, and adopt my performance, in a form of ‘language-fluidity’. Maybe, monolinguals are just like extremely cis-gender people, who wouldn’t dream of performing beyond received gender-norms – or fall into the worst stereotypes when they try. Sure, it’s a limited take on the world, but I have learned to relate to cisgender types, and I’m on that spectrum myself – so, monolinguals may not be continents away.  

PS: if you know any good resource to build empathy with monolinguals, or would like to work on one, please reach out!