Dis-cursive

2 Mar

This hasn’t come into focus at the Tribune yet, and perhaps it never will, but it will need thinking about if it does. What happens if a writer objects to the italicisation of words in one of their native languages during the publication process?

Levels of italicisation vary between style guides – some do it for films and book titles, some not, for example – but the Tribune’s style guide is brief and to the point about other languages: “Use italics for foreign words and phrases (with roman translation in brackets)”. There is some look-and-feel guidance about words that have become totally familiar in English, such as cafe, which should not be italicised and do not take diacriticals (as a former edition of the style guide used to say, “that would be a debacle”). But unfamiliar words take italics in our publications. Which then raises the question: unfamiliar to whom?

Although it is written by an editor for editors, this blog has always had at least a scrap of sympathy for writers who are unhappy about changes made to articles after they’ve written them. If you unsplit an infinitive in the cause of readability under someone else’s byline, the sticklers’ complaints will go to the writer, not to you, and you may be faced not only with the ire of peevish readers, but the ire of the reporter as well, who is inclined to agree with them. In such cases, an editor can end up isolated in opposition to both the author and the audience.

A disagreement over italics would probably be different, and might essentially become a debate with the author over who the presumed audience actually is. The person who wrote the tweet is a Korean American children’s author whose books are about young people of a similar background exploring their heritage. It is therefore probably essential for her that Korean words are not “othered” by being italicised to draw attention to their presumed unfamiliarity. (In fact, it would appear from the context of her thread that she has control of the process and has made that ruling for herself.)

This debate borders on the related issue, discussed many times in this blog, of news organisations allowing different dialects of English in the different countries in which they operate. The newsrooms set up by British news organisations elsewhere in the anglosphere are intended to speak to a domestic audience, not simply to report back to London. That’s why you sometimes end up reading articles about a “tradie” (a uniquely Australian term for tradesperson) startling a gigantic “huntsman” (a species of spider unknown in Britain) on the Daily Mail’s UK homepage.

The unspoken assumption is that Australian readers are the significant audience; if non-Australian readers see it, they will be able to figure it out. (As one of the supportive responders to the original tweet says, “if I see a word, I don’t understand, I’ll look it up.”)

On the other hand, it’s worth restating the traditional general defence of italicisation – that too great a presumption of understanding can alienate and discourage a potential audience who are unfamiliar with the subject. Italics, quotes and signposts to the reader such as “so-called” can all encourage them to navigate new intellectual or cultural territory, whatever it may be, and educate themselves. Another responder to the tweet, suggesting an exception for neologisms, writes that they could accept italicisation for a completely made-up word: “italic would let me know its ok to not understand it because its not a real word.” But doesn’t that principle – “it’s ok not to understand it” – apply to anything that might confuse the intended reader?

None of which helps solve the fundamental question in this debate, which is: who is the intended reader? Do you agree with the author about that? And if you don’t agree, which one of you decides?

2 Responses to “Dis-cursive”

  1. Picky March 4, 2021 at 5:05 pm #

    As to books, I see no reason why publishers should determine the style. I don’t know how these things are organised (my magnum opus is not yet at the potting-on stage) but it would seem sensible that when the publishing deal is done the publisher should present the author with the default style guide and the author should order amendments where required. After all, in the reader’s mind it is the author’s book, not the publisher’s.

    Newspapers/news sites are clearly different: the reader, I suggest, sees the publisher more clearly than the reporter. (Happily the sub is invisible). As to the example of the Tribune, or at least its website, I would tentatively suggest that stories should be tagged clearly with place of origin, if that differs from the edition in which the story is appearing. This would at least alert the reader to have the Australian Oxford Dictionary handy.

    At my age, however, even the British version of the Tribune is, I’m afraid, full of cultural references that completely mystify me. I’m used to it, like fading eyesight and diminishing hearing.

    • edlatham March 4, 2021 at 6:23 pm #

      Hear hear – I have tried to raise the issue of geographical tagging with the management, but no one seems to think there’s a problem. (And fear not – many of the people editing the copy also have to look up the mystifying cultural references)

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