Editing and ethics are not concepts that often get considered together. Most of us have heard of “business ethics” or perhaps “bioethics” and maybe even “journalistic ethics,” but ethics in editing doesn’t get much attention. In fact, there is no standardized code of conduct for the editing profession. There are, of course, stylistic guidelines and individual project specifications, but there is no ethics guide to editing. Often, then, the onus of ethical editorial decision making falls on the individual – or perhaps a content team – in whatever circumstances they find themselves.
At LaFleur, we take our jobs as creators and arbiters of the written word seriously. We fundamentally believe in the power of language – not just to influence potential consumers’ decision-making process, but also to shape readers’ perception of the world around them. And while we may not fully embrace the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, there’s no denying that the way we use language affects the way that we think about issues – and people.
Editing and Adapting Foreign Writing Sources
We serve an increasingly diverse range of clients here at LaFleur, some of which have an international presence. A few months ago, we were asked to edit some testimonial material written by non-native English speakers. From ghostwriting to editing our clients’ other written work, we are experts at maintaining an author’s voice while simultaneously improving grammar, mechanics, and structure; compared to creating a new draft from scratch, it is a nuanced and highly technical endeavor.
While we were ready and willing to dive into the project, our team was immediately concerned at an explicit directive from our client:
“We want to make sure that the story is coherent but not change it too much as far as the grammar goes to keep it sounding like it is coming from another country.”
As we’ve mentioned before, the term “grammar” has come to mean a lot more than its technical definition. So, we assumed the client wasn’t speaking specifically about maintaining nonstandard grammar in the stories. We had also been working closely with this client to ensure that their content was at a specific reading level for their international audience, which often required substantial revisions (or rewriting) for structure and vocabulary. Thus, we communicated with them and clarified that, in fact, they just wanted to make sure we didn’t rewrite the testimonials and, instead, did our best to preserve the author’s original voice – which is our standard procedure when a piece isn’t going to be understood as coming from a corporate author.
In a vacuum, though, those specific directives about not changing the grammar and making it sound like it was coming from another country gave us pause as a team and sparked a larger dialogue about the ethical considerations involved in editing the work of individuals whose primary language isn’t English. That discussion centered around two principal concerns:
- How editing the grammar of a piece can affect how readers perceive the author
- How the motivation behind making specific editorial decisions can affect the ethics of a situation
While none of us are necessarily qualified experts in ethics or philosophy, we all make a conscientious effort to consider the impact of our work in a wider context. Furthermore, one of our core values at LaFleur is transparency. With these things in mind, we wanted to share some of our thoughts about this issue and invite our clients, potential clients, and anonymous strangers to participate in the discussion as well. By all means, leave a comment at the bottom of this post and share your thoughts.
How Grammar Affects Readers’ Perception of an Author
Often, when we read something, we are divorced from the source in many ways. When we read statistics in a news article, we rarely have the full data set in front of us. When we read something, we rarely know the author. And when we see a transcription of someone’s speech, we rarely have the video streaming along with it.
In these instances, whether we intend to or not, we make assumptions about the person whose words we’re reading. Though we may question the facts and statistics an author presents, we generally presume they are not deliberately fabricating false information. And although we do not know an author, we come to conclusions about them based on their opinions, their writing style, and even the specific words that they use.
A relatively innocuous example of this might be an author’s predilection for using the word “soda” instead of “pop” or “coke.” In fact, you can find a plethora of regional differences in word use across the United States and internationally that allow readers to conclude where an author is from. But those conclusions can be erroneous, and there are often more associations (and perhaps even stereotypes) that tag along with a conclusion about someone’s point of origin.
When considering grammar in particular, there are also many unique errors that international English language speakers may exhibit that would allow readers to identify their general location of origin. Taking it one step further, a writer may make a grammatical mistake that plays into a cultural stereotype. With the author’s intentions and the audience in mind, it would be a straightforward editorial decision to correct the grammar of such a sentence.
Even with an express directive to leave the grammar alone, though, going out of our way as editors to preserve nonstandard grammar in a case like that seems to not only be in poor taste, but also offensive (especially if the explicit objective was to leave it sounding foreign). This is because the intention of the author was not to “sound foreign” but to communicate effectively in a language they are not intimately familiar with.
Keeping a piece of writing inaccurate, if not outright stereotypical, for the express purpose of promoting its foreignness (and at the expense of the author), then, was what broke new ground in our discussion, and we began to analyze how the motivation behind making specific editorial decisions can affect the ethics of a situation.
Motive, Means, and Opportunity: Ethical Editorial Decision Making
Imagine a hypothetical scenario where an organization uses testimonials in order to promote their business and thus earn a profit. Imagine also that the particular appeal of these testimonials is that they are from diverse, foreign sources. In this instance, the foreignness of any given testimonial (rather than, necessarily, its substance) would be the primary appeal.
The goal of maintaining a testimonial’s foreignness – which primarily depends on preserving the errata unique to an individual’s linguistic challenges with English – then, is at odds with the author’s intention of effectively and clearly communicating their experience in English. To leave those mistakes in the author’s work for the express purpose of making the testimonial a more effective tool to increase an organization’s profits (especially if those profits in no way better the author’s circumstances), then, seems controversial at best.
Taking things one step further, perhaps those mistakes portray the author in a negative light or even perpetuate a negative stereotype. By actively choosing to keep those errors in the text, we, as editors, become duplicitous not only in exploiting the words of the author for the financial benefit of the organization and – by extension – our organization and ourselves, but also in the perpetuation of any negative stereotypes or prejudice associated with those mistakes we voluntarily choose not to revise.
In contrast, imagine a scenario where someone owns a business and promotes it through their own writing. Imagine also that the writer unknowingly makes, for the sake of argument, identical mistakes to the hypothetical scenario above. In such a case, they are doing their best to communicate and the stereotyping is being done by the audience and not the individual who is profiting from it.
Thus, the primary ethical consideration is not whether or not the grammar should be corrected, but that we, as editors, have the ability to choose how to portray the author of any given piece of writing, and our choice directly affects the perceptions of readers. In this way, the authors – though they may never experience any direct harm from our choice – and their words can become tools to further an agenda at the expense of their original intent. And actively facilitating that exploitation, we feel, is unethical.
The Simple Complexities
When it comes to language use and cultural sensitivity, it’s rare for someone to intend to be offensive. However, there does exist misunderstanding and ignorance that – unbeknownst to any given individual – can inform his or her opinions about other cultures and about appropriating those cultures (or their language) to achieve some benefit for themselves or their organization.
While this is undoubtedly a complex issue that warrants a much larger discussion than we could ever hope to comprehensively resolve in a single blog post, the simple truth is that we all encounter ethical questions in our jobs. When those moments arise, it’s easy to dismiss them. In our case, we could have just as easily written off the issue and moved on because it was “just a short testimonial” or “just a simple misunderstanding” – both of which were true.
Instead, we took this opportunity to pause and reflect on the implications and consequences of our actions – even if only in the hypothetical. This resulted not only in a deeper understanding of the issues, but also a codification of our opinion as a team. We will undoubtedly encounter ethical dilemmas in the future, and creating a dialogue about this issue has laid a foundation that we can stand on as we apply our craft and that we can use to help our clients as they tackle issues of cultural and linguistic sensitivity.
Hickey, W. (2013, June 5). 22 maps that show how Americans speak English totally different from one another. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/22-maps-that-show-the-deepest-linguistic-conflicts-in-america-2013-6?op=1
Joyner, J. (2011, September 27). Is accuracy racist? Outside the Beltway. Retrieved from http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/is-accuracy-racist/