I’ve heard that often from people who believe that a spell check is enough to render their writing faultless.
Firstly, the spell check only catches spelling mistakes (hence the name). It doesn’t catch grammatical errors or the misuse of words, both of which are very, very common.
Secondly, it doesn’t catch inconsistencies in content or the too frequent use of a particular word or phrase.
Lastly, it doesn’t tell you if your language is fluent and the text easy to read and understand.
I’m saying this as a person who’s guilty of all these mistakes in her own writing and who, therefore, only very rarely submit text (except from this blog) to a customer or client, newspaper or the like before somebody else has been through it with the red pen at the ready. When my husband looks at my English writing I’m always grumpy at his many suggestions for improvement, but the fact is that the outcome is usually a better text.
In a Danish paper I’ve just read a critique of the Danish publishing houses that resonates deeply in me. Ask any of my Danish friends and you’ll see the whites of their eyes when they tell you how I complain about Danish translators, proof readers and most of all, publishers. Very often translations are sub-standard and you’re constantly reminded that this is a translation, the book was not written in Danish. A good translation is not like that – it is invisible, only the reviewer of the book and possibly its author will pay attention to the fact that here’s actually a job very well done. The same goes for a proof-reader. You don’t read page after page thinking, Oh, how nice, no spelling errors!
The invisible editor is a slightly different matter. Often you find that the book could well have done with some mercy-cuttings of text or some clarification of muddled sentences, etc. Also, fact-checking can be a good idea – and so much easier now than back when it involved getting out of your chair and down to the library. The good translation and faultless text is ultimately the responsibility of the editor. Nevertheless, it often seems like modern Danish editors pick writers and books and then they seem to leave both author, translator and proof-reader (if there is one) to their own devices while they rush off to Frankfurt or wherever to discover the next Stieg Larsson.
Once I left the music business it was always my dream to become editor at a respected publishing house. As in my days as a music A&R person (A&R = Artist and Repertoire), I’ve always been convinced that my talent lies more in spotting, nurturing and refining other people’s talents than in cultivating my own – if there is any. But I’ve always been told that to become editor at a Danish publishing house you need to have at least a Master Degree in Danish, literature, art history or the like. And, as you all know, I don’t. Not least because I “know” that most editors at publishing houses have substantial academic credentials and that getting the job is allegedly a competition between literary giants, it makes me angry and irritable seeing all these books being published, seemingly without a proper editor behind them.
In the music business we did come across musicians/artists who were so incredibly multi-talented that they could do just about everything themselves. Write wonderful music, beautiful lyrics, make fantastic musical arrangements, play almost all the instruments and finally produce the album faultlessly. But they were a small, small minority. The majority of artists have one or two areas in which they are talented and need help with the rest. There’s no shame in that! Most of us have even less talent or none at all. And almost all of us need help to “kill our Darlings” as they say in Hollywood, just before the film’s most adorable scene ends on the cutting room floor because it disturbs the rhythm – or something.
Most – but not all – books I read in English are entirely without spelling mistakes and editorial blunders. There seems to be real work going on in the leading publishing houses over there. Here however, I only rarely read a book without a number of errors, some worse than others. Why is that? I refuse to believe that Danish publishers are pressed harder than their British counterparts. Go to any bookshop and ask yourself if we weren’t better served with fewer books, chosen with more diligence and edited likewise?
How is it in Sweden and Norway I wonder, and what do you think? Am I reading the wrong books?
By the way, I read Weekend Avisen (a weekly newspaper akin to, er, nothing really, but level of writing very high) and in the latest issue I read a faultless translation of the McChrystal interview from the Rolling Stone and a number of articles without spelling mistakes or other immediately evident blunders. They only have a week to do the job, so why are they so much better at it than many publishing houses?