The Alert Editor
I’m very happy to have Alluvium editor Susie Gordon back for another conversation at A Polite Lie this month, where we will once again cover a wide range of topics.
Susie’s upcoming course with Tender Leaves, entitled Editing Literary Translations, includes 6 video modules (audio and written transcripts available), a suggested reading list, and 1-month paid access to all content at A Polite Lie.
Hi Susie, and thanks for joining me again for more conversations about the work of translation and editing.
Here at A Polite Lie, I’ve made it a point in recent months to include lists of publications that accept translations, and I plan to continue to do so in the upcoming months. I realised that this is something a lot of translators really struggle with. The thought of sending out work to publishers can be a little daunting for those who are just getting started, and the misgivings can often prevent a good translator from just getting out there and getting it done. But no matter how many markets we list here at A Polite Lie, that in itself doesn’t get someone any closer to publication. At the end of the day, it all comes down to whether or not the translator will send the work out to those markets. Do you have any tips for someone who is finds the fear of submitting work a bit paralysing?
Hi Shelly! Thanks for having me back. That's a great question. We've talked a lot about the mechanics of submitting to journals, but plucking up the courage to actually do so is a different matter! As a writer, I find it quite hard to put my work out there for consideration, so I completely understand. However, my work as a journal editor has taught me that making that initial contact doesn't need to be daunting. Behind every submissions email account is a living, breathing editor or editorial team. When they open a submission, they want to love it. They're keen to populate their pages with great literature. But if it turns out not to be something they want to publish, it's important not to take the rejection personally. Of course, that's easy to say, and I know first-hand the sting of "Unfortunately, we don't feel that your work is suitable for our journal." However, rejection really is all in a day's work for writers and translators. You'll reach a point where you treat those replies philosophically, and view them as learning opportunities. Hopefully they will eventually be overshadowed by your work that does get accepted. In the first instance, it's about taking a deep breath and launching yourself off the metaphorical diving board.
That’s great advice. I especially like the reminder that behind every journal is a person or team of people. One of the happy moments in my career as a writer was the moment I realised that there are so many people in this industry who are invested in my success. So many editors, event planners, and the various members of any organisation I work with are very invested in helping me succeed, because this industry is such a collaborative one – the success of one is the success of all, in the very truest sense. I think it is helpful to keep in mind when submitting work that the people you speak to really do want you to succeed, and generally, the feedback you will get from any of them is aiming to help ensure your success.
All that said, I’m sure you have had some negative encounters when working with authors. What is the worst thing someone can do when submitting work to a journal they hope to be published in? Is there anything you can think of that would almost guarantee a rejection?
What I really don't enjoy seeing is submissions that have clearly been sent out to a swath of journals, without being tailored to fit Alluvium's guidelines. It's always preferable to do some background research into the publications you're submitting to. For example, we specify at Alluvium that submissions over a certain number of pages should be queried first. I would much prefer to receive an email asking if we'd consider a 30-page prose poem, rather than receiving the prose poem itself! It proves that the author or translator has taken the time to do their research. It's also important to craft individual covering letters or emails for each submission you make. Obviously this takes more time and effort than a blanket mail-out, but it is honestly worth every second you put into it. I once received a submission without any sort of covering note - just the poems as an email attachment. I have to say, it didn't inspire a huge amount of confidence! Also, although rejections can be tough, it's important to take them in your stride. I once had quite an unpleasant series of emails from a writer whose work I had chosen not to accept. This sort of correspondence should be avoided at all costs. You mentioned how publishing is a collaborative industry, and word gets around about awkward or difficult people.
From your perspective, as someone who has had a lot of work published in journals, is there anything a commissioning editor can do to make the process smooth and pleasant for the writers and translators who submit to them?
I think the most important thing, for me, is to have a set of clearly worded guidelines that don’t make things too complicated. I have worked with an editor who wanted a very specific type of file for submissions, and not the standard Word or PDF file one might expect, but an older format that was no longer commonly in use at the time he was requesting work in this file format. It was a strange request, and even though I was able to send it to him in that form, it was a bit of a nuisance to always have to remember that he had this quirky preference of file format. What made it worse was that his stated reason for his preference was that he was working on an old computer and old operating system. This meant we were all having to submit in an outdated format in order to accommodate his unwillingness to upgrade his system. While I complied with the request, I did find it troublesome to do so, and it became even more irritating when the publication came out with wonky formatting – which I suppose was inevitable, given the circumstances.
Generally, if an editor can give clear direction, that is enough. If they can also avoid idiosyncratic requests and messy formatting once the publication does come out, then I consider it a win. I am not the sort of author who expects everything I submit to be accepted, as I do understand the industry and that rejection is a part of the process. I don’t mistake the rejection as somehow being a rejection of me, but merely a statement that the work doesn’t fit that particular publication at that time. On occasion, I receive comments from the editor on the piece, and that is very helpful, but it is not something I expect, as I understand how busy editors are. But when a little note is included with something like, “I really like the piece, but I just don’t have a place for it now,” that is always very nice to see. If an editor has time for that, it is a nice touch. But it certainly isn’t something I expect.
