Translator’s life


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In my previous text, I told you what I learned studying book editing and publishing at university. I also mentioned a couple of areas that still need improving. Today’s article is also based on my recent university experience, but with a slightly more tongue-in-cheek approach.

When I was at school, I liked to note down my teachers’ “words of wisdom”. Sometimes these adages were more absurd than some students’ essays but on other occasions they were really inspiring and insightful thoughts.

So, when I came back to university last year, I just couldn’t help myself and started doing the same. When any of the lecturers said something that wasn’t exactly related to the main subject but was absolutely worth recording, I would take it down on the margins of my notebook. This way, I came up with a nice list of guidelines for beginners in the world of book editing and publishing as well as designers and translators. You can read the list below, along with my interpretations.

book editing publishing translating typefaces fonts

It pays to do your job well & Being professional pays off in every century

I totally agree with these two although I do feel that the world does not always reward those who do their job well and professionally. Sadly, we are surrounded by mediocrity and negligence, which can be observed in many items and services on the market. But let’s leave these pessimistic musings aside and focus on positive examples.

Professionalism and expertise are very important values to me. I always try to do my job as best as I can. On the one hand, I want my clients to be satisfied with my work, and on the other, I myself feel satisfied when I see the positive results of my work. No matter if it’s translation, revising, editing, proofreading, or writing – I do it as meticulously as possible. This approach works both ways. When we need some specialist services, we’re always looking for professionals. And we know their work should be adequately rewarded.

There are no rules but recommendations & The freedom is apparent

One could say that the meanings of these two sentences are mutually exclusive but when you come to think of it, that’s not really the case. These observations express pretty accurately what language actually is and how it is used. On the one hand, in fact, there are no strict rules – if you speak or write “incorrectly”, you’re not breaking the law and you won’t be punished for that (unless it’s on a language exam). After all, there is no official authority that controls the English language and sets universal linguistic rules (unlike, for example, in Spain, where Real Academia Española is a royal institution regulating the use of Spanish). Obviously, we can refer to the Oxford English Dictionary or guidelines offered by particular universities or publishers but they are still just a point of reference and lists of standards rather than actual regulations. Language is made by the users.

On the other hand, the freedom is only apparent. The recommendations issued by linguists are not meant to constrict and torment us. Their goal is actually to make communication easier, smoother, and more precise – to avoid chaos. If we all follow some specific standards, we can be more or less sure that we will be able to understand each other, because we use the same tools. I’d call them “good practices”, as they are mainly derived from practice and focused on practice. Their objective is to help us get our message through.

Just do it well & Primum non nocere

They are quite universal pieces of advice which can be applied to many other walks of life and professions. At the same time, this type of guidelines can really frustrate juniors in any discipline, as they don’t say anything specific that you could hold on to. But well, they’re simply true. In the case of my editing studies, these guidelines referred to desktop publishing. I think they are closely related to the tips above. You should follow some accepted recommendations, but above all, you should just do your best and do no harm; be professional, not sloppy. In this particular example, we create something that will be read: a book, a catalogue, a magazine, an article, a text. We want it to be readable and legible, pleasant to look at and easy to use. However, the roads to achieve that goal may vary.

Thinking is of little use when you’re designing something & Think first, act later

If you’ve guessed these two sentences were not uttered by the same person, you’re right. They present two completely different perspectives on the same issue. I am more of a “think-first-act-later” person and I do believe the world would be a better place if people started to think before they do anything. That also works for designing, translating, writing, or text editing. Of course, I do not mean the type of destructive thinking which prevents you from doing anything at all or kills your creativity – quite the opposite. I know that our brains can trick us frequently but generally, we have them for a reason and it’s a good idea to make use of them. Creative spirit and inspiration are nice things, but they are also rather unpredictable, so it’s also advisable to think your actions over before you take any.

Intuition is just short memory

I like this sentence for its witty character, although I am still unsure whether I agree with this statement. I guess it can be understood this way: intuition is based on what we already know, what we’ve already learned and seen, what we’ve subconsciously acquired; it is there in our brains even if we’re not aware of that. It’s not magical and evanescent. But what if it is? I’ll leave it for your consideration. What I do know is that intuition helps me a lot in my work as a translator or editor. I have no idea where it comes from, though.

This discipline is based on optical illusions

This did come as a shock to me! I know little about optics, but I’ve always been fascinated by how our eyes and brains perceive and process reality. During the post-graduate publishing and editing course, I learned what can be done with a text – with particular letters, lines, spaces, paragraphs, and whole pages – to make the readers’ experience better and more comfortable. I find it amazing how even the slightest alterations in the visual structure of the text can change the perception. I also learned about the golden ratio and the importance of whiteness. One could even say that typesetting is a kind of white lie. 😉

Language does not like excess

I’ve said that a thousand of times myself – I’d actually like to hang this motto on the walls in all the offices where people work with language. I have an impression that Polish is particularly prone to superfluity. It’s natural, since it is a highly inflected language with a variety of endings and derivatives, but I’m mostly referring to style. Polish texts – especially those written by lawyers or state officials – tend to be lengthy and convoluted, overflowing with adjectives and adverbs. Simple phenomena are often (unnecessarily) described in a complicated manner. It’s really easy to fall into this trap. But a language needs not be superfluous even if it is rich in vocabulary. The beauty lies in simplicity and clarity, pithiness and conciseness. I kind of feel I’ve already used too many words to explain this.

You don’t need to know everything – you need to know where to look

This is a principle I follow while translating too. It actually applies to translation as well as to proofreading and editing. A wide scope of knowledge is important and useful – the more we know, the quicker and easier the work gets. However, we are not able to know and remember everything: all the facts, words, and rules. A translator is not a bilingual dictionary; an editor is not an encyclopaedia; a proofreader is not a thesaurus.

What really matters is the ability to look up information. You need to know how to ask the right questions – and what search queries to use in Google. You need to know the best sources and resources worth using, including dictionaries. You need to know how and where to look – first, to identify the fragments of a text which need checking and then, to find the right solution. Working with texts is great for attentive investigators with a knack for research.

If we lived in a perfect world…

I think these words were uttered by nearly every lecturer during the two semesters. If we lived in a perfect world, books would be always thoroughly edited and proofread before publishing. If we lived in a perfect world, proofreaders, editors, and DTP operators would receive fair pay. If we lived in a perfect world, all the published books would be beautiful and top-quality. If we lived in a perfect world, translators would have sufficient time to translate the book carefully. If we lived in a perfect world, the process of book publishing would not be governed by the merciless rules of marketing. And so on, and so forth. We do not live in a perfect world, but I still hope all those wishes will come true one day, even in our imperfect reality.

book editing publishing typesetting


These are the lessons I learned at university. This list looks like a proper editing manifesto! If you have your own thoughts on similar subjects, please let me know – I’ll be happy to know your point of view.


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