Shady Char­ac­ters

Trans­lat­ing a trans­la­tion

Geist - - Geist - Mary Schendlinger

Some years ago, when a client of­fered me the first and only hush­hush book-edit­ing con­tract of my ca­reer, tech­ni­cally I didn’t have time to do it. But this was a good client and the as­sign­ment was to un­der­take the line edit of a trans­la­tion into English, a task I love. The book, writ­ten in French by a Cana­dian govern­ment in­sider I’ll call Philippe, was a first-hand ac­count of a po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive public in­quiry that would soon con­clude. Philippe had been ac­tive be­hind the scenes, privy to de­tails of sub­mis­sions, tes­ti­monies, ex­perts, sched­ules, me­dia and more, and had been in­spired to write a clear, vivid nar­ra­tion of the process— a good read that would show the rest of us how a com­mis­sion of in­quiry works. The French and English editions were to be launched to­gether in a few weeks’ time, when the in­quiry re­port was re­leased, to take ad­van­tage of the me­dia at­ten­tion. The French edi­tion was at the printer; the English edi­tion, to be pub­lished by my client, was be­ing trans­lated and would need only a “quick copy-edit”—a mon­strous con­tra­dic­tion in terms, but I un­der­stood the short­hand—be­fore be­ing rushed into pro­duc­tion. To stream­line the process, the trans­la­tor would courier a cou­ple of chap­ters at a time as he fin­ished them (these were the days when ink-on-pa­per was still the most ef­fi­cient method), and I would iron out any rough spots and shoot them right to the pro­duc­tion man­ager.

The first en­ve­lope ar­rived the next morn­ing, marked Per­sonal and Highly Con­fi­den­tial. I closed my of­fice door, tore open the pack­age and be­gan to read.

Oh, dear. The text con­tained English words, but it was un­in­tel­li­gi­ble: few of the sen­tences made sense all the way through, and none of them fit to­gether. “The mo­tive of this ini­tia­tive had al­most cer­tainly been culled.” Had there been a com­puter glitch? “On this first class case they had left a bill of health.” Was I hav­ing an aneurysm? I pon­dered these ques­tions se­ri­ously: no edi­tor likes ev­ery text she en­coun­ters, but I’d never, ever seen one that I could not en­ter. “One could al­most rather un­der­steer the course.” I read the chap­ters over and over, fell on some oases of read­abil­ity, smoothed out the few bits I could com­pre­hend, tried to re­main calm.

But then I got a lit­tle stab of shock: a pas­sage that re­ferred to the “se­cret life” of the judge head­ing up the in­quiry. My un­der­stand­ing, from the mar­ket­ing tip sheets I’d read in pre­par­ing for the edit, was that Philippe held this judge in high es­teem, that he had con­sulted him of­ten for in­sight as he worked on the book, that in his text he pon­dered the ef­fects of a judge’s char­ac­ter on such a process, and so on. The book was a re­spect­ful, even-handed in­sider’s look at our demo­cratic ma­chin­ery, not an ex­posé. With my high school French and Latin, my an­cient Larousse and my pub­lish­ing hunches, I worked out that “se­cret life” should have been “pri­vate life.” I high­lighted the pas­sage and kept mov­ing. But the No-feel­ing roared back when I ran smack into

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