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Liza’s Journey. Part 7.

Travelling Companions

As with all good adventures, Liza’s journey seems to have diverged from the route that was originally planned. Having completed the first draft of my translation of ‘Poor Liza’, I happened upon some other stories by Karamzin, and Liza has now been joined on her journey by a motley crew of travelling companions, such as the supremely innocent if not angelic Julia, a singing Dane with a tragic story to tell, and an unlikely knight. The more I read by and about Karamzin, the more fascinated I became by the development in Karamzin’s writing, which is apparent in the stories, and which led to him becoming one of the founding fathers of Russian literature as we know it today.

‘Eugene and Julia is a sweet yet tragic love story, not unlike ‘Poor Liza’, but much simpler and more idyllic in style, having been written some three years earlier in 1789. ‘Bornholm Island’ was published the year after “Poor Liza”, and although it can still be described as a tragic love story, there are also plenty of Gothic overtones, as the author begins to experiment with new techniques. The later ‘A Knight of Our Time’, published in instalments in a journal in 1802 and 1803, is different again, its tone slightly tongue-in-cheek, as the now older Karamzin injects his writing with a certain amount of sarcasm and wit.

So, while I am gathering, reviewing and wondering about a home for my now numerous translations, here is a snippet from the first draft of my current favourite, ‘Bornholm Island’:

The scarlet hue of sunset had not yet faded in the bright sky, its rosy glow falling on the white granite rocks and, in the distance, beyond a large hill, it lit up the pointed towers of an ancient castle. The boy could not tell me to whom the castle belonged. “We do not go there,” he said. “And God only knows what goes on inside!” I redoubled my steps and soon neared the huge gothic building surrounded by a deep moat and a high wall. Silence reigned all around, the sea could be heard far away, and the last ray of evening light was dying away over the bronze spires on top of the towers.

I walked around the castle – the gates were closed and the drawbridge raised. My guide, although he himself did not know why, begged me to go back to the huts, but how could a curious person agree to such a request?

In the same story, a mysterious stranger with a guitar sings a song, hinting at the rest of the plot. The narrator kindly translates it from the Danish for us:

O Bornholm, dear Bornholm!
My soul for you doth yearn
Never resting, where’er I may roam,
and yet I weep in vain.

Here I languish and lament,
now banished from your shores
by the oath of a scrupulous parent,
to sigh forever more.

The current Karamzinian chaos on my desk

Liza’s Journey. Part 6

The heat is on

The story is nearing its climax which, for this sentimental tale, means that emotions are running high, the pace is quickening, and the writing is becoming more intense. We have suspected for some time what Erast’s intentions might be, and now our suspicions are confirmed. Poor, naïve Liza is carried away in the heat of the moment, and erroneously believes that Erast’s motives are sincere. Without actually saying so, he makes Liza think he plans to marry her, and she finally submits to his passionate advances:

Она бросилась в его объятия — и в сей час надлежало погибнуть непорочности! — Эраст чувствовал необыкновенное волнение в крови своей — никогда Лиза не казалась ему столь прелестною — никогда ласки ее не трогали его так сильно — никогда ее поцелуи не были столь пламенны — она ничего не знала, ничего не подозревала, ничего побоялась — мрак вечера питал желания — ни одной звездочки не сияло на небе — никакой луч не мог осветить заблуждения. — Эраст чувствует в себе трепет — Лиза также, не зная отчего — не зная, что с нею делается… Ах, Лиза, Лиза! Где ангел-хранитель твой? Где — твоя невинность?

You don’t need to be a Russian speaker to see that this paragraph contains a very long sentence, lots of dashes, and an ellipsis. This serves to speed up the action and create a sense of frenzied confusion which is all over before Liza can figure out what is happening. But do these techniques have the same impact in English?

She threw herself into his arms – and at that moment purity was set to perish! – Erast felt an unusual stirring in his blood – never had Liza seemed so exquisite as she did now – never had her caresses had such a powerful effect on him – never had her kisses seemed so ardent – she knew nothing, suspected nothing, feared nothing – the darkness of the evening fed his desire – not a single star was shining in the sky – there was not a single glimmer to shed any light on this transgression. – Erast felt a trembling inside himself – Liza felt the same, not knowing why – not knowing what was happening to her… Ah Liza! Liza! Where is your guardian angel? Where is your innocence?

As usual in translation, there is no one correct answer to this question. Russian and English punctuation are similar, but there are some subtle differences.  Purists might argue in favour of keeping Karamzin’s punctuation, but it does seem a little odd to my English eyes. Instead, I am more inclined towards breaking up the sentence into shorter ones, and swapping the occasional dash for an ellipsis, which might be more commonly used in English. Perhaps something like this…

She threw herself into his arms, and at that moment purity was set to perish! Erast sensed an unusual stirring in his blood. Never had Liza seemed so exquisite as she did now… never had her caresses had such a powerful effect on him… never had her kisses seemed so ardent. She knew nothing, suspected nothing, feared nothing. The darkness of the evening fed his desire, since not a single star was shining in the sky, and there was not the slightest glimmer to shed any light on this transgression. Erast felt a trembling within. Liza felt the same, not knowing why, not knowing what was happening to her… Oh, Liza! Liza! Where is your guardian angel? Where is your innocence?

Somehow this version seems to flow better and feels more natural to me, but some readers may disagree. Translation, just like literature itself, is highly subjective. Either way, Liza is in a terrible state at the end of this scene, having lost her innocence in the midst of the turmoil. Will Erast marry her after all, as she hopes he might?

Liza’s Journey. Part 5.

The Importance of Being Erast

Things have heated up almost to boiling point now in the relationship between Эраст [Erast] and Лиза [Liza]. The pair continue to meet near Liza’s home, on the banks of the Москва [Moskva] river, but away from any prying eyes. Both have declared their affection for each other, but it is becoming clear that Erast’s heart may not be as pure as Liza’s. He persuades her not to tell her mother about their love, and dodges the question of their incompatible social status, when it turns out that a marriage to a peasant’s son is on the cards for Liza.

But are we talking about Erast and Liza, or Erastus and Lisa? And do their lovers’ trysts take place by the Moscow River or the Moskva? How should a translator approach the problem of names?

When working with names, translators face a dilemma: should the names be preserved as they are, or would it be better to adjust them slightly to make them more palatable to readers who are accustomed to an all-English diet? As the world gradually adopts a more global stance with the rise of international travel, the internet and population mobility, foreign-sounding names are certainly more normal than they used to be, but readers can still find them confusing or off-putting. Although Bombay and Peking are now known as Mumbai and Beijing, reflecting an awareness of our predecessors’ anglicisation of names, we inhabitants of the English-speaking world still persist in referring to Moskva as Moscow or München as Munich, and much more besides. Why do we feel the need to change the writer Lev Tolstoy’s first name to ‘Leo’ or talk about Tsar Pyotr I as ‘Peter’ the Great, while it seems perfectly acceptable to call the well-known composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by the Russian version of his name?

Fortunately for me, ‘Liza’ is a less problematic name when it comes to translation, as it is already a recognisable name in English (although how many readers will use the correct pronunciation of ‘Leeza’?). Opinion on Erast, though, seems to be divided. Typing ‘Erastus’ into Google produces approximately twice as many hits as ‘Erast’. Erastus is the name of many historical figures, including Erastus of Corinth who is mentioned in the Bible on three occasions. The name ‘Erast’, on the other hand, has been popularised in recent decades by writer Boris Akunin who wrote a series of novels about a detective called Erast Fandorin. My copy of Battersby-Elrington’s translation of Poor Liza plumps for the ‘Erastus’ option, but my current preference is for ‘Erast’, as I can’t see a good reason to change it.

Moscow, however is more problematic. To English speakers, this is the standard name of the Russian capital, so there is no question about how to translate it. But what about the river? The river which flows through the centre of Moscow is known to Russians as ‘Moskva-reka’, and is sometimes rendered as the ‘Moscow River’, and sometimes as the ‘Moskva River’, or even just the ‘Moskva’. I am quite keen to preserve as much of the Russian flavour as I can and avoid over-anglicising in my translation, as long as it doesn’t baffle the reader, so I might opt for ‘Moskva’. Maybe. The more I think about it, the more I keep changing my mind.  

Which versions would you choose?

The biblical Erastus in 2 Timothy 4:20

Liza’s Journey. Part 4

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How can I explain?

The handsome young gentleman, who we now know is called Erast (or possibly Erastus, but we’ll talk about that later), unexpectedly turns up at Liza’s home, where her mother is charmed by him, too, but bemoans the fact that he is a nobleman and therefore cannot marry her daughter. Her mind filled with thoughts and dreams about what cannot be, Liza wanders down to the riverbank where she sits and contemplates. There, a shepherd boy passes by with his flock of sheep:

‘Но Лиза все еще сидела подгорюнившись. Ах, Лиза, Лиза! Что с тобою сделалось? До сего времени, просыпаясь вместе с птичками, ты вместе с ними веселилась утром, и чистая, радостная душа светилась в глазах твоих, подобно как солнце светится в каплях росы небесной; но теперь ты задумчива, и общая радость природы чужда твоему сердцу.

— Между тем молодой пастух по берегу реки гнал стадо, играя на свирели. Лиза устремила на него взор свой и думала: «Если бы тот, кто занимает теперь мысли мои, рожден был простым крестьянином, пастухом, — и если бы он теперь мимо меня гнал стадо свое.’

‘Liza, though, remained seated, still full of sadness. Ah, Liza! Liza! What has happened to you? Until now, you would wake with the birds, rejoicing with them at the morning, and your pure, joyful soul would shine in your eyes, just as the sun shines in the drops of heavenly dew; but now you are pensive and your heart knows nothing of nature’s joy.

Meanwhile, a young shepherd was herding his flock along the riverbank and playing on his svirel. Liza fixed her gaze on him and thought: “Ah, if only the man who is occupying my thoughts had been born a simple peasant or a shepherd, and if only he were passing with his flock right now!”’

But what exactly is a ‘svirel’? How many English-speaking readers would know it is a wooden pipe with six finger-holes and whistle-like device, rather like a recorder? My colleague Mr Battersby-Elrington refers to it as a ‘shawm’ but that is a slightly different instrument with a double reed, and probably not altogether familiar to readers either, unless they have an interest in medieval music. So, I am faced with a dilemma: should I include a footnote, explaining what a ‘svirel’ is, should I add some kind of explanation in the text itself (this is called a ‘gloss’), or should I opt for a more generic term that readers would understand, even though it would mean losing the cultural significance?

I encountered a similar question earlier in the story, when the author referred to ‘sazhens’:

‘Саженях в семидесяти от монастырской стены’


‘about seventy sazhens from the monastery walls’

You might be able to guess from the context that a sazhen is an old Russian measure of distance. It is equivalent to 2.13 metres, so if my maths is correct, seventy of them would be 149 metres or 163 yards. But what would be the most reader-friendly way to express this in my translation?

My first port of call when tackling this kind of problem is to ask myself, ‘what is the purpose of the translated text, and who is the intended audience?’ (This is known to translators as ‘Skopos theory’). The solution can vary depending on the answers to these questions. For example, if the translation is intended as a parallel text for language learners, the translation might be more literal, to enable students to understand individual words and phrases, and there may be footnotes explaining culture-specific terms. On the other hand, a translation aimed at English speakers reading for pleasure might avoid too many footnotes and favour a freer, more flowing version of the text.

In this case, neither the shepherd nor the exact distance from the monastery are particularly important parts of the story, being there only for the purposes of setting the scene, and to include unfamiliar terms or too much explanation would, in my opinion, interrupt the flow of the story and distract the reader’s attention. All that matters is that the carefree shepherd is playing a merry tune, and that the hut is only a short distance away from the monastery. So – for now at least – the shepherd is playing a ‘pipe’ in my version, and the hut is ‘a couple of hundred yards’ away from the monastery walls. Although I may yet change that to a ‘flute’ or a ‘whistle’ and ‘a hundred or so yards’…

Liza’s Journey. Part 3

Chinese Whispers

In my last post, the narrator was describing the setting for his tale, somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow. Next, we are introduced to Liza, the main character. She is seventeen years old and lives in a dilapidated hut with her poor mother, having lost her father two years before. Liza is humble and conscientious, and works hard weaving, knitting, gathering flowers and berries, then trekking into Moscow to sell the fruits of her humble labours in order to provide for herself and her frail mother. One day, a handsome young gentleman offers to buy all of her flowers every day henceforth. However, when she goes back the next day, armed with the prettiest flowers, he is nowhere to be seen.

