Editing for an International Audience

When I was an editorial assistant, my first mentor suggested that editors have the difficult job of preserving the author’s voice, while improving the quality of the text to get it into the shape and format required for submission. And this is to be done without upsetting the author—many authors find being edited a challenging process.

This in itself is a hard enough task. But what about editing for an international audience?

Authors Don’t Always Think About Their International Audience

When authors are writing, they may not necessarily have their worldwide audience in mind, or they may not be thinking about their words being used in translation.

For example, it’s natural for an author who speaks, reads and writes in English to focus on an English-speaking audience. But audiences differ. While native English speakers often read in phrases, international readers often tackle a sentence word by word and so, for them, the potential for confusion increases with longer sentences.

Authors who take this into account as they write will likely produce text that’s accessible to more readers. Authors who don’t take this into account can benefit from working with an editor who will keep this focus in mind and can change the text but not the meaning, keeping the author’s voice.

Plain Language And Global English Can Help

Plain language and global English (more easily understood by non-native speakers) overlap in a lot of key areas and can help meet the needs of the target audience.

The idea is not to “dumb down” the text but to make it clear and concise, as well as to explain any phrases or words that could be new to the reader (and highlight them to the author). We also need to watch for regionalisms and cultural references that may have different meanings or no comparisons once translated.

Points to keep in mind when editing for an international audience:

  • Use shorter and complete sentences.
  • Use the active or passive voice appropriately.
  • Be consistent in spelling, capitalization and formatting.
  • Use a common list of approved words.
  • Favour strong, direct statements.
  • Cut out unnecessary words and repetition.
  • Be aware that humour doesn’t always travel well.
  • Proofread text before sending it out for translation to avoid costly mistakes.
  • Look out for seasonal references, particularly when working on northern to southern hemisphere projects.
  • Avoid nouns that are vague (e.g., “local” or “in our area”), unless the location is clear.
  • Read through content on screen, on paper and even out loud, as this can highlight areas that are unclear.

Consider Style

Many international style guides use American English as the default option. British audiences don’t usually take issue with this, but it doesn’t always work the other way around. A quick look at some Internet writing, editing forums or Amazon reviews reveals American English speakers telling British English speakers that they have made spelling or grammatical errors in their books.

Also, some cultures consider the active voice to be rude or condescending, while others find the passive voice to be impersonal and awkward. It’s important to familiarize yourself with what your audience will expect.

A favourite and entertaining read on language and culture is The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinod, a former researcher on the BBC quiz show QI (www.themeaingoftingo.com).

Working with Authors Who Don’t Want Changes

Making changes to text sounds easy, but I think if editors were polled we could all recount at least one instance when a writer got upset because we’d deigned to change a comma, a word or a phrase!

When an author understands why editors and translators are asking permission to adapt text for an international audience, it can smooth the way for future projects. Good communication with the author can speed up the editorial process and may lead to negotiation of better terms!

A text can expand in translation (sometimes by up to 30 per cent); this can significantly alter project costs and make formatting for books, e-books and web pages a headache. Keeping this in mind will endear you to the commissioning editor. Ask the author to consider crediting the translators, as this fosters good relations and reminds the author of the international potential of the work. Just as important, it makes it clear that the content has been adapted and sets the expectations of the international reader.

It’s a Regular Part of Quality Control

Editing for an international audience is like many other editorial skills: it becomes instinctive with practice. It should be considered a regular part of quality control.

Mara Livingstone-McPhail (photo by Jeremy Northam)

Mara Livingstone-McPhail was a bookseller, and reviewed books on BBC radio and organized book events in inner-city schools before being lured to London by the team who now run Chicken House Books. A freelance editor, proofreader and writer, she reads every day for as long as she can keep her eyes open.

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