Jesse Tomlinson chats with Antonio Martin, founder of Cálamo & Cran, on editors, editing, and where we all fit in to budget allocation

What do you most appreciate about the work that you’re doing now?

Looking after the reader. Editors are a book’s safety belt. We’re the ones who go over the text like a driver on a test lap before the race. We make sure their reading is accident free. The reader doesn’t usually know that we’ve already read, and corrected the book in their hands! And they don’t have to know. We’re invisible.

What is one of the most frequent questions you are asked about editing?

The main question is that no one seems to know what editors are or what they do. So there are two types of questions: those from total strangers who know nothing about the profession, and those from colleagues in related fields such as translators, layout designers, copyeditors, and of course, proofreaders.

Strangers are amazed that there are people who do a job that Word does (!) and look at us with pity. Nothing could be further from the truth. When they find out what an editor really does, they think that letting us read a text should make us feel satisfied (and paid!). As people learn more, they think that we correct books, (as in a synonym of novel), and printed novels … because they think we only work with publishing houses that publish literature. They’re surprised to learn that we also work for advertising agencies, on technical publications and with legal, medical or engineering documents. It’s at this precise moment when they take the last step and decide—besides valuing us as editors—that they might consider a linguistic consultant or editor for their own work to save them from making mistakes that damage their written image. Twitter and Facebook are unforgiving in terms of criticizing written gaffes, and this can’t be fixed with a simple press release.

Colleagues tend to ask more technical questions, but it’s important to distinguish between a copyeditor and a proofreader. In English you’re lucky in that this difference is quite clear and has no disparaging slant. In Spanish, the implication is that an editor is a person who corrects (and this hurts one’s pride) and corrects style, no less! And this couldn’t be further from the truth: the editor’s job is to read the text first so that, among other things, it can be adjusted to the publishing house’s style guide. The editor never treads on the author’s style. That would be madness. And to this I would add that the term “editor” is now automatically associated with the chaos that is our smartphones. This is why I think we should change our titles: Language Advisor is sufficiently ambiguous for it to be understood. Besides, everyone prefers an advisor to someone who corrects. A matter of pride, you understand.

What is one of the most common errors you have found as an editor?

As an editor in Spain, I’ve observed a series of issues related to writing: we’re not taught how to express ourselves well or to organize ideas. It’s common to find texts that come out like a whirlwind without conveying clearly who is saying what, why, for what reason, to whom, and how these ideas have been put together. Reorganizing the message is the most common job.

Another nightmare is the bad influence from English. Anyone who visits Spain will be amazed at the extent to which English has become part of our everyday lives, especially in advertising. I’m not a purist in this respect; there are many terms that are quite useful and contribute names for facts, nuances in meaning and resources that didn’t exist before. Our language has also been enriched over its long history with Arabic, French, Italian and German words. Unfortunately there is a tendency to use English expressions (or supposedly English) that don’t contribute to the language. Instead, they cause more confusion.

 What is your opinion on machine translation, in terms of editing?

It’s inevitable that we believe our computers and programs are the be all to end all, because today that’s often true. But if we look back 20 years, to Windows 3.1, (which was impressive), the idea of an iPad was pure science fiction. That’s why this technology is still in development. Right now, it can do amazing things, but in 10 or 20 years it will be such a given, that it will only be wonderful to those of us who remember how it evolved.

Will it put the professions of editing and translating at risk? To a certain point, yes, but even very advanced technology needs checkers, programmers, and above all, translators who feed databases. And of course, many texts will need professionals to interpret expressions, ambiguity or to decipher sayings that are so culturally embedded that they can only be translated by a good translator.

Editors are in the same situation, but with one big difference: translation is a relevant concern during budget allocation that demands attention due to the volume of business it commands. In contrast, editing is just starting, little by little, to be considered a more important job (beyond what Word does), one that requires investment to ensure that the written image is excellent, high quality, not confusing, avoids misunderstandings, and doesn’t waste time and money. There are a number of interesting verification programs in the works, but there’s still a long road ahead.

We must never fear machines. We must learn to control them and make them work for us. A Ferrari or other F1 vehicle will always be faster than other cars, but it will also always need a specialized driver to control it. We are the drivers of our machines. We won’t crash. We’ll go farther, faster.

You once said —jokingly, of course— that you had to use sign language to communicate in Mexico City. When talking about Latin Americans and Spaniards, the conversation always revolves around the differences. We know there are differences between Spain and Latin America that are both subtle and significant in terms of language, but what can you tell us about the links or similarities in terms of editing?

I think we’ve lived a parallel history in the world of editing, one where right answers and an emphasis on differences have been undermining editors on both sides of the Atlantic. Maybe we’ve been lucky in that we haven’t had a simultaneously occurring disaster – when one side is up in arms, support is ready from the other side. Now we’re starting to understand each other better as professionals. Globalization and emigration have sent professionals in different stages of editorial crises all over the Spanish- speaking world.

However, in Spain there is still a hegemonic view on editing, although locally, editors act according to local markets. This is why we still struggle with terminology issues in editing. In this particular aspect, at Unión de Correctores (UniCo) we’re working on creating unified criteria, so that on both sides of the Atlantic (and of course let’s include the Pacific), as well as in both hemispheres, we can all know what to call each process, tool and professional. We can follow the examples of British, North American and Canadian associations.

