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From the “rough draft of history” to the final draft for posterity — Part II

Written by on Saturday, 11 October 2008
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Last week I talked about the editorial process of CyberChaikhana in general terms.  This week, however, I’ll get into the specific nitty-gritty.  Let’s use the education sample chapter and its source posts as a case study to look at the kinds of revision I’m undertaking.

Simple re-wording/re-punctuating (a.k.a., “red pen run amuck”):Got spellcheck, will work for food” by KZblog.

Okay, so this kind of revision is straightforward.  Compare these samples from the fulltext:

Original –  “In the US professors struggle with similar problems from fraternities that keep file cabinets full of essays to students who cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, to ads on Craigslist that advertise paper-writing services.”

Revision — “In the United States, professors struggle with similar problems. Fraternities are notorious for keeping file cabinets freshly stocked with cut-and-paste essays from Wikipedia, and Craigslist brims with advertisements for paper-writing services.

KZblog had what’s called a run-on sentence, which means he had too many or misplaced conjunctions that resulted in a sentence much too verbose.  Think about how his original sentence would sound in regular conversation; a carefully placed period and “and” indicates the natural pauses and breaths.

Excision (a.k.a., “slashing and burning”): We strongly suggest you read this” by Arthur.

Ironically, the original version of this post would be too long to copy in this weblog, and that is precisely part of the challenge it poses to me as an editor.  At five paragraphs, compared to the original twelve, and with only a fraction of the original quoting, the CyberChaikhana version of Arthur’s post is obviously and significantly shorter.  The question is: does the changed length necessarily mean a changed message?

Arthur’s aim was to highlight quiet censorship of criticism in the Kazakhstani public education system (teachers are required to provide their students certain newspapers that are friendly to the government).  What’s (mostly) missing from the CyberChaikhana version of his post is the debate among Kazakhstani educators themselves over whether this constitutes inappropriate government influence.   However, in my opinion Arthur fails to sufficiently demonstrate that much of a debate even exists. The critical spots of his post are two sentences, specifically, the quote from the school director (included in the CyberChaikhana version) and the reporter’s own observation, “When the subject arises, most teachers give a little laugh and shake their heads resignedly,” which has been excised.  In fact, Arthur nearly undermines his own purpose: he shows that the teachers are more concerned with the boring nature of the newspapers, and at any rate they  must purchase the newspapers with their own money — yet are too poorly paid to do so!  Strictly on the basis of this article, a reader isn’t going to be very impressed with Kazakhstani methods of censorship.

Yet, from the democratic point of view there is clearly something rotten in the state of Kazakhstan.  Arthur indicates this by referencing a Freedom House report about press oppression (as well as several other reports about rampant governmental corruption).  So it seems he’s really trying to make a cultural criticism, i.e., there is something strangely submissive about Kazakhstani culture, of which the matter of these newspapers and teachers are a good example.  The problem is the newspapers aren’t a good example, that is, at least insofar as the information and quotes he provides in his post are concerned.  Hence, my judgment call to sculpt out from the original material the most coherent and usable thread running through it.

Another example in which I performed significant and scalpel-like excision is Maciula’s “Turkmen Students Abroad Fear to Tell the Truth.”  Besides shrinking the author’s original post, I also had to extract usable material from its comments section.  The result is arguably a skewed take on what’s actually said in there, but the CyberChaikhana version is able to tell a story where the original begins to but fails.  Another judgment call, this time less about sifting out a coherent argument as much as sifting out a coherent and enticing human-interest piece.

Refinement (a.k.a. “I can say what you want to say a whole lot better”): New schoolyear without textbooks” by Ksenia (translated by Adam Kesher).

This is the final and trickiest of the revisions to which I’m subjecting the posts.  The fulltexts of both the original and CyberChaikhana versions are succinct enough to include here.  Compare:

Original — “The Kazakhstani children have entered the new school year with ambitious novelties: more Internet access and 1,000 ‘interactive blackboards — everything necessary for the new era education. However, the main problems occur in the very elementary basics.

“Many pupils are starting the year without textbooks. In schools, only two-three books are given for the whole class. Indignant parents receive no legible explanation in schools and don’t know what to do. Buying textbooks is quite challenging. Each book costs 400-500 tenge, so the whole set of books will be a serious blow for an average family budget. The situation is aggravated by the fact that not all necessary textbooks are in the bookstores.

