Translating a translation
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