Judging by recent news, journalists have a target on their back. The gradual disappearance of printed newspapers and physical attacks such as the one committed against the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD cast a long and lingering cloud not just over journalists and newspapers, but over free press, a requirement for democracy.
No matter what you do in life, writing is you go-to tool. Even if your most elaborate written expression is texting with emojis, you still depend on two things: communicative symbols and a medium to convey them. Our ancestors started with their fingers painting on rocks. Clay tablets and sand boxes for Chinese calligraphy were reusable to an extent, but transient in purpose and effect. Paraphrasing a statement by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the Cosmos series, humans found a way to be immortal by writing.
Writing can be a personal, semiprofessional or professional activity. Even in the 21st century, we all write in one way or another, mainly to communicate with others: family, friends, coworkers, the boss, perfect strangers. But we are not writers per se in the sense that it is all we do to earn a living. A wedding planner uses writing as one of many activities he performs. A novel writer, on the other hand, writes on and off the clock, as it were. He writes to entertain, to explore, to express himself.
Oh, pardon me for using “gendered language.” As much as I support a gender equality that is both fair and reasonable, I don’t toe the line of the sexism police in writing because language use evolves with people, not by decree, however well-intentioned it may be. If it helps sensitive readers, I include everyone, men and women of any orientation, sexual or otherwise, when I use he, him, or any masculine particle.
Back to writers: In this realm, several pen-wielding citizens live. Their activity requires writing expertise and a deep motivation to use writing for justifiable purposes. Among those writers, we find journalists of different stripes, from those who work at sensationalist magazines to those who toil among company that many people would deem unworthy: the homeless, the ex cons and jailed ones, poor single parents, dubious celebrities, notorious reality-show stars, obscure public officials, Wall Street types and one-percenters.
I find it admirable that some journalists find the even-handedness and equality to ask questions and remain calm and professional despite being insulted, aggrieved and lumped with what some high-minded individuals consider the scum of the earth. In a democracy, we may like, even admire a written column or a newspaper editorial, or disagree with the columnist. If we feel incensed by a reportage we consider full of falsehoods or calumny, many reputable newspapers and magazines have a very democratic mechanism: letters to the editor. But, who has the time to write a letter to the editor to complain about an inaccuracy or unfair portrayal in a newspaper these days? Hey, we can twitter or facebook it. But we risk shooting ourselves in the foot.
First, writing a letter requires time to think, then put our thoughts on paper (or email). Writing also requires that we stick to some standards: be polite, state your goal, offer your approval or disapproval, or a strong objection, and explain your reasons for it. Close it politely. You might find it surprising, but you don’t need to be a grammarian or an A+ on your scorecard for English writing. People are very forgiving with typos, run-on sentences and lack of concordance; they get the gist. Finally, and most importantly to me at least, writing such a letter is influenced by what you’ve seen written in other “Letters to the editor” sections: as much as you and I may disagree with their arguments, as much as we find them silly or nonsensical, they’re worded politely and stick to the point. The inherent formality of a newspaper page (on paper or on screen) underscores the fact that this is a civil and democratic society. Civil first, democratic second, because a democracy can never happen without civil discourse.
Properly trained journalists, whether in school or at work, learn to research and write drafts until the whole piece is coherent and supported by facts. We translators act a bit more like ghost writers—the topic is not of our choosing, let alone the reasons and arguments. Yet we are free to research the proper and best ways to express them in the target language. We are free to rearrange the syntax furniture according to the natural uses of the target language. But our writing need not be purely a mechanic exercise. Translators can do much better: we are free to choose what we read to serve as a well of usage in different domains, a collection of writing models we can enrich our writing practice with.
There is a Spanish proverb, “dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres” (You can judge a man by the company he keeps). Adapting it to ourselves, I’d say “dime qué lees y te diré qué tan bien escribes” (Your reading informs your writing, or Your writing is as good or as poor as the things you choose to read). Consciously or not, we read others because we’re looking for models of expression; we follow examples, good or bad. How do we know they’re good or bad? By their results, their effects on us and on others. If I read an elegant phrase, an elegantly phrased translation in a business letter or a health care brochure, if I’m a writer, I want to be able to write like that. If a turn of phrase, whatever its origin, makes me feel good about a topic, I am likely to replicate it. The effects are cumulative, in my view.
I have been feeling a surging need to support journalism, the best kind, whether it’s political, religious, economic or plainspoken in nature. We are living in yet another age where journalists are being decried as enemies, execrated, put in jail or executed. Yet their writing will endure. Writing is our ticket to an immortality of sorts. Well, then, do we want to be remembered by a tweet or a facebook posting, or by something more substantive and reflective of who we are?
Food for thought, and for writing.