What are we worried about? Well, for example, overvaluing the title of copyeditor in Latin America, (known in the Spanish of Spain as a “style corrector”), when really that’s just one of two key figures, along with the proofreader. This is causing many editors to resign themselves to accepting a condition imposed by clients’ demands as if a single correction can make magic happen (that’s impossible!) and that that it’s all that is needed.

What brings us together? What binds us? Concern over professional status, and recognition of the value of our work. This is essential, and the strongest part of our mutual identity.

What influence does English have on Spanish in Madrid? Should we accept or reject words borrowed from English? Or is there a happy medium?

A little while ago Álex Grijelmo addressed this very same issue, and it can’t be said better:

“Anglicisms, Gallicisms and other foreign words don’t cause allergies, lower the gross domestic product or cause environmental pollution. They don’t kill anyone either.”

But it doesn’t make sense to accept Anglicisms that arrive on the scene without contributing anything, for example dar soporte instead of atender, poner en valor in place of destacar or valorar. Or those that unseat daily usages, for example, something is cool, light, or bizarre, or the ones that subvert syntactical order, such as the English gerund that can move around in a sentence, but is clarified within the context. This doesn’t happen in Spanish: Te vimos bajando del tren.

I’m not a language purist because that’s incompatible with being a linguist who believes that a language can stagnate in its own country until it becomes something unmovable, something that is immune to the passing of time, and to evolution. Purism is marching under a flag whose colors will soon fade.

If purism was the law of the land, in Spain we would only speak Iberian and Basque. None of those terrible influences from Latin, Greek, Arabic or Germanic languages would be allowed and of course we would buckle under the weight of Italian and French influence. Since the 1950s English has been the new lingua franca. There’s no need for resistance all the time, provided that the thing in question contributes value to the language involved.

Besides answering annoying questions from a few meddlesome translators, are you often asked to work on a volunteer or pro bono basis? How do you respond in those cases?

It depends. There are organizations that I work with and I give them the very best of what I am best able to do: edit. Once a year I usually indulge a whim by editing a friend’s work, either to support their project or just for the pleasure of editing.
For assignments where clients tell me there’s no budget, well, of course there’s no work there. But if the job is done and the only excuse for not paying is that, “We’re a small publishing house” or “There weren’t that many changes anyway …” or “We didn’t like your edits,” the answer (at least in Spain), is: “Don’t worry, I’m going to send you a quick form for small claims court.” As you may know, this legal route is your back-up when one party doesn’t want to pay after entering into a legal, binding contract for services. In fact, whenever UniCo has a member stuck in this very situation, we teach them how to exercise their rights. UniCo even acts in the member’s name to resolve the issue. To date, we haven’t lost a single case. 

What two novels would you recommend to anyone who speaks Spanish as a foreign language?

La noche de los tiempos, (In the Night of Time) by Antonio Muñoz Molina. The theme is very Spanish, but the style, I dare say, North American. The book is essential to understanding the duality that we live in Spain. It’s perhaps one of the most sincere, intimate stories that exists to help us understand, without stooping to cliché, exactly what the war that separated us meant, where the isolation of dualistic contrasts and conflict between opposites became blurred, with a horror-filled conclusion and no clear guilty party … the weight of which we still carry today.

On the other hand, I recommend the Argentinian Adolfo Bioy Casares. He’s an author I am always re-reading: his stories, like the ones about Cortázar, are jewels to ooh and ahh over. Bioy was a man of the world – elegant, gallant, a bon vivant, but with an exceptional ability to both laugh at himself and to appreciate that even in the fantastical, the serious blow of love continues to be the driving force in what makes the world go round. I was extremely lucky in having Bioy confess to me that Dormir al sol (Asleep in the Sun) was his favorite novel. And his short story collection, La invención y la trama (The Invention and the Plot) is the greatest gift you can give yourself.

If you could give any advice, based on your experience, to those wishing to become editors for the Annual Conference of the American Translators Association (ATA), what would that be?

For translators and editors:

  1. Think of the reader. You work only for him (and I would have to say ‘her’ as they’re always the majority).
  2. Question things. You can’t know everything.Questioning will enable you to find mistakes and strengthen your certainty.
  3. Work to live. We have many resources available that help us improve productivity. Enjoy these tools to make more time for yourself. You can always use them to make more money, but there’s nothing better than paying yourself with a life you enjoy.
    Be happy.

This interview was originally published in the blog of Tomlinson Translations. Jesse Tomlinson is a liaison interpreter and literary translator. Her book translations include The Consummate Art of Dreaming, published by Black Coffee Gallery and Tesoros de México Hoteles y Restaurantes published by the Ministry of Tourism, both in 2016. 

Fotografía de Antonio Martin

Antonio Martín founded Cálamo & Cran in 1997 and has taught courses on editing, language and translation ever since. He works with language professionals on improving their productivity and the quality of their work. He is also one of the four members of Palabras Mayores, a group of language consultants who have presented to audiences all over the world. For more information, visit: