When the writing is bad but the analysis is good: a practical exercise in editing ethnographic writing
For language professionals unfamiliar with how anthropologists write, translating or editing ethnographic research articles can be a daunting task. This workshop offers an opportunity to read and edit a manuscript submitted to a professional anthropology journal. The manuscript in question was peer-reviewed by the facilitator, and is used in this workshop with the permission of the journal’s editor. The subject is compelling and timely: forensic exhumation of the remains of civilian victims of Francoist terror interred in mass graves, archival research to reconstruct the circumstances of their death, and the challenge these activities of the historical memory movement in Spain pose to the ways in which the Franco regime continues to survive and make its power felt through a network of state institutions, social relations, and material objects embedded both in rural landscapes and in the built environment of towns and cities. The analytic approach is original, treating Spanish archives, mass graves, and monuments to the Franco regime as infrastructures that are disassembled and reassembled in new ways in the process of exhuming mass graves. The author argues that in literally digging up the past, historical memory activism does not seek merely to substitute another, more complex story for the dominant Spanish narrative of an idealized peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. By exposing the practices of silencing and erasure that support this dominant narrative, it operates as a technology that produces new political actors, both living and dead.
This manuscript possesses all the identifying features of ethnographic writing. It is empirical, but not empiricist; it is based on participant-observation field research, but it presents itself as an interpretation, not as a copy of facts. Local-knowledge, experience-near cultural concepts are juxtaposed with experience-distant analytic concepts that form part of the specialist vocabulary of anthropological knowledge. The intention, as always, is for theory to illumine the data, and for the data to challenge theory, if possible pushing it, and the resulting interpretation, to reach new conclusions. Nevertheless, the quality of the writing needs improvement at the level of grammar, syntax, punctuation and usage. There are gaps in context – what anthropologists would call “thick description” – that would make it hard to understand for a non-specialist not just in anthropology but also in the subject. There are even some mistakes.
This workshop is designed to build on last year’s workshop, “Understanding our clients: Why do anthropologists write that way?” by taking the next step: from reading ethnographic texts in order to understand their distinguishing features as a literary genre that emerges from particular research practices to using that understanding in editing an ethnographic text. It is not necessary, however, to have attended last year’s workshop in order to benefit from attending this one. The goal is the same: to help translators and authors' editors overcome their misgivings about social science writing, which is often seen as unnecessarily “complex”, excessively “academic”, or simply “bad”. These are value judgments that can get in the way of developing productive working relationships with authors.
Facilitator: Susan M. DiGiacomo
Purpose: To provide translators and authors' editors who are unfamiliar with or less experienced in editing and translating ethnographic texts with a practical understanding of how the purpose of ethnographic texts – to present a “thick description” that represents cultural experience “from the native’s point of view” in a way that makes it accessible to readers who are unfamiliar with it – is achieved textually. The language professional’s ability to translate or edit an ethnographic text is improved by the ability to recognize these textual characteristics and determine whether the quality of the writing either facilitates or impedes this purpose.
Description/structure: The 29-page double-spaced manuscript will be sent to participants in advance of the workshop. Participants will be asked to read the entire text before attending the workshop, and to bring their copy to the workshop. It will be helpful – and save time – if all participants begin from the same starting point: a holistic view of the manuscript and familiarity with the content, the argument, and the writing style. The facilitator will provide a short introduction to the task at hand, reviewing the important points from last year’s workshop “Understanding our clients: Why do anthropologists write that way?” and responding to any questions the participants may have. In the first half of the workshop, the manuscript will be divided into sections three to five pages long, each one to be worked on by a small group of participants. After the break, the manuscript will be projected on a screen and each group’s editing changes will be introduced into the manuscript so they can be seen and discussed by the group as a whole.
At the end a handout will be distributed containing a short list of key concepts and suggestions for further reading.
Who should attend? Authors' editors and translators who attended the METM17 workshop “Understanding our clients: Why do anthropologists write that way?” and would like some hands-on experience in editing an ethnographic text. Freelance translators or authors' editors who have recently started out in social science translation or who think they might like to specialize in it. In-house translators and editors who work for university language services and may from time to time be asked to work on a text written by a social scientist, or freelance translators to whom university language services outsource some of their work, including social science texts in need of translation and/or editing.
Outcomes: Participants should end the workshop feeling able to approach ethnographic texts with a greater understanding of what the ethnographic discourse community expects to read in its journals, and a clearer sense of whether they would like to pursue a specialization in this kind of work. The ability to see the underlying structure of an ethnographic text despite its writing problems makes it much easier to convey the author’s meaning in a translation. For authors' editors, this ability to recognize underlying structures helps to develop the confidence necessary to subject an ethnographic text to a critical reading and, when in doubt, ask the author productive questions to clarify meaning.
About the facilitator: Susan M. DiGiacomo is professor of anthropology at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Catalonia, and adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA. In addition to several years working as a biomedical translator, she has more than 25 years' experience as a translator and authors' editor of anthropology from Catalan and Spanish to English and English to Catalan, and offers a departmental publication support service for her colleagues at URV that includes critical review of manuscripts, editorial assistance and translation.