Teacher to Rewriter

by Doreen Simmons

It takes courage to change not only your job but also your career; but it is becoming increasingly common.  A correspondent wonders aloud whether she has all her skills in place for the change. Aunt Eva, who has already had several of her proverbial nine lives, offers a few basic suggestions.

Dear Aunt Eva:

Tiring of life as an English teacher, I recently applied for a job advertised as “proofreader-rewriter.” I was interviewed and did a few pages of tests, correcting various grammatical and other errors. To my surprise, the company phoned several days later to say I was hired! Since I’ve never worked in this type of business, could you give me some tips on what I can expect?

Ima Newby

Aunt Eva answers:

Congratulations! Getting a new job is wonderful! and getting one with a company that knows it has need of a proofreader-rewriter is even better. You have not said what sort of company it is, or whether your position is full time or part; but here are a few basics that can perhaps smooth your way.

Find out who, among your new colleagues and superiors, is supposed to be good at English. If you do your job well, you will be telling them they are wrong. Try to put yourself in their shoes and handle the job of correcting them with tact. Aunt Eva, lovable old tabby though she is, never relies upon her charm to win friends. Refraining from raking them with her claws works much better.

Despite all your tact, there will almost certainly be one person who hates you on principle. What to do? Be scrupulously polite—and watch your back. You may even win him/her over in the end; but if not, at least you will have behaved with class and kept your own self-respect.

Respect yourself, because at the outset nobody will respect you, at least for the right reasons. Japanese tend to think that a native speaker working in his/her own language is not really “working.”  Don’t demand respect; but plug away quietly and be as professional as possible. Japanese employers and colleagues admire commitment more than brilliance.

Very important: don’t think, because you have been hired to correct the English, that you don’t need to understand what’s happening in Japanese. Are you the first of your kind? Does anyone know how to use your services effectively? Tread cautiously until you are able to size up the situation.

Try not to take a piece of work at face value. Even if it is written in good English, it may not be appropriate in content or register; but you will not be aware of this if it is brought to you in isolation. At first you may well find that people do not understand your “need to know.” Aunt Eva used to be shown a single word or phrase scrawled on a scrap of paper and asked, “Is this correct English?” to which she mostly had to reply, “What is the context?” Even more dangerous is the reply to a letter received from abroad. Unless you see the original, you have no means of telling whether the reply is appropriate, let alone correctly expressed. Eventually Aunt Eva’s patience and sweet tabbiness were rewarded, and after a year or so she was trusted with a file of correspondence, or with whole texts that merely had “Please make this excellent” written in the top corner. 

If your Japanese is minimal, at least start off by listening to what your colleagues say to each other at the beginning and end of the day, and do the same. And do try to keep on learning Japanese; the more you know, the better will your work be. Rewriting is different from English teaching in this respect, but not in another: many language schools that employ untrained teachers encourage them to move on after a year or two because they are picking up too many habits of speech from their students. Professional language teachers are aware of this problem, and so must you be.

In any case, you should not have to depend for work-related information on what your colleagues are able to tell you in English. They may be repeating Japanese mistakes; and in any case, it’s their English that you’ve been hired to correct, isn’t it?

One of the results of the multiple-choice examination system is to convince people that there is a single correct answer to any question of grammar or syntax. Some of your colleagues are likely to be very well-informed about English—but they will know a formula and believe that it is the only answer. It is worth taking time here. You have to attempt a balancing act between an autocratic insistence on your own correctness and the possibility of alternatives. Start cautiously, and be prepared to do a lot of looking things up in dictionaries.  This is to prove your point to your colleagues, not to inform yourself. (If you don’t have a good grounding and really need to look everything up, this is not the job for you.)

This is an initial stage that cannot be hurried. Build up a reputation for quietly winning—but try to do it without making losers. Blame a dictionary or a textbook, not the person who has a faulty view of English. If your colleagues are using a book that is unreliable or even plain wrong, go for the jugular. But don’t laugh at it; plug away, citing reputable authorities to prove that this book is a wart upon the fair face of literate society.

Another way of softening the blow is to establish a grammatical hierarchy: ‘Of course you are quite right about XXX, but the YYY rule takes precedence.’ Saying that the other person is correct is one of your most potent working tools. Stress, too, that opinions on language vary even among educated native speakers. (But don’t overstress this. Aunt Eva’s motto has been for years, “Nobody’s perfect but some of us are closer than others.”)

Try to establish a company style, if one does not exist already. This will save you a lot of arguments. You can say, “What you have written is correct, but we have to keep to the company style.”

Finally, strengthen your professional skills. Read anything you can find on the company’s type of business. Read everything put out in English by its competitors. Read specialists’ reports in newspapers and magazines. Seek out others in the same line of work and network with them. Join the SWET-L and Honyaku mailing lists. Although Honyaku is for J-E translators, they mostly communicate in English, and you will often find a translator wrestling with exactly the same problems that you have as a rewriter. Members are extremely generous with information or suggestions, provided that you keep to the netiquette norms.

Rewriting may be a halfway job on the way to becoming a full-blown translator, and you can learn a lot of useful facts and skills from it. It may be a way of earning a living for a year or two until it’s time to move on. It may turn out to be a lifetime berth. Aunt Eva’s ultimate advice is: give it all you’ve got and see what you can make of it. Good luck!

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 81 (July 1998)