Protecting Clients from Themselves

by Doreen Simmons

Aunt Eva is in a thoughtful vein this time, as she examines the tactical and ethical problems of trying to give the clients what they need, rather than what they want.


Dear Aunt Eva,
An editor friend of mine recently told me his job sometimes included “protecting clients from themselves.” I don’t recall seeing any such service listed in the company’s work orders, nor has my friend joined any new religions lately. Can you shed a little light on his statement?

Confused in Kansai

Aunt Eva answers:

One of the biggest headaches in the field of editing/rewriting English produced in Japan is the problem of convincing clients that some of their pet ideas will not play in Peoria. As Josh Billings observed, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

But first we have to ask ourselves: if we are asked to pass something that is less than perfect, what will be the result? More importantly, who will be responsible? Do we have a duty to get involved, or is it imperative to steer clear? It is not one problem and there is no single answer.

The simplest case is one in which the clients want to sell a product, an idea, or an image. They may have planned the English campaign, or at least sketched in all the English words they particularly want to use, and then bring it to a native speaker for a cursory examination, a little tightening up, a little help with the definite and indefinite articles. Fat chance. But who is the so-so English aimed at? The slogan “For Beautiful Human Life” is still with us, even after the whole English-speaking community assured the Kanebo people that it was wrong; they replied, reasonably enough, that the slogan was meant for Japanese, who mostly thought that it was pretty good. It applies to foreign employees too: the bilingual cooking instructor who recorded in a trailer for her program: “I’m looking forward to!” was just doing what she was told; she wasn’t hired as an English expert, so what the heck?
When people are supposedly working as English assistants, there is more of a dilemma; but they are not on an even playing field. Once upon a time, three excited new tarento turned up at NHK to record a skit for the English educational program. One exchange was: “Is a book on the table?” “Yes, a book is.” NHK’s resident sensei overruled their objections, saying that the level had to be kept very simple. The three swallowed their pride. No real ethical problem there: they were nonentities, the sensei was all-powerful, and nobody who mattered would know.

Moving up the scale: If it’s an academic who is going to publish, or read a paper at an international symposium on architecture, or cancer, or platonic idealism, or whatever, it is our duty to see that the ideas get across as smoothly as possible. The scholar’s academic reputation is at stake, and, assuming that we are providing help professionally and are not junior members of the faculty drafted as slave labor, we are under considerable obligation to prevent the professor from making an ass of him- or herself.

However, you can lead an ass to water but you cannot remove its ears. Setting aside the problem of the person who has something to say but doesn’t know how to say it in English, what do we do about the highly publicized spin doctor who has made some obviously stupid mistake of fact? You can only sigh, give the man fair warning, and prepare to be overruled. In this case, guard your back. Because when the nonsense gets into print and the outcry starts, however much the Japanese “expert” has messed about with your text, he will bluster, “But I hired a supposedly reputable gaijin to check it for me!” and yours is the name that will be mud. The best way, and one that has served Aunt Eva in good stead on a number of occasions, is to make sure that all these exchanges are in writing. The other line of self-defense is to make sure that your name is nowhere to be found on any of the literature. If your client insists on having his way, let him be the only visible target.

The same applies, with bells on, to self-appointed experts and commentators (hyoronka). If a man is spouting drivel unfounded in fact, should a translator or an editor seek to make him look better-informed and more reasonable than he is? No; in this case, Aunt Eva opines, the reading public is entitled to know exactly what this man has said. It should be translated as honestly as possible—and that means warts and all.

But when our clients are well motivated and honestly mistaken and we want to do the best we can for them, what are our options?

At the lowest level, I suppose, is checking drafts for speech contests and theses: it should be illegal but virtually everybody does it. Every judge and every examiner knows it, so if you are asked to rewrite a kid’s speech as a favor, and not for a fat fee, why not? But what do we do when a person whose English is poor asks us to vet an application to do a course at a university abroad? The letter will be used by the foreign university to gauge the applicant’s capability. If we change too much, it is our English that will be judged. And the result may well be a student who is wasting time and money, and possibly taking up a university place, by sending in a ghost-written letter of application. How to refuse? Lie. Say, “I think your application is fine. Don’t change a thing; send it in just as it is.” It is better to lie a little to the applicant than to lie a lot to the university admissions bureau.

How about someone who is preparing an important speech? You don’t have a lot of leeway here; but negotiate: “If you make this statement, I think the audience will ask you this question. You may wish to prepare for it, so please tell me what kind of response you would like to make to such an objection.” This may tactfully alert the client to a weakness in his presentation at the drafting stage.

But if you are not able to negotiate directly, an ethical problem arises. If, for instance, a politician or a captain of industry is proposing to write something that is guaranteed to offend, to what extent are we justified in altering it? In making him apparently say something more acceptable to the addressee, are we contributing to a falsehood? If we can negotiate with a secretary to explain what the effect of the proposed letter or speech will be, well and good; if the secretary refuses to listen, his will be the head that rolls. After all, that’s one thing that private secretaries are for.

Actually, Aunt Eva sometimes feels that gaijin translators/rewriters are more picky about this point than their Japanese counterparts, who are quite likely to say what they feel you ought to have said. An 83-year-old man, the oldest member of a choir singing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was asked why he had joined. He replied, “My favorite geisha talked me into it.” This was reported as, “I was profoundly impressed by the noble spirit of Schiller’s poem.”

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 76 (July 1997)