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The editor as translator (or: How do you say that in calculus?)

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 1999. The editor as translator (or: How do you say that in calculus?). the Exchange 6(1):7–8.

The other day, one of my French authors delivered a manuscript in which he’d invented a particularly gnarly set of phrases to describe some moderately convoluted statistics. Nobody except the author could quite wrap their head around the meaning, so it was sent to me for a rewrite. (Since you asked: he was comparing the respective magnitudes of the standard deviation of a series of differences with the magnitudes of the standard deviations of the samples themselves that were used to calculate the differences. Sort of. See the problem? <g>) So there we were, discussing this in that peculiar mixture of French and English that Quebecers tend to adopt, trying to come up with a simple way to explain this, and getting absolutely nowhere; the explanation was correct—in its own convoluted way and after a fair bit of skull sweat—but it wasn’t the least bit simple to understand, and requiring our audience to go through those mental gymnastics we were engaging in is a definite no-no.

After about the third go-round, I realized that maybe the problem was that we were using the wrong languages to confront the problem. I proposed that we work through the problem mathematically to shed some light on the solution, and with a bit of pen scratching, we managed to formulate an explanation we both could understand; after all, I can fake mathematics with the best of them, but Joseph is a PhD in statistics, and it doesn’t take him long to leave me in the dust. When we were done, it was suddenly much easier to see what we were trying to say, and I proceeded to say it—in English. Then we translated it together back into French. This whole process took us about half an hour for a grand total of about 100 words worth of result, but oh! those 100 words.

This represents my first trilingual (French-->Math-->English-->French) translation, but that wasn’t nearly as interesting as the underlying principle of the exercise: Sometimes English just isn't the most elegant way to say something. In this case, it would have been so much easier if we had been writing for a math journal, because the correct language for the explanation was, in fact, mathematics. Since not everyone speaks fluent math (not even me, to be honest with you), I’ll steal a trick from mathematics and express the results in more general terms: stating a problem in a very different way (in this case, in a third language that we had in common, the “universal” language of mathematics) shed enough light on the problem to reveal the solution. I don't imagine the mathematical approach will be very frequently useful, even to scientific editors, but the lateral thinking that underlies the solution is much more useful: sometimes restating the problem in terms of the message you want to deliver rather than the data you’re trying to describe works wonders.

I posted a description of what I’d done to the copyediting-l discussion group to see whether anyone else had tried this approach. One colleague, Alice Duncan (writer and editor at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Center for Nursing Research) responded with her own example. Alice works with nurses in an academic medical center, and as is the case for many of us, she has to literally "translate" from the author's dialect into something more closely resembling standard English just to get a handle on the author’s main points. To help walk herself through the often-confusing logic, she creates an outline of sorts that lists the author’s main points, then adds plus, minus, and equal signs to clarify the relationships between the elements. Being an inveterate tinkerer, I’ve considered how to use this approach in conformity with my own editorial style. For example, I’d use the pluses to indicate points that reinforce each other or that add up to create a coherent argument; in contrast, minuses could indicate points that contradict a statement or that qualify (place limits on) an already “proven” point, and equals signs (=) could denote the conclusions that arise from the sum of the + and – points. That’s about as complex as you really need to get, but it might prove interesting to expand the repertoire to include other symbols such as ? for points that appear illogical or lacking in support, numbers (e.g., 2, 3, and 4) to indicate redundant repetitions of something that’s already been said well enough, or * for points that reiterate and thereby emphasize a point. I’ve also considered using flowchart-construction principles to depict the ebb and flow of thought through the manuscript and restructure that flow more effectively.

Shortly after preparing this article, I discovered another example of this sort of strategy. Donna Shirley, writing in Intercom (Shirley 1998), recounted a strikingly similar approach. As she wrote, “To get the scientists to agree on things such as the right lighting conditions… I had to invent a pseudomathematical language to display the impact of different choices… Even with this language, it took me two years to get the seven scientists and all the engineers to agree on the optimal date…” Once again, it appears that there’s nothing new under the sun.

None of this is nearly so esoteric as it might seem at first glance; really, all it involves is finding a different way to restate a problem in terms of the message, and then pondering that statement until you see a better way to present the information. After all, just like in mathematics, it’s so much easier to solve a problem if you know the answer in advance!


Shirley, D. 1998. The several faces of technical communication. Intercom, December:28–29.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

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