“The authorities, namely the education department of the city administration says there is no problem at all: according to the governmental decree, the textbooks are given firstly to the kids from the families having many children and from the socially vulnerable families. Others have to buy the textbooks [although the secondary education is officially free of charge]. The authorities also recommend nurturing careful attitude to the books among the pupils. However, it is apparent that in order to look after the books, the one should get it first.”

Revision — “Kazakhstan’s children have entered the new school year with ambitious novelties: more Internet access and 1,000 “interactive blackboards”—all the equipment they need for a 21st Century education… except that they don’t have any textbooks.

“Kazakhstan has been suffering a chronic textbook drought so severe that schools must ration available supplies, typically no more than two or three books per classroom. Parents don’t know what to do. Municipal education departments offer them no intelligible explanation for the shortage. In fact, the line given is that there is no problem at all.

“The reality is disconcerting. According to governmental decree the few textbooks in circulation outside classrooms are allotted to ‘socially vulnerable’ families with many children. Everyone else must purchase the textbooks. However, since each book costs 400-500 tenge, a single syllabus can cripple a family’s budget. Not only this, but often the required books aren’t for sale at bookstores.

“How does the government intend to counteract the shortage and price explosion? Not by subsidizing textbook purchases; in fact, it has no plan to speak of. Instead it recommends that parents instil in their children a careful respect for textbooks—as though awe for the idea of reading could make up for its absence in actuality.”

Ksenia (or Adam’s translation of her) has, in my opinion, clumped information together rather than carefully spelling out the message of her post.  More problematic is that the post does not really have a conclusion, giving the entire piece the feel of a giant sentence fragment (or it ends in a manner that would work well in its original language but feels inconclusive in English).  The revision thus required that I restructure it, but also that I supplement her information with some of my own research, e.g., the first sentence of the second paragraph, as well as to interpret and then articulate what I perceive to be her unstated emotions, e.g., that the textbook situation in Kazakhstani schools is “disconcerting.”  Such decisions are understandably controversial, for where do we draw the line between Ksenia and Schwartz?  Indeed, considering the fact that I’m working with a translation, where do we draw the line between Ksenia, Adam, and Schwartz?

The critical issue here is personal style. Now, you would think that personal style automatically trumps the rules of English-writing, even the very basics of English grammar itself (well, such would be one take on the post-modern idea, at any rate).  But recall that it is grammar by which ideas are expressed; so, too, the persona of the author.  Take for example my own personal blogging, in which I tend to utilize a more academic style, replete with “i.e.”‘s and “e.g.”‘s and not a little bit of technical verbage, suffused with my penchant for wannabe-Emersonianisms.  My essays “The Historian’s Theodicy” and “The Super-Tribe and the City of Gods” are tell-tale cases (sorry about the self-promoting plug, but I’m really proud of those posts!).  A counter-example to my tendencies would be the work of neweurasia‘s Vadim.  As many of you know I’m a fan of his style precisely because it is the opposite of mine, by which I mean it is aggressive, personal, easy to access, and has a distinctive way of constructing phrases.  Were Vadim a newspaper writer, he would be a columnist, but his style would work just as well, if not better, in a travel log or diary.  The appeal of his style is that it’s direct, human, and relatable; the downside is that there is less methodicalness in such an approach, which is why it’s sometimes hard to figure out just what Vadim is ranting and raving about.  ;)

But then, what am I to make of the work of bloggers who are less fluent in English than Vadim and I?  You can probablyman_scratching_head.gif begin to see my dilemma: to be frank, it is frequently difficult to figure out when I’m dealing with style peculiar to the individual author — or peculiarly bad English.  To put it another way, would the author, if they had the ability and opportunity, choose to articulate themselves in a different manner?  If so, would they choose to do so in the way I’ve edited them?

I’ve resorted to the partial solution of resisting the ever-present temptation, as Ben once politely put it, to “Schwartzify” the posts, i.e., to make every post in the book sound like I wrote it.  In fact, Ben and I agreed at the outset of this project that I must aim for an Economist-lite” style.  This has been the measure by which I’ve tried to edit all the posts, especially the difficult ones.  Nevertheless, judgment calls are required, and in the end my best point-of-reference is my own understanding of what makes for coherent, eloquent, and powerful English.

And so ends this two-part series on my redactive travails and the ethics of editing.  I hope it has been enlightening.  :)

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