Which parts of the editing process bring you the most joy, and which parts are a bit of a drain on your energy?
This may sound a little counter-intuitive, but it’s sometimes easier and more enjoyable to work on texts that require more editing. Knowing that I’ll have to tweak the majority of the sentences keeps me alert. When a text is cleaner, it’s easier to go into autopilot, which makes it easier to miss subtle errors. As far as subject matter is concerned, this may sound counter-intuitive as well, but I rather enjoy editing texts on subjects I know little about, as long as there’s a terminology guide to follow. Again, it necessitates a greater degree of concentration. The only sort of text I dislike working on is machine-translated material that has been submitted verbatim for editing. It is usually quite easy to tell when this is the case!
Oh yes! That really is the worst. Machine translation has its place in our world, but translating literary works is not one of them. In fact, translating any lengthy communication that does anything beyond transmitting the most barebones information is really not a task for machine translation. Machine translation is very useful for somethings, especially for generating vocabulary lists or alternative ideas for how to render a specific word when you get stuck. But when machine translation is misapplied and used to render lengthy passages, the results can be disastrous. I once had a submission sent to me that had obviously been generated by running it through machine translation with little or no subsequent rewriting of the work. There were many markers of this process in the text that was sent to me, as you can imagine. But what made it clear that the “translator” had not even gone back over it was that the machine translation software had used “scorpion” to replace any vocabulary that was unfamiliar to it, including the names of some obscure villages that had not yet been entered into its database. So I had a manuscript that was riddled with the word “scorpion” in random places, on top of all the other typical problems that one expects from machine translation. Needless to say, I had to redo the entire work, and I’ve not worked with that “translator” again.
I like the way you describe the mindset that can overcome you when you have a cleaner text to work with – going into autopilot mode. The same thing happens to me when there is a long text to translate, especially if it is particularly repetitive or follows a very formulaic pattern. It can be mind-numbing, and very subtle errors can begin to creep in when that happens. When I’m revising my work, the same thing can happen, especially when I get to the stage where I’ve already been over it a dozen times or more. One of the tricks I use to prevent myself from falling into autopilot mode is to change fonts between each reading of the text. Do you have any tips or tricks you use to keep yourself alert?
Staying alert can be something as simple and non-technical as taking regular breaks, whether to rest or to edit something else. Often I will be working on two projects simultaneously. If I find myself slipping into autopilot on one of them, I will switch over to keep my mind fresh. Alternatively, I will take a break and spend some time with my cat! A change of scenery, whether work-related or for leisure, can really help. I actually find it easier to stay alert when editing literary translations, as there's less likelihood of it being formulaic or repetitive. The hardest kind of project for me in this regard is academic textbooks, especially on scientific or mathematical topics. While it can be interesting and refreshing to work with terminology and concepts I'm not familiar with, books like this can be very monotonous. This is where regular breaks are useful.
That’s a good point. Often, the tips we need to hear are practical, common sense reminders, rather than some technical secret held by industry insiders. Good reminder!
Thank you so much for being with us at A Polite Lie again this month. We’ll look forward to seeing you next month!
Thanks for having me! I look forward to sharing more thoughts and insights soon.
Born in the northwest of England in 1981, Susie Gordon is a Liverpool-based editor and writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Living in China between 2008 and 2016, she wrote and edited for many of Shanghai’s English language magazines, as well as for international publications such as Virgin Media, Condé Nast, Executive Travel, and the BBC. As a literary editor she has worked on the English translation of S. P. Tao’s memoir, as well as Fan Wen’s ‘Land of Mercy’ for Rinchen Books.
In 2016 she co-founded Literary Shanghai – a publishing and events company specialising in Chinese literature in translation as well as original work in English. She is currently the commissioning editor of Literary Shanghai’s international journal Alluvium.
Her short fiction has appeared in the Singaporean journals Eunoia Review and Junoesq, and in HAL Publishing’s two anthologies Party Like It’s 1984 (2010) and Middle Kingdom Underground (2011). Her non-fiction essay Empty From the Outside was published in Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw Books, 2013), sparking considerable press interest in China and beyond. In 2016 her short story Claire was selected for publication in Epigram Books’ Best Singaporean Short Stories: Volume 3.
Her first poetry collection, Peckham Blue, was published in London by Penned in the Margins in 2006, and her second collection, Harbouring, came out in 2015 under Math Paper Press in Singapore. Her poetry has appeared in the May Anthologies 10th Anniversary edition (2003), Unshod Quills (2011), and United Verses (2014), and her 2005 poem On Raymond’s Bike has been translated into Hungarian by the poet Kőrizs Imre.
Susie holds a BA in English (2003) from St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford, and an MRes in Chinese Studies from the University of Liverpool (2016 – 2017), where she is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, researching the persistent appeal of the “China exotic” in contemporary English fiction.
Her upcoming course with Tender Leaves, entitled Editing Literary Translations, includes 6 video modules (audio and written transcripts available), a suggested reading list, and 1-month paid access to all content at A Polite Lie.
You can find more courses on Literary Translation here.