The Editor? C’est Moi

Editor? Well, in recent years I seem to have fallen into the role of first reader/proofreader/editor for manuscripts from various friends: a Taiwanese former colleague and friend who’d had to return to Taiwan for family reasons and was writing English business correspondence at a Taiwanese company, a retired doctor who’d been under the impression that since he was smart enough to be a doctor and had made an A in English 101, he could easily write a memoir, a former colleague who’d written a science fiction short story; a gifted anthropologist/linguist who sent me his English translation of a three-volume memoir dictated to him in Penan by a Sarawak nomadic tribesman and already published in the Penan language. And finally, proofreading on a near-daily basis for a decade a dear friend’s blog so popular that I was a light chartreuse with envy. But now there’s more.

I’ve just finished busying myself editing a screenplay written in English for a new feature film by the “enfant terrible of Dutch film”, Cyrus Frisch, who happens to be the son of my best Dutch friend, Rina.  His English is fluent, but he’s not a native speaker. A problem for me is that becausehe’s set it in London, he wants to conform to British spelling.  Have you ever tried to read a manuscript and pick out all those ugly American spellings and change Americanisms like “trash can” to “rubbish bin”? I’m sure I did a half-assed job of that because I doubt whether Cyrus realizes how totally American his English is. Ummm, make that “arsed” and “realises” for the Brits.

I’ve helped Cyrus before. By beautiful chance, I happened to be on one of my month-long stays with his mother in Amsterdam in 2005 when, near the end of the stay, a stage play of his, Oogverblindend (Dazzled), premiered in Amsterdam.

The dialog was entirely in English because the play consisted of a telephone conversation between two characters, a Dutch man and an Argentinian woman, whose only language in common was English.  Shortly after I arrived, when the play was in rehearsal, it occurred to him that he ought to run the dialog past me.  I said of course.  He brought me the hard copy, and I was surprised at how good the English was. 

His English speech is fluent; but writing is much harder than speaking, so I picked at a many nits. As an aside here, I’ll mention that the evening when I’d started working on the play, Rina dropped by to plan our adventures for the morrow and then hovered nervously, glancing out of the corner of her eye at all my marks on the open page of her son’s manuscript. She asked how his English was. I reassured her that it was excellent and remarked that surely she knew this.

She shot back: “How would I know? We don’t speak English with each other.” A couple of days later, he came over and we went through the piece while I explained the parts I thought needed an explanation or a change.  At one point we came to a minor difference between the languages, that English routinely uses a present participle where Dutch employs an infinitive.  But just as I was getting warmed up for a deep explication, he stopped me cold with the observation that he didn’t know what infinitives and participles were.  I sat there for a moment stunned as it swept me that there are two ways of learning a foreign language. My way has been through tedious academic study; but his way, the better way, was through watching American television starting in his childhood, at first in the presence of his mother who could provide translations.  With the latter method you grow to fluent adulthood blissfully unencumbered by grammar.

Regarding Cyrus’ new work, the screenplay for a feature film about how a relatively small change would would greatly improve the functioning of the global economy, he’s now looking for funding. Considering his successful track record in the Netherlands, he’ll probably succeed, but if you happen to know of a potential investor, please contact me.

Meanwhile, here’s an architectural shot that for me evokes Escher.

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