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Uneditable: The Mistake of Working as an Academic Editor in China

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This is a story from around a year and a half ago when I was in the heat of working on Ghost Cities. I needed to continue traveling far and fast, I had many more places to visit and revisit, and I was broke. I needed money to complete the book, and I was doing about anything I could to get it.

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All cultures have their own twists, their own patterns, their own telltale irrational tendencies that make them interesting and unique. While these quirks are rarely ever possible for an outsider to truly understand, knowing how to conform with their contours enables you to get along with people when in their country. But every once in a while even knowing a culture’s more extreme behavioral and emotional traits isn’t enough to keep you from being skewered by them.

There is a strong tendency in China for people to be very sensitive to criticism — to having their mistakes pointed out and corrected — even when it appears constructive or necessary. Even a mention of something being done wrong is sometimes enough to provoke a Face-salvaging counterattack. So it is often far easier to offer no critique at all, cover up the mistakes, and say nothing. This is what most of the people here seem to have been conditioned to do. Loss of Face is embarrassing for everyone involved, so all too often such matters are subverted altogether by simply pretending they don’t exist.

Throughout my time in China I have heard numerous stories about how this cultural tendency manifests itself. From a famous European dancer who tried to direct a troupe in Beijing just to have the dancers quit because they couldn’t take being corrected in front of their peers, to the frustration of foreign factory owners when they try to figure out why products are continually being sent down assembly lines when critical mistakes were obviously made, to coders who will write patches around their superior’s errors rather than making them known by fixing them. The Chinese have tactful ways of detouring around criticizing their peers and superiors, but us foreigners are far more cumbersome — especially when we’re expressly hired to provide such criticism.

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A group of English teachers were crowded around a laptop at a cafe in the Ruijing area of Xiamen. They were apparently baffled. Something on the screen in front of them was exasperating them. I watched curiously for ten or fifteen minutes. They were pointing at the screen, throwing their arms up in the air. The word “impossible” was spoken multiple times.

Suddenly, one of them suggested, “You should have Wade do it, he’s a professional.” My ears perked up. “No really, this is what Wade does for a living, you should have him do it,” the teacher continued. “But I don’t know if she can afford to pay him enough.”

The word “pay” being spoken in the same sentence as a pronoun indicating me set me on my feet. The broke traveler is always listening for such linguistic constructions. I was soon a part of the huddle.

“It can’t be done,” one of the English teachers exclaimed with finality as he turned the laptop towards me.

Such a phrase only intensified my interest. “Maybe it can’t be done by you,” I arrogantly thought. The competition was on, and I committed myself to the job before I even knew what it was. A leap of ego I would come to regret.

On the screen before me was an academic paper written by a professor at Xiamen University. 500 RMB ($80) was the prize for anyone bold enough to touch it. It topped out at 3,500 words, which wasn’t bad for the price being offered, except for the fact that the article wasn’t written in English. It was 3,500 words of bona fide Chinglish.

Chinglish is like someone took a passage of otherwise standard English and ran it through a blender. Adjectives are made into adverbs, adverbs are perverted into verbs, common words are incongruously replaced with obscure equivalents selected straight from a thesaurus, particles like “and” and “the” are axed, and verbs have their tenses completely buggered. Then, once the erroneous words are all in place, each sentence is shook up like a cup of dice, and spilled back out onto the page.

What was worse in this instance was that the vocabulary used derived from a dire attempt to sound academic. So not only was this document full of poorly assembled English but it was poorly assembled English inundated with pseudo-scientific wordings.

From an initial glance it appeared indecipherable. What was needed for the job clearly wasn’t an editor, but a code breaker.

“You can’t do it,” one of the English teachers spoke. “Really, look at it, you can’t do it.”

“Oh, Wade can do it,” responded the one who initially lured me in. “This is what he does for a living, he’s a professional.”

“No, nobody can do this. It’s impossible,” the English teacher said with a shake of his head.

Nobody can do this. It’s impossible. Wade can do it.

And because these were spoken I found myself with no other recourse.

“I can do it.” [smirk] “No problem. Tell the professor I will take the job.”

Of course, I knew the English teacher was right. Though $80 and the chance to show that I had the biggest balls in the room was enough to usurp any sense of self-preservation. The broke traveler is a master of all trades.

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The professor soon called and introduced herself. Her English made it through one exchange before we had to switch to Chinese. A bad sign. When I returned to my apartment I found her paper in my email inbox. I opened it, tried to read it, but failed. Groan, wince — I couldn’t even read the thing. A woman who couldn’t speak English tried to write an academic paper in English. It was an auto-translate hack job inundated with precisely chosen “scientific” vocab.

I began searching for an exit strategy. How could I get out of this? Could I just tell her that I’m not up to the job? That offended my pride. Just disappear and never communicate with the professor again? Too squirrelly. Return to the English teachers, admit that I was their equal, and help them find a replacement editor? No way.

I then began feeling guilty. This lady really needed this paper edited, no other native English speaker in the city was foolish enough to do it. I was her last resort. I said that I was going to help her, I had to do it.

The truly artistic part of an art usually doesn’t come in the core periods of creation but in the finishing touches. “Putting the ears on it,” is how traditional Japanese tattoo artists describe the final strokes of their needles that make their pieces come to life. It is in these final stages of the artistic process that the editor often begins their work. The editor can come in and clean up errors, suggest changes, and angle the direction of a piece of writing, but they are ultimately bound by what is give to them. They can “put the ears on it,” but that’s as far as it goes. A perfumed turd is still a turd.

What was worse was that the professor had no idea how bad the paper was. She wanted a professional quality English language academic paper that she could publish in a journal in the USA, and would show no quarter to an editor who couldn’t give that to her.

I was convinced at the time that there was a system behind Chinglish, that there was a formula that I could work out. You can see glimmers of patterns and clues in it, although it remains a riddle of encryption that no native Anglo speaker has yet cracked. A person who has the ability and willingness to edit such incomprehensible English is rare. From working for the editors of academic journals before I knew that the their desks are perpetually filled with absolutely horrid, incomprehensible manuscripts from hopeful Chinese academics. If there was some way that I could develop a system for honing Chinglish academic gibberish into coherent English I could become very valuable around the university circles of China indeed.

I began what I knew would be a time consuming, thankless task, but $80 was on the table and I needed to get back to Ordos.

It took me over an hour to get through the first paragraph. What was worse was that I realized that the actual content of the study was far beneath the standards of American academia, and even if it was linguistically coherent it still stood zero chance of being publishable. My work was destined to be irrelevant. The professor’s paper would be rejected and I would be to blame.

I tried to get out:

Hello Professor,

I have been working on your paper for many, many hours over the past two days. To be honest, the translation is very poor, which makes editing it extremely difficult. I’m not sure if this can be done properly without a better translation.

She replied:

Wade,

I also sent the paper to a English teacher of Xiamen University of Technology, but She told me there are a few errors but not much. In order to ensure the quality, I find you again. Maybe this is the difference the native English with Chinese English.

The native Chinese English teacher at her university knew better. I, apparently, did not.

But I did not respond that there is no such thing as Chinese English, that there is only the pejorative term “Chinglish” which broadly means “an extremely poor attempt by a Chinese person to write in English.” She was already on the defensive, concocting any kind of rationale to prove that she was anything other than wrong:

It’s Chinese English, not native English.

I offended her, things could only spiral downward from here. To salvage what was left of the situation and to better the chances of getting paid for the time I already invested in the project, I patronized:

Hello Professor,

Your paper is written in very complex, academic English. In fact, it was too difficult for the native speaking English teachers at Mrs. Su’s school to edit, which is why she asked me to do it.

I really admire whoever translated this paper, as I know it is extremely difficult to write in a foreign language. I should have it completed within one hour.

Bad move. She replied:

I am sorry, can I ask where did you graduated and your major?

And you are a teacher in my University?

Yes, the paper is professional article.

She was building her attack.

Professor,

I am a graduate of Long Island University. My major was journalism and anthropology. I have been working as a professional editor for 10 years. The books that I write are published by an academic press in the UK. I do not teach at your university.

I continued working extremely hard on that paper, taking it as a point of pride to have it read as best as it possibly could. I finished by evening. I read through it, giving it one final look over, and I realized that I actually did it. The paper was now in grammatically correct and fully intelligible English. I sent it back to her with a nice note, expecting to be praised. This didn’t happen.

If I thought the damage to her ego that had already been inflicted by mentioning the low quality of the translation was bad it was nothing compared to the wrath she apparently felt from seeing her paper smeared from top to bottom with red corrections. In other cultural contexts such thorough editing would have been taken as a sign of a good editor and appreciated, but here it was taken as a personal attack.

Wade,

thanks you for your job. You found many error in the paper, but maybe the limit of your knowledge, some correction, such as “life and death in the lifespan”, here it can not substitute by lifespan, it should be life an death of unit. Do you know my means?

I am so sorry, one reason is the content of paper; the other reason you don’t no technology especially about civil engineering. As you said this is professional article.

I stewed for a moment, plotting out all of the nasty ways that I could respond to patch my pride and try to come out on top, but I held back. I then smiled vindictively and responded with the nastiest thing I could think of:

Dear Professor,

Yes, I know your means. You are correct, I don’t no technology. That was very clever of you to find my error. Yes, it should say “life an death of unit.”

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Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Make Money for Travel, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 80 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3136 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Zhushan Village, Kinmen, TaiwanMap