METM21 Online Chronicles: Kate Sotejeff-Wilson and Alice Lehtinen

Language professionals as cultural mediators: whose style matters?

This presentation by Kate Sotejeff-Wilson and Alice Lehtinen addressed an issue many authors’ editors grapple with: how to make an English text by a non-native-English author fit for publication while preserving the author’s cultural identity. Should we give the author a native voice or aim for something different?

To offer us more than just their own opinion on the issue, Kate and Alice conducted a survey among authors’ editors within MET’s sister association Nordic Editors and Translators (NEaT), asking them about their approaches to English texts written mostly by Finnish-speaking academics. Thirty-four editors (a quarter of NEaT’s 120 members) responded, a sample producing results worthy of discussion.

The survey focused on what editors would and would not change in a text by a non-native-English author. Would they shorten long sentences, join short sentences, change the order of paragraphs, make passive voice active, explain cultural differences and replace source-language idioms with English equivalents? Would they improve consistency in formatting, register and tone? Would they make changes merely to make the author sound “less foreign”?

Both the influence of Finnish on academics’ written English and the influence of English on Finnish science writing were addressed. Respondents spotted English grammatical structures in Finnish academic texts, such as active verb forms where Finnish tends to prefer the passive voice. They also noticed how their authors struggled to explain scientific concepts in Finnish, used as they were to writing and discussing their work in English.

The consensus among respondents was that clear communication is key in academic writing and that we should aim for the right balance between clarity and preserving the authenticity of the author’s voice.

Survey respondents tended to steer clear of a number of style changes:

  • making a text more formally elegant if it means losing the author’s own voice
  • advancing the idea of perfect or pure English
  • trying to make the author’s English sound like idiomatic native English
  • introducing their own style preferences
  • editing out “personal charm” in less formal sections of a manuscript such as acknowledgements

The survey results are summarized in Kate and Alice’s slides, which are accessible to MET members in the METM21 archive.

In the discussion after the talk, Oliver Lawrence mentioned that the decision whether or not to edit out “non-nativeness” could be guided by whether the non-nativeness would distract the reader from the point the author wants to make.

Jackie Senior said she felt that different flavours of English were more accepted in international scientific journals now than in the 1970s, when she started her career.

However, my own experience is that journal editors and peer reviewers may be biased against the English of Italian authors. When you leave the author’s voice intact because the message is clear, there’s a risk of criticism or even rejection on language-related grounds. I asked the presenters if there was something to say for “going idiomatic” in your editing to prevent this. Both agreed that it’s a fine line, and authors’ editors may feel impelled to smooth out the English to facilitate acceptance by journal gatekeepers.

Survey responses and audience comments seemed to indicate that authors’ editors are becoming less prescriptivist and more respectful of the author’s voice. They are not inclined to impose personal preferences, as they realize that even the English of native speakers may differ widely by anglophone background.

I think we all came away from the session with a heightened sense of being cultural mediators, whether our authors are Finnish, Mediterranean, Asian, or speakers of one of the many global variants of English.

This METM21 Online presentation was chronicled by Marije de Jager.

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