My interrupted copywriting career

The most appealing copy I've seen in a long time is very short and simple. It says: Buy less.

Obviously, that's not all it says. It goes on to elaborate and in fact encourages you to buy. It wants you to buy 2 expensive outfits designed and sold by Some Like it Cool rather than 4 cheapies by Some Like it Hot.

Whatever the customer and the clever copywriter intended, the effect on me was quite the reverse. I absorbed and retained only the first two words, which were music to my ears and soothed my soul: Buy less.

(Actually, a more accurate translation of the Hebrew would be "buy sparingly". But in my mind it came to mean "buy less.")

My house is full of stuff, my wardrobe full of clothes I don't wear. I don't want to want more. I don't want to buy more. I want to want less. I would like to make do. But it's so difficult, with temptations all around. Mind you, it's easier not to buy when you live on a quiet, residential side street with no shops than when you live right smack in the center of expensive Tel Aviv, as I did in my late twenties to late thirties.

In my late twenties I fell in love with copywriting. Inventing witty slogans seemed to me a great way to make a living in a "fun" way. One of the very few places offering a course in advertising and PR at the time was ORT Adult Education. I signed up and took a two-semester course consisting of evening classes once a week. I was good at it and enjoyed it. Upon completing the course, I somehow made contact with three advertising agencies and one PR company and was given the odd copywriting assignment.

I honestly don't remember what I wrote. The only "copy" that sticks in my mind to this very day is a radio jingle, exhorting people to take their dirty coats and carpets to the dry cleaning chain Somewhere Over the Rainbow, because they have a special offer! Quick, go there today, while the offer lasts!

Being introduced as "The Copywriter" and sitