Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why Johnny Can't Edit

In his blog, my colleague Dark Sage has dissected the editing errors in the Spring 2011 season with precision, humor, and an appropriate degree of outrage. His reviews have made me wonder why editing mistakes are so pervasive in fansubbing, and I’d like to toss out a few hypotheses for discussion.

My first guess is that fansubbing, as a hobby, tends to attract people from technical disciplines rather than the liberal arts. Most of the people I fansub with are in software development, IT, engineering, and so on. Engineers are not known for the quality of their writing. (After all, if they liked writing and were good at it, they’d be English majors, wouldn’t they?) I’ve run many engineering teams over my career, and one of my jobs has always been to correct the written work of team members. However, this hypothesis isn’t sufficient. In my work, I’ve seen bad writing from communications specialists, technical writers, and other professionals. Something deeper is amiss.

More broadly, I’d hazard that the priority of writing skills in the US educational system has declined. Education “reform” has turned our schools into factories for passing standardized tests, which focus on reading and math. The courses that promote good writing skills have been eliminated in budget cuts. The creative writing part of the SATs has become optional. Many colleges no longer require essays as part of the admissions process.

Finally, belief that the rules of composition and grammar actually matter has disappeared. The usage essays of the late William Safire, or the indictment of modern compositional practice in a book such as “Eats Shoots and Leaves,” are treated as humor, irony, or curmudgeonly rants. One doesn’t need to look any further than the promotion of “alright” to acceptable usage to see that editorial laxness is ingrained. In short, no one gives a damn.

I was lucky in my educational experience. Back in the Dark Ages when I went to high school, educators at least gave lip-service to developing students’ talents, as well as drilling them in the basics. As a result, a student with a good academic record had access to electives that were off the beaten track. I used that freedom to learn touch typing (on a manual typewriter – no PCs in those days); I was the only boy in the class. I studied Latin. And I took a class in journalism.

Journalism class was far less about reporting than it was about composition. The focus was on writing: how to write articles that were organized well and easy to comprehend. Journalism taught me about parallel construction, use of the active voice, simplicity of vocabulary, clarity of references, and other techniques that are directly visible in my editing. Combined with the lessons from Latin – proper grammar, sentence parsing, vocabulary – journalism class gave me the foundation I needed for decent composition.

Where will aspiring editors learn these lessons today? Journalism classes are vanishing; indeed, journalism as a profession is on the endangered list. Latin is regarded as a luxury and is rarely taught. I fully understand that Mandarin or Spanish will be more useful in real life than Latin, and that science is better preparation for a viable career than journalism. Still, as a species we depend on communication. How will we fare if understanding drowns in a sea of Internet memes, texting abbreviations, and written trash?

[For those too young to understand the title reference, see this article: Why Johnny Can’t Read.]


  1. I guess I am something of an exception in the fansubbing world, as I come from a liberal arts background -- native (U.S.) English speaker, BA + some grad school in Spanish, undergrad minor in English. And in the US system, choosing to study and managing to be good at a foreign language is about the best and possibly only way to learn the fundamentals of grammar and linguistic structure. I was lucky enough to do that, and had some advanced English classes to give me exposure to the high-quality written word and composition practice.

    Some introductory theater/theatre classes also helped me in fansubbing, in terms of writing different voices for different characters, avoiding repetition through varied word choice, and making dialogue connect from one idea to the next, instead of being a series of disjointed raw translations.

    And yes, I'm also annoyed that I have to use Find+Replace instead of spell check to correct "alright" when I'm re-releasing some other group's script.

  2. From a more general standpoint, the thing is that in a typical fansubbing effort, lots of people make lots of changes to the script along the way.

    When you've got people doing quality control and the encoders changing the script along the way, you're going to have a grammar mistake or two that was not caused by the editor.

    Another reason why I think proper language use has declined is because of texting and instant messaging. They're used to not using proper language by habit, and instead resort to using a grammar checker in a word processing program when they need proper spelling and grammar.

    I actually started out in fansubbing as an editor. Looking back to what I did over the years, I'm probably not really cut out to be one.

  3. Good points, Zalis and Doll Licca. I hadn't considered the effects of modern technology like texting and IM, because I don't use it on a regular basis. Thanks!