The Editor as Interpreter

Years ago I decided to retire from a full time salaried job in an orchestra to begin my own business as an editor. (My colleagues thought I was mildly insane, but that's another story.)

Transferable skills

To assist me I had a careers advisor who encouraged me to list my 'transferable skills' - the activities, qualities and talents that related to both worlds. I couldn't think of any at first - after all, musicians are so focused on their craft that they can't do anything else, can they? If they ever consider a career change, it's usually teaching - hardly a quantam leap.

Dots and dashes

Let me list the things that musicians and editors have in common. (Yes, I know you're expecting something about interpreters but we're getting there.) Both editors and musicians hone their craft alone. Lock us away for a few hours and we'll happily pore over the minutae of detail on the page. For instance, a dot written over a note means that it is to be articulated as a short note - but how short is short? Similarly, editors on chat sites quibble over the finer points of when to use an en-dash.

We're underpaid and undervalued. We live on cups of tea or coffee, or both. Our crafts began with pen, pencil and paper - some of us still prefer to work with them. There are many others but I would like to dwell on one in particular.

The craft of interpreting

The United Nations - where interpreters have power!Both musicians and editors are primarily interpreters. (See, I told you we'd get there eventually.) We don't write the music or the book, document, thesis, whatever, that we work on. But how we work on it will determine how the public perceives it.

A musician can make or break the first hearing of a work. An editor has the power to alter the text so that the original voice of the author is lost completely or release the story that is hidden beneath layers of verbiage.

Think of an interpreter at the United Nations. The interpreter must have a thorough knowledge of the language as it is spoken formally, in everyday life, as it is written, and even dreamed. The interpreter must be able to choose the right word for the right situation, they must be tactful in dealing with the speaker, they must almost be invisible so that the business of the day gets done. It's possible that one word carelessly translated could ignite a war! Just as a piece of music just lies in a drawer till a musician interprets the dots on the page, so we editors also give life to whatever comes through our post- or inbox.

If you have written something but are afraid that an editor will change everything, contact me at so that I may reassure you as to the value of your work (even if I change it a little!)

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