Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lost in Translation

When I was 16-years-old, I became the co-editor of our high school's student-run magazine. I had been an avid contributor before, but I was excited about having the chance to be behind the scenes on a print publication (even if it was only read by other kids at our school). Additionally, I had known my co-editor for two years, highly respected his writing, and was looking forward to working with him.

This publication wasn't really a magazine in the traditional sense. We accepted pretty much any creative work that could be put on paper, whether it be poems, short stories, photographs, doodles and drawings, etc. When the previous editors were in charge, they just took the collected works, taped the random scraps of paper together, and made photocopies that would be distributed as an anthology. It had its own amateurish charm, but my teammate and I had other ideas: We would retype everything into the computer, scan all the photos and drawings, and then weave the images and text together so that the magazine itself was a completed piece. Then instead of printing it on plain white paper, each monthly edition was printed on its own unique color, like green, blue, or pink.

It was a great idea, we completely revamped the magazine and its popularity rose. More people were talking about it more often, asking when the next issue would come out and where can they make their submissions. But I eventually noticed that some of our regular contributors stopped sending as many submissions. I assumed they were busy.

Then I fell in love. You know, sickly sweet, puppy dog, high school love. Being the mopey teenager and aspiring writer that I was, of course my natural inclination was to write poetry. Lots and lots of love poems, most of which didn't rhyme or follow any general poetic guidelines - except for one full page poem of which I was particularly proud: Six to seven stanzas written in quatrains with all the frilly, Shakespearean style language I could muster. I worked feverishly until it flowed just the way I wanted it to, then I submitted it to the magazine under a pseudonym when no one was around.

When we put the magazine together, I did not reveal my secret - but I also didn't proofread my own poem when it went to print. To do so would have revealed my secret. When the magazine was distributed, I grabbed my copy hot off the press and went to my classes. A few hours later at study hall, I flipped through our finished work, stopping to read my poetic effusion of love.

It had the same title, and looked similar, but it was decidedly not my poem. There had been at least one change in nearly every line and in some cases, entire phrases. The quatrains no longer rhymed. The embellished language was subdued and awkward sounding. My co-editor had actually EDITED my poem so that it was grammatically correct. In doing so, he had completely changed its tone and message.

I was livid. It turned out that he had been editing grammar in most of the written pieces we'd received. The only works that hadn't been changed were the ones he had written himself. Suddenly I understood EXACTLY why people had stopped submitting - their works were being changed or outright censored by my "partner". While the previous editors sloppy-looking copy-job wasn't as crisp and clean, at least everything in it was the artists' original works.

I tried to explain to him that there was more to writing than having perfect grammar and obeying the rules of English language. Creativity doesn't follow any law or decree. I'm not sure if he ever quite understood it the way that I saw it, but the practice of altering other people's intended work was halted (except in the case of misspelled words).

I learned three things from this experience that have stayed with me until this day:

1. Always, always, always do a final read-through of any project before it goes to print, even if you're absolutely certain every vowel, consonant, and apostrophe is in place. Once its printed and sent out, there is no taking it back.

2. Know your audience. Our primary audience (or customers) was mostly our writers and when they saw that their original works had been changed without consent, they lost faith in the magazine (product) and stopped submitting (buying).

3. Sometimes conventional rules have to be broken in order to get a message across the way you intend it. Testing those boundaries can mean the difference between simply being understood or leaving a memorable impact.

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