At this point, the Russian text reads:

У Лизы навернулись на глазах слезы; она поцеловала мать свою.

На другой день нарвала Лиза самых лучших ландышей и опять пошла с ними в город. Глаза ее тихонько чего-то искали. Многие хотели у нее купить цветы, но она отвечала, что они непродажные, и смотрела то в ту, то в другую сторону. Наступил вечер, надлежало возвратиться домой, и цветы были брошены в Москву-реку. «Никто не владей вами!» — сказала Лиза, чувствуя какую-то грусть в сердце своем.

(74 words)

Meanwhile, the rough first draft of my translation looks like this:

Liza’s eyes welled up with tears, and she kissed her mother.

The next day, Liza picked the very best lilies-of-the-valley and took them, once again, into the city. Her eyes silently cast around in search of something. Many people wanted to buy her flowers, but she replied that they were not for sale, and looked this way and that. Evening came, when she must return home, so the flowers were tossed into the Moscow River.

“You belong to no-one!” said Liza, feeling such sadness in her heart.

(87 words)

When I compared my version to the 1804 translation by John Battersby Elrington, this passage, like the rest of the story, looked very different.

Liza’s eyes overflowed with tears. She knew not why, and hid them in her mother’s bosom, encircling her aged neck with arms of polished ivory.

The next day, the poor, unconscious Liza selected all the finest flowers and hastened to Moscow. Her inquisitive eyes wandered in search of something. Many approached her little basket and would have purchased her flowers: but “No, they were not for sale,” and she continued to look, first on one side, then on the other. The evening fell, however, and she must return. Once more darting an enquiring look around, she pettishly threw the flowers into the Moskva and then sighed, “Now no one can have you.”

(112 words)

This English version is, on the whole, eloquent and pleasant to read, and because the translator was a contemporary of Karamzin, the language and style are appropriate to the period. Nevertheless, it veers away from my copy of the Russian text quite significantly. Where the original uses plain language, such as ‘она поцеловала мать свою’ (she kissed her mother), Elrington elaborates, adding extra information (note the difference in word count) about her mother’s bosom and aged neck, as well as Liza’s ‘arms of polished ivory’, which is puzzling.

After a little online research, I came across an article[1] which goes some way towards explaining this discrepancy. Apparently, it is not known for certain who John Battersby Elrington was, but it is possible that he was really Andreas Andersen Feldborg, a Danish author and teacher of English, and he may well have produced this English translation from an existing German one, not directly from the Russian. As in the game ‘Chinese Whispers’, the more languages a translation passes through, the greater the potential for changing the meaning.  It is easy to see how ‘welled up’ might become ‘overflowed’, or the passive mood become active, but where did the ‘arms of polished ivory’, ‘pettishly’, ‘sighed’ or ‘once more darting an enquiring look around’ come from? Is this artistic licence on the part of Elrington or the German translator before him, or were they working from a different version of the original text? After all, Karamzin was still alive at the time of translation, so it is quite plausible that subsequent edits and revisions occurred.

Aside from the occasional grammatical oddity, Elrington’s translation is a good read, especially for an English-speaking reader whith no knowledge of Russian. The elaborations and alterations, although odd, are nicely and sensitively written, even if they do make the English version rather more florid than the original story. Meanwhile, I find myself wondering: did Karamzin, an educated, well-travelled writer and historian, ever see this translation himself? 

[1] Cardiff Corvey, ‘Reading the Romantic Text’, Issue 12, Summer 2004: Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, Cardiff University.

Liza’s Journey. Part 2

Opening Lines

The book is open at page 1, a blank document glares white and empty on the computer screen, and a pencil is tucked behind my ear ready to make notes. Translation is about to commence.

All good writing manuals stress that the opening sentence of a book should make an impact, grabbing the reader’s attention straight away. Bland will not do. Therefore the same applies to a translation. If the author has invested time and effort into producing the perfect beginning, then it is the translator’s job to reflect that by producing an equally well-crafted version in the target language. Some novels start a with short, punchy opener, especially modern ones, while many classic authors go for the lengthy, more convoluted kind.

