Invisible Mediators: Conversation with an English Language Editor

Tereza Stöckelová (Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences)

January 6th, 2022

Robin Cassling came to the Czech Republic in 1992. She works as an editor and translator in the fields of art, architecture, sociology, history, and the humanities generally. She studied history and French at the University of Toronto before moving to Europe.

Tereza: You started working as a language editor in the late 1990s. What have been the most significant changes during the past 20 years?

Robin: I get a lot more requests for editing now, or what people call proofreading, but it’s really editing. There is still plenty of translation work, but there are many more people writing in English now than 20 years ago. I think it’s a little more common. Maybe I’m wrong, but my feeling is there is more writing being done generally now than there used to be. But I don’t have any data to back that up.

T: Yeah, I think especially in English, the greater proportion of output is in English rather than Czech. What would be the other main changes you could observe over the years?

R: I think it’s related to the fact that people have to write a lot more. What was a little different in the past was that sometimes people didn’t know—I shouldn’t say “they didn’t know,” that’s not right—that in international or English publishing there is a certain format that you have to more or less stick to, and that wasn’t entirely familiar. Say, sometimes a paper had no introduction, or the introduction was almost word for word identical to the paragraph in the next section or to the conclusion, or there was no conclusion, the format was different. There’s no reason to say that this is the only way you are supposed to write a paper, I don’t want to say that. But it is something that everybody does now. People know what’s expected when they’re writing a paper for an international journal. I don’t think you encounter this difference anymore. I’m not judging, it’s just an adaptation to something.

T: How would you describe the English format? What are the features constituting the right format of a paper?

R: All I can say is what I remember being told as an undergraduate from the very beginning: you have to have an introduction, you have to have a conclusion, and all your references must be in order. Not having your references in order was a really big deal. And that is actually something that could be a problem. Maybe it is or was a problem generally, I don’t know. Sometimes the references could be a real mess. It’s been surprising how bad they could be.

T: Have you noticed any changes in the way people reference other texts in their papers? Not in terms of the alphabetical order but the types of texts and how they refer to them?

R: I can’t say that I have. I don’t think that means they haven’t. Maybe things are a little more careful now. Sometimes in the past I found that some things were a little too word for word, a little too close to the original … You could find things where—and this actually happened not that long ago—someone translated something into Czech, a quote or a sentence, pretty much word for word. Then it’s written like that in the person’s paper in Czech, and when you translate the text back into English you find that it’s a Czech translation word for word of what was in the original. Honestly, I don’t know if that’s wrong, if the words are in another language and you cite the source of the idea, but it feels wrong—I’ve just never found any guidelines on this. The words are in another language, no one is presenting the idea as their own, and the author is properly cited, but when you translate it into English there’s a risk of it sounding almost like a quote, but without quotation marks. And as the translator you would have no way of knowing this … And if you do discover it, while doing research for the translation, then you say: ‘I can’t actually translate it like that because it would sound like plagiarism.’ I mean, the author’s name is there, but it is almost a quote.

T: What are the most difficult issues you have encountered when working with texts by Czech authors?

R: Terminology is a bit difficult. I don’t think it’s as big a problem anymore, but it can be. I’ve usually been more inclined to move away from using too much terminology in a text. First of all because I may not know all the terms. But second of all because I sometimes feel the writing needs to be a bit more ‘plain English’, that communicating the idea clearly to as many people as possible is, to me, more important than sticking to terms, or at least there should be a balance. I feel sometimes that the terminology is a little more important in Czech, that there’s a little more emphasis on terminology in academic writing. Maybe you can get away with a little bit less terminology in English. At least you can if you are writing as a native-English speaker. I know that one Czech academic said to me that I need to keep lots of these terms and difficult words in her paper because without them, when she submits it, they think it’s not ‘scholarly’ enough, the language isn’t sophisticated enough, which I understand. But that might not be expected from a native English speaker.

I think the difficulty is finding that balance. The author may be worried that when they submit the paper if it doesn’t sound, you know, fancy enough, for lack of a better way of putting it, sophisticated enough, that’s a real concern. Peer review is an anonymous process, but maybe there is an unconsciousness bias among some reviewers in Western journals that Eastern European authors are writing in English as a second language and their English isn’t good enough yet or something like that. Since you can tell from the content of the paper sometimes where it’s been written, and sometimes I’ve read reviews, when I’ve edited an author’s responses to a reviewer, and I’ve seen a comment like ‘needs to be proofread’ or ‘language editing required’—and more often than not the comment has clearly been written by someone whose first language isn’t English—I’ve wondered whether the reviewer isn’t being too critical. But this, too, seems less and less common—except in art history. I have no direct experience but from my second-hand experience, through authors, art history journals sometimes feel like impenetrable fortresses. Some really good writing and hard work can then get rejected. I can see why people are concerned. You have to adopt the right register so that it not only is a good paper but sounds like a good academic paper. It feels a little unfair to expect people to communicate their academic work in English and then reject them if they can’t communicate like someone who has been writing in English all their life.

T: Can you give me some examples of a term that gets overused from your experience?

R: Back in the early 90s, I remember hearing about one English academic who complained that he never wanted to hear the word transition again, because it was just everywhere. Which wasn’t a fault of any academics, local or otherwise, it was really just the discussion of the time that everything was in transition. So, I think that it happens in periods, when there’s just too much of something.

Sometimes this issue is that people say, ‘Oh, it’s terminus technicus. Everybody knows the word, everybody in my field knows it.’ I think, okay, maybe. But I still think people need to explain things, or maybe it’s a good idea not to overestimate or assume what people know. An issue now, and it’s not an academic term, but one issue is the name Czechia, for instance. Geographers insist on Czechia instead of the Czech Republic, and they say it’s widely known in the literature and everybody uses it. I’m not convinced that’s true, but they say they have to use it, so in it goes. But my view is that if somebody isn’t familiar with the name Czechia, okay, they can look it up, but why make things more difficult to them, since they’re more likely to already be familiar with the Czech Republic as the country’s name.

T: Are there some Czech terms that are especially difficult to translate into English and when you translate it much gets lost? What are the concepts where the two languages do not map onto each other well?

R: There are always lots of examples of this in translation. For instance, I think something like kutilství, which came up a long time ago in sociology when I was working on a sociological paper, where the author talked about kutilství, but it’s not enough just to translate this as DIY or home improvements, because české kutilství is more than that, it’s like a whole approach to solving problems or doing things (especially before 1989, I think), it connotes more than just home improvements or hobbies, I think. Translating this isn’t straightforward. But there are lots of words like that. There are specific things in art and architecture that don’t translate easily. Things that exist here and have come from German are sometimes very hard to translate because you can’t reproduce them very well in English, and I think in English they often just use German terms for them.

T: Such as?

R: Things like Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, I think they just use the German terms in English when they talk about these things. And that’s not an exception. There’s a lot in philosophy. When you come across something and you try to produce it in English, it doesn’t work, but the German and the Czech seem to line up much better. And everybody will say: “You can’t say that in English, you can only say it in German or Czech.”

There are a lot of things in Czech history where it doesn’t seem there are any long-established equivalents in English. And I wonder if it is because of the long gap in communication that existed between languages. You can find terms or concepts that have been discussed between more widely spoken languages—such as German, English, French—concepts have moved one way or the other between them a lot more, I think. And then there are languages that are “not world languages”, where these things don’t seem to have been dealt with as much and people aren’t familiar with the concepts. So, for a simple example, outside academia, you can come across the French term crème fraiche in an English-language cookbook (spellcheck even fixes it for you), and that’s well-established, but if you were translating a Czech recipe, you couldn’t use the roughly Czech equivalent of tvaroh in English, no one knows what that is, so you’d have to use “cream cheese” or crème fraiche. And that happens with far more complicated terms as well, in academic or theoretical terminology. You’ll find that various terms and concepts may have been translated between the Czech and German, as neighboring languages, but then there’s no equivalent in English. 

T: So, if you arrive in those difficulties, what are the tricks to make it happen anyway?

