An A-Un Editorial Team

by Pamela J.Noda

Can native speakers and non-native speakers work together as equals? They can on an a-un editorial team. Pamela J. Noda shows us how.

Many of us working in English-language publishing in Japan are in jobs that pair us with editorial assistants whose native language is Japanese. Those of us who are freelance editors interact with the Japanese tantōsha, person in charge, of English-language publications produced by Japanese organizations. We all know how hard it can be to communicate basic copyediting concepts to people trained in a different writing tradition.

But what would it be like if the English-speaking editor and the Japanese-speaking assistant could work together on the same wavelength, each with an understanding of the higher purpose of editing, each with trust in the other’s abilities, and each with opportunities for shining in his or her own area of expertise? Cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds notwithstanding, I believe that it is possible for a native English speaker and a native Japanese speaker to form an editorial team with qualities not unlike those of the long-married couple portrayed in Mukōda Kuniko’s novel A-Un, where the parties support each other out of an unspoken understanding of both what the job requires and what their talents contribute to it.

For 10 of my 20 years as an editor in Japan, I have been privileged to work with just such a colleague. We grew together in our positions as associate editor and assistant editor in one job and director of publications and assistant director of publications in another job. Over the years we’ve become such a solid team that much of our conversation now is not about our work. What we do from the time a manuscript crosses our desks until the finished books are delivered has taken on an a-un quality: it goes without saying that we will each fill our equally valuable roles in the publishing process.

English-language publishing in Japan needs teams of native speakers of English and native speakers of Japanese who respect each other and pool their knowledge and skills to produce high-quality products. Such teams already exist, and they are doing excellent work. I’d like to share with you the elements that I see as having been essential to the healthy growth of the editorial team I have headed.

Being a native speaker of the language of publication is only one of the qualifications an editor needs. Many editorial tasks can be performed by a non-native speaker. So while native-language ability is absolutely essential for the part of editing that pertains to literary style, this ability is not necessary for the mechanical aspects of editing. I believe this strongly now, and I learned this over the course of training my assistant and watching her grow in the job. The key to my learning this was avoiding the ‘I am the native speaker of English’ syndrome, which precludes the English speaker and the Japanese speaker from interacting as equals when it comes to dealing with a manuscript.

I know Japanese editors who left English-language publishing for Japanese-language publishing, saying that they felt frustrated because they would never be able to measure up to an English-speaking editor and take complete charge of a manuscript. My approach was to expect my assistant to be able to take charge of everything but the part of copyediting that affects literary style. Aside from having her handle the usual tasks of an editorial assistant, I asked her opinion about the content of a manuscript, whether she thought an argument was well laid out, or whether the conclusion did a good job of summing up. I expected her to have read up on a manuscript’s topic in Japanese and, if the topic was Japan specific, to be able to fill in the gaps in knowledge that my own reading hadn’t filled. In general, I expected her to think like an editor.

With this basic approach as the foundation, four elements seemed only natural. Training in editorial research and matters of style, sharing the ‘fun’ parts of the job, and delegating responsibilities that give the assistant an outside identity were for me the keys to nurturing a colleague who became a full-fledged member of the editorial team.

Train in Editorial Research
Editorial research is the skill that nurtures a critical eye for both content and style. At first, I went through a manuscript and highlighted proper nouns, quotations, and facts that needed to be verified. I required that two sources be cited for each item needing checking and that a source list and photocopies of sources that revealed errors in the manuscript be attached to the manuscript. As my assistant began to develop her own sense of what should be checked, I left it to her to read each manuscript thoroughly and decide for herself what to research. Eventually she developed such a feel for this part of the job that I gave her the responsibility of deciding which queries on facts from outside editors needed pursuing.

Train in Matters of Style
While introducing dictionaries and style manuals and teaching the value of consistency are fundamental, the two exercises that I found most effective for teaching style were inputting corrections and imposing order on messy bibliographies.

When editors still marked up manuscripts in red by hand, I asked my assistant to input the corrections. I requested that she read a bit as she corrected, and not just mechanically type. Working this way, she was exposed to general style principles and practices as well as style decisions unique to a manuscript. Now that manuscripts come back from outside editors as electronic files with the edits already input, her task is to go over the outside editor’s queries with an eye on the computer screen, where she can see the decisions that editor made concerning literary style and mechanical style. More than once she has called my attention to an edit that has changed a meaning or introduced an error.

For the novice, taming bibliographies generates a lot of questions and what appears to be a lot of inconsistencies. This task, though, is a quick way to become familiar with style, and what one learns sticks. I knew my assistant had mastered this when her check of a bibliography resulted in more questions for the author than for me or the style manual. The manuscripts we work on do not use footnotes, but learning to edit footnotes is another exercise in style.

Make it Fun
I always tried to share the fun of birthing a publication with my assistant. I encouraged her participation in editorial meetings about content and appropriate authors, and I welcomed her opinion concerning graphic design, photos, paper, fliers, and other matters pertinent to the production process. I viewed promotion events, book reviews, and other kinds of recognition for our publications as recognition of our hard work, and I made sure she knew that the job couldn’t have gotten done without her.

Give the Assistant a Face
I found that delegating responsibility in areas that made my assistant known outside of the team and in areas where she could work autonomously fostered independence and pride. For some years I operated on the assumption that I should be the one to contact non-Japanese authors. One day I realized that this division of labor was inconsistent with my wanting to work with my colleague as an equal: she was capable of interacting with English-speaking authors, and so she should be doing it. I still remember the pleased look on her face when I asked her to contact authors directly for approval of the author bios she had written or to remind them of deadlines or to query them on bibliographic points.

Areas involving the Japanese language’checking translations, handling correspondence, referring to Japanese originals or sources, dealing with Japanese-speaking professionals in the industry outside of the office’are opportunities for an assistant to operate independently of the English-speaking editor. I entrusted my colleague with responsibilities that constituted her own domain and offset my weak points.

Not wanting to lose my very capable partner in publishing is what led me to experiment with the practices mentioned above. In preparation for this article, I asked my colleague what it was that had made working in English-language publishing meaningful for her. Feeling responsible for content had been rewarding, she reported. She related how pleasantly surprised she had been the first time we two had sat down to go over the results of her editorial research: when she pointed out an error in wording discovered through her fact checking, I reworked the sentence without question. And when working on books with Japan-specific content, she said she felt especially responsible for educating herself on the topic so that she could answer whatever questions I might have.

Fostering a sense of professionalism in a Japanese-speaking assistant as someone responsible for the quality of English-language publishing in Japan was an immensely satisfying experience for me. These associates are just as vital to the editorial process as the native English-speaking editor. I’d like to think that all of us working with Japanese on English-language materials would take a moment some time soon to let our colleagues know how much their contribution is valued.

From Newsletter Number 103 (November 2003)