Karamzin’s opening of ‘Poor Liza’ is of the longer type and contains a lot of information, describing the narrator’s wanderings in the area around Moscow:

Может быть, никто из живущих в Москве не знает так хорошо окрестностей города сего, как я, потому что никто чаще моего не бывает в поле, никто более моего не бродит пешком, без плана, без цели — куда глаза глядят — по лугам и рощам, по холмам и равнинам.

So, how can I translate it so that it sounds good, whilst ensuring that all the information is there? First of all, I sketch out a literal translation:

It is possible that no-one living in Moscow knows the city as well as I do, because no-one is out and about as much as I, no-one wanders around on foot more than I do, without a plan, aimlessly – wherever the fancy takes me – through meadows and groves, over hills and plains.

Then I set the original version aside and read what I have written, asking myself whether it sounds natural and stylish, or whether it is really stilted ‘translationese’ – neither one language nor the other but an awkward combination of English words with Russian forms and idioms. Could I change ‘it is possible’ for ‘perhaps’? Using one word instead of three might be less clunky. Does ‘out and about’ feel a bit too modern? What about ‘roam abroad’ to give it more of a 19th century flavour? Is ‘on foot’ really needed? Surely wandering is something generally done on foot, so qualification is not essential. I have used ‘no-one’ three times in the same sentence, so should I change some of them? Casting a glance back at the Russian, I notice that Karamzin has used ‘никто’ in each instance, so I decide that ‘no-one’ is ok. I’m not 100% certain though, and I may come back and change my mind later. What about ‘groves’? What is a grove, really, and have I ever walked through one? Would orchards, woods, forests, avenues, copses, thickets or even just trees be more appropriate? Well, Karamzin used ‘рощам’ which is generally translated as ‘groves’ so I’ll stick to that. For now. Hmm…

After some more reflection, the opening sentence now looks like this:

Perhaps no-one living in Moscow knows the city as well as I do, because no-one roams around it as much as I, no-one has wandered its length and breadth more than I have, without a plan, aimlessly – wherever the fancy takes me – through meadows and groves, over hills and plains.

Now I think it sounds a little less wooden, but maybe there are a few more things that could do with tweaking. I’m still not sure about ‘groves’… Time to move on, though, otherwise I’ll never get through it all. I’ll go back through it all again later anyway.

The second sentence looks like this in Russian:

Всякое лето нахожу новые приятные места или в старых новые красоты.

It’s much shorter and simpler, and my English version reads:

Every summer I find new pleasant places, or new beauty in old ones.

…or perhaps:

Each summer I find delightful new places, or discover new beauty in old ones.

…and so on ad infinitum… I have to start somewhere, though, so I pick (mostly) the second version. For now, anyway. This means the first draft of the first paragraph is complete:

Perhaps no-one living in Moscow knows the city as well as I do, because no-one roams around it as much as I, no-one has wandered its length and breadth more than I have, without a plan, aimlessly – wherever the fancy takes me – through meadows and groves, over hills and plains. Every summer I find delightful new places or discover new beauty in old ones.

57 words done. 9,977 to go…

Liza’s Journey. Part 1

Who is Liza?

As the one-year anniversary of all kinds of restrictions, home schooling, disturbing news reports and toilet roll shortages approaches, I find myself in need of some kind of self-indulgent project to distract me from the outside world and help me to ground myself in these uncertain times. Throughout the past 11 months, I have turned more than ever to stories to transport me to a different place, and have read all sorts of books. However, I know no more intimate, immersive way of reading a book than to translate it.

The adventure I eventually decided upon will take me to Russia at the end of the 18th century, and will involve a combination of translating and writing. This labour of love will be a homage to one of the first books I ever read in Russian, Nikolai Karamzin’s tale Бедная Лиза [Byednaya Liza], or Poor Liza. Being very short, it lends itself nicely to language learners, unlike some of the lengthier pillars of Russian literature, so it provides a sense of achievement upon completion, but it is also a classic love story – a melodrama, even – that set my teenage heart a-flutter. Recently, several decades later, I re-read it, to find out whether it still had the same appeal, and I was not disappointed.

So, over the next few weeks and months, I plan to translate Poor Liza into English, and along the way, I will write a ‘travel diary’ about my translation journey. I will document the dilemmas encountered, the discoveries made, and any other experiences from the voyage, so that anyone else who may be interested can follow Liza as she travels from Russian into English.

Since Karamzin is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of Russian literature as we know it today, it is no surprise that Poor Liza has been translated before. One such attempt is the 1803 translation by John Battersby Elrington, which turns out to have a rather interesting story of its own. I will share more about this mysterious translation later.

But who is Liza? The Liza in this story is a girl from a poor peasant family. Her father is dead, and she lives with her mother in their dilapidated cottage outside Moscow. When Liza goes into the city to sell flowers, she meets a young nobleman, Erast, and the two fall in love. Erast visits Liza regularly, until one day he tells her he must go to fight in the war. Liza is sad to see him go, but she does not realise how much heartache still awaits her…

Now that the trip has been booked and everything is packed and ready, all that remains is to translate. Liza will be back shortly with an update on her progress!

Elegant English: Polishing your skills

It is with good reason that the French call modern languages ‘les langues vivantes’, or ‘living languages’. Languages are kept alive through usage and they change, evolve, grow or decline, depending on how widely and frequently they are spoken. Each individual speaker needs to practise the language regularly in order to improve or remain fluent otherwise, like a body without exercise, the brain’s linguistic ‘fitness’ will fade over time. With that in mind, how can we, as writers, keep our written language skills in good condition?

First of all, reading is essential. Reading helps to familiarise us with the language, and the more we do it, the deeper its patterns and subtleties become imprinted on our subconscious memory. If we want our knowledge of the language to be of the highest possible quality, though, it is also important to read plenty of good quality writing. Traditionally published books, magazines and newspapers are best for this purpose, as they are more likely to have been thoroughly edited and checked for errors before publication, whereas the language used on social media and the internet in general, although useful to a certain extent, will vary greatly in quality. Reading too much unedited material with lots of mistakes may have a detrimental effect on our own command of the language, normalising errors so that we are less likely to spot them.

At the risk of stating the obvious, reading should go hand-in-hand with writing. Any writer who wants to improvise their writing skills should practise by…. writing. Regularly. Having picked up good examples of language usage through reading, the mental and physical process of writing consolidates everything you have learned, making it your own. That way, using the language becomes increasingly natural and hopefully easier, as the more you do it the less you will have to keep stopping to think and question yourself.

As I have already mentioned in ‘Another Pair of Eyes’, feedback from another person can be a valuable learning tool. If someone else is able to look at your work and highlight any errors, the number of mistakes made should gradually reduce over time. Additionally, any comments about things you have done well will encourage you to do more of the same, so that you build up your arsenal of really good things you can do. Formal feedback, from a language tutor or editor, for example, will give a more thorough and methodical guide to help steer you in the direction of sure and steady improvement. Informal input from friends, relatives and the reading community can also be helpful, so make the most of opportunities to let others read what you have written.

There is a vast range of resources that can help writers to polish their work, and the list is constantly growing. Perhaps, though, the most basic requirement is a good dictionary and a reliable guide to grammar and usage. For UK English, I would personally recommend the Oxford English Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Oxford Style Manual, but there are many other worthwhile references available both in print and online. On the internet, writers’ groups can be a good place to turn for support, and there is an endless supply of advice and information out there for writers. However, always approach online sources with caution and beware of marketing traps, scams and unhelpful advice which are just as freely available.

Although this is the tenth and final instalment of ‘Elegant English’, it is most certainly not the end. Watch this space for more news, information and advice coming very soon, and in the meantime, enjoy your writing!Elegant English lettering copy


Elegant English: Another pair of eyes

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Another pair of eyes is an essential tool for writers of any language background. Regardless of whether an author is writing in his or her native language, the old saying that ‘you can’t see the wood for trees’ is often very apt. An overconfident writer may be adamant that he has checked the text thoroughly himself and he is convinced that it contains no errors, while a more timid author may be hesitant to ask another person to take the trouble to read her work. From personal experience, even though I check my work several times in different ways before submission, sometimes the occasional small mistake still seems to slip through the net. It is as if they hide when they see my eyes coming, no matter how carefully I read. A wayward comma, or a mistake the spellchecker missed because it is listed in its memory as an acceptable word, such as ‘of’ when I meant ‘off’ or ‘tat’ which was supposed to be ‘that’, occasionally manage to pass under the radar without being detected.

Because we get used to our own most common errors, our brains don’t always notice them. However, the things we spot most easily vary from one person to another, so this problem is easily solved by asking someone else to take a look at our work. There are various categories of people we could ask for help, depending on the desired outcome. These include:

  • A friend or relation
  • A stranger willing to help for non-monetary payment
  • A paid beta-reader
  • A professional editor or proofreader
  • A native speaker

Each of these groups have different services to offer, so who we decide to approach will depend on the type of text and its intended purpose. A letter or story for a personal blog, for example, will certainly benefit from some degree of checking, but it may not be necessary to spend a lot of money on this process. A novel that is intended for publication and sale to the public, either through a publisher or via self-publishing channels, will probably fare better if it has been thoroughly reviewed by several people from a variety of backgrounds first. So, let us take a look at what each of these groups can offer.

Friends and relatives may well be the first port of call for most of us. Usually, they will be willing to do the work for free, or perhaps for some kind of favour in return. For the most part, they will do it because they like us, they care about us, and they want to help us succeed. This group will probably be quite happy to point out the occasional spelling mistake or errors in continuity, but they may find it more difficult to tell us that they didn’t like something, or that large parts of the text need substantial revising. Because they are nice, they may be reluctant to tell us the harsh truth, or they may simply be biased and think it is great, just because it is a part of you.

At that point, we must turn to strangers for the next level of feedback. The very fact that they do not know us means that their response will be more subjective. There are plenty of people out there willing to read books for no monetary payment. On the internet, for example, try looking in online writers’ groups for advice. The people there may be happy to help you out in return for free copies of books or, if they are a writer as well, you could offer to reciprocate by reading their book and giving them some kind of review. However, the degree of feedback this group is able to offer varies immensely, according to each person’s education, experience, and personal and cultural background.

A paid beta-reader will fulfil a similar function to the previous category, but for financial payment instead of favours. There are numerous sites on the internet where people offer this kind of service, from Goodreads and work-for-hire sites e.g. Fiverr, to personal websites and social media pages. Being an unregulated market, the prices and services on offer will vary immensely, so do proceed with care and take all possible precautions before entering into a contract and handing over any money. Beta-readers are generally people who enjoy reading, and many will specify the particular genres they prefer to work with. They will probably give you an honest report on what they thought about the book, which may be a useful guide to how readers might react to the book, but beta readers are not usually qualified professionals and unlikely to provide thorough and methodical feedback about every aspect of the style and language.

At this point, professional editors and proofreaders step in. Although this service will cost more, it will help you to ensure that your manuscript is the very best it can be in readiness for submission to a publisher or for self-publishing. Editing and proofreading, it must be noted, are not the same thing, and, if possible, it is advisable to have your work checked by at least one of each. Editing is more in-depth and time-consuming, and as a result it will have a higher price tag. Even within this category, there are different levels of service, such as copy-editing and developmental editing. A developmental edit will examine your book as a whole, checking its overall structure, setting, characterisation, plot and pace, and providing a report outlining any recommended major revisions. A copy-editor, meanwhile, will look more closely at the text, systematically checking features such as style, points of view, dialogue, consistency, use of language, etc., usually inserting comments and recommendations directly into the text.

Proofreading, on the other hand, is a final check before submission. During the editing process, it is possible that smaller errors may have be overlooked, or even introduced whilst adding, deleting and amending. A proofreader’s task, therefore, is to give the text one last tidy-up to eliminate any of these and, if the editor has done a good job, the proofreading stage should be relatively straightforward and less time-consuming.

Like beta-readers, editors and proofreaders are very easy to find on the internet, but aim to find someone reliable and highly-skilled who will provide good value for money. Look out for membership of professional bodies (such as CIEP in the UK), academic qualifications, past experience, etc. Personal recommendations from other writers can be very helpful here, too. Many editors will offer to edit a short extract free of charge, or at a reduced rate, as a sample of their work, which can be a useful way of seeing who that editor works and whether they are a good fit for you.

For anyone writing in a language that is not their native or main language, it is always a good idea to have your writing checked by a native speaker, especially if it is intended for publication. Even if the spelling and grammar are accurate, a native speaker can highlight anything which might sound slightly awkward or ‘foreign’, helping you to give your writing a more natural flow, and making it more pleasant and compelling to read. Native speakers, though, are not necessarily a separate category, as they can also be friends, beta-readers, editors or proof-readers as well.