R: There are different things. I remember one problem word, which was civilní, which doesn’t translate easily. It’s different things in different contexts. Sometimes you can find an equivalent, sometimes you can use a few words, sometimes you have to explain it. Or you can leave it in the original. One editor asked me to leave the original Czech. It depends on your audience. The most important thing is not to look for a single word that approximates the meaning at all costs, because then you might lose some of the meaning. The main thing is to make sure that the concept gets across. So, if you need to use multiple words or to explain it somehow, you can do that, or you can leave the original, and then just expand on it, explain what it signifies. In the social sciences you usually try to find an equivalent as well as explaining it. That can be true in art and architecture or history, too, but there you’re also more like to find some concrete thing that you are referring to and you can’t approximate it conceptually, it’s something in the real world and you have to denote it or describe it more concretely or even physically. Pavlače (a long balcony that tends to run the length of one floor of originally a lower-quality and now older tenement building and from which individual flats are accessed), for example, these long exterior balconies, often in the interior courtyard of a building. I’ve looked for a term, and I’ve seen other translators discuss it, to distinguish this from just any kind of balcony on the exterior of a building. A term may exist, but I don’t know anyone who has found the right term. Probably an architect would know, but that means the term in English would still be different from the Czech one, because the Czech word is familiar to Czech speakers, but the English term, if there is one, won’t be. There doesn’t seem to be anything that is as instantly, automatically recognizable to the English reader as to the Czech reader, for whom it’s an ordinary word. So, in English you’d have to use something like exterior or courtyard balcony, and maybe explain it, but that’s still a less precise term than the Czech.

T: That’s actually an interesting example. Because on the one hand, yes, it’s a piece of material architecture but there’s also much more to it. There’s pavlačová kultura.

R: That would be really hard to translate.

T: It refers to the social life and interactions that occur on courtyard balconies and it has a much deeper and complex meaning.

R: That is interesting, I didn’t know that. That would be an example of something that would be difficult to translate, and I think you would have to include the original. You know, if you were writing about it, you’d have to include the original and then explain it, maybe in a footnote. I’d probably have to ask the author, in that case, and maybe even ask “How do you want me to explain this?” Because it might even not be clear to the translator, like me, who hasn’t experienced pavlačová kultura, what it means exactly. It would be a difficult or tricky thing to translate because to just use a phrase like “balcony culture” for it, that’s not it.

T: And also, there’s the gendered connotation of this. Because pavlačová kultura is a sort of mode for women to create and to be part of the public space or a semi-public space, making up a neighborhood.

R: You’d have to explain all that, because it would be lost.

T: Is there something interesting for you in the way Czech language is gendered or using gender?

R: Not so much because I encountered this before in French and Spanish a long time ago, so it’s nothing unusual. But not long after I first came here, I was speaking English with a Czech friend and I was describing something that happened, and I would say “a friend of mine,” “me and my friend did this.” And the person I was talking to would stop me and say—“Friend who’s a boy or friend who’s a girl?”  And I said: “What does it matter?” But he said: “It’s very important!” Because he used kamarád (male friend) or kamarádka (female friend) and that information is already embedded in the Czech language. You almost always know if you’re talking about a man or a woman in Czech, but in English you don’t. And I remember it because I wondered why it mattered, and now I wonder how that affects your perception in any way. All the actors in a certain situation have their gender articulated in Czech, whereas in English that’s often not the case.

T: When you’re trying to solve some tricky issues do you learn something new about English language and what that would be?

R: I can’t say what exactly, but I know that you always learn more about your own language when you’re trying to express something in it that you’ve encountered in another language. You understand it, but you don’t see how it exists in your language. You realize that maybe there’s something missing, some area that isn’t focused on or discussed as much. You think, how do we say certain things and why do we say them like that, why do we talk about them like that. I don’t think the process of understanding or learning from a language is ever finished, even if it’s your first language.

One thing generally that you see the more you work with language generally, is that you might think that your understanding, your interpretation, of what words, sentences, concepts, or whatever you’re reading is shared, that those meanings and understandings are more less generally shared with everyone else in the language community—which is of course to some degree true and necessary if we’re going communicate with each other, we have to have some sort of shared understanding, shared meanings. But when you start to break it down and discuss what a word means with other people around you, you find that people don’t always agree, they can have very different interpretations of what something means, or how to define it. Not even just abstract words but something very similar. And I see that in Czech as well. Someone explains what a word means, and someone somewhere else says, “It doesn’t mean that at all. We don’t say it or use it like that at all.” Or someone says: “We never say that.” And someone else says: “Yes, we do.” And suddenly you discover that actually there are obviously shared meanings, but perhaps not everything is as universally shared as we think.

T: Thanks for sharing your reflections.