In short, the more people who look at your work before submission, the better. Every person will look at it with a different pair of eyes, from their own relative angle and point of view, each one adding an extra layer of polish to the final draft. The publishing market is huge and highly competitive, and an under-prepared manuscript will have the odds stacked against it from the outset. The more eyes that have looked at it and helped to revise it before it is released into the world, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by publishers and/or readers.

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Elegant English: Believable dialogue

In a novel or short story, the dialogue is intended to reflect the way people speak. The more natural and realistic it sounds, the more believable it is, and the better the reader understands the character who is speaking. However, if an author were to write down a conversation exactly the way it sounded, the result would probably be very dull indeed, not to mention tedious to read.
Imagine two old ladies on a bus:
“Ee, Gladys, ‘ow are ye?”
“Oh, yer know. Ugh. Well, all right, I suppose. Ey, ‘ave you ‘erd they’re closing that shop down? Er… um… whatsitsname… Oh, you know. Next to the post office. That one.”
“Erm. Oh, ‘ang on a minute. I know the one. Pricewise. Is that the one you mean?”
“Yes. Pricewise. That’s the one. Pricewise. Well, anyway, er, I read in yesterday’s paper it’s going to close next week. Or was it the week after? I think they said next week.”
“Oh. Hum. I don’t really go in there much.”
“Don’t you? Oh, I pop in a lot. Well, a couple of times a week, maybe. Yes, about that. Well, not every week, I suppose. I only went in once last week. To get some tea bags. And a packet of biscuits.”
Not very interesting to read, is it? In real life, we use a lot of noises like ‘erm’, ‘hum’, ‘oh’, ‘ah’, ‘ugh’, and all kinds of other sounds, as well as repetition and a selection of meaningless words and phrases, just to fill the gaps in a conversation. In spoken language, this is a good thing, because gaps are awkward and silence can be boring, and the sounds themselves express some kind of basic emotion or meaning as well. In written dialogue, though, these extra additions have the opposite effect, as they contribute nothing to the conversation itself, and simply make it drag on for longer, so that is uninteresting. Therefore, good written dialogue must aim to mimic only the most useful bits of a spoken conversation. The parts that drive the action forward, or add to a character’s portrayal. So, here is a more condensed version of the two ladies’ conversation:
“Hello, Gladys. How are you?”
“All right, I suppose. By the way, have you heard they’re closing that shop down? The one next to the post office.”
“Do you mean Pricewise?”
“Yes, that’s the one. I read in yesterday’s paper that it’s going to close next week.”
“I don’t really go in there much.”
“Don’t you? I pop in a couple of times a week.”
Did you find the second version easier to read and understand? With some added detail about their appearance, expressions, gestures and setting, the conversation might begin to come alive somewhat, so that the readers feel as if they are there on the bus with the ladies.
Another important point to bear in mind when writing dialogue is the style and register. Just because something works well for Charles Dickens or Agatha Christie, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in a novel set in the twenty-first century. Language is constantly changing, and what was considered normal a few decades (or centuries) ago, may seem quaint, or even comical now. Tolkien’s beautifully eloquent prose, for example, would be completely out of place in a fast-paced Dan Brown adventure, while modern slang would be painfully wrong in one of Georgette Heyer’s period novels.
Similarly, language usage varies from one region to another, as already discussed in a previous section, so make sure that American characters do not use specifically British expressions, for example, and vice versa.
The way language is used even changes subtly from one character to another. While one person may speak rather formally, another may use slang or dialect, yet another may have a stutter or an accent, and some may be more verbose while others are timid and economical with words. The way people speak is often a good indicator of character, and in fiction it is a useful tool for portraying people by ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. When a character speaks, he or she is showing the reader what kind of person they are, without the author having to intervene by stating what the person is like. In a well-written piece of dialogue, it may be possible to tell the characters apart just from the way they speak, as we would when listening to a spoken conversation.
When used well, conversation can be an excellent tool to help the writer with characterisation, setting and plot development. However, to avoid dialogue which sounds incongruous or out of place, take care to use the right style, always bearing in mind the period, place and type of person who is speaking. Elegant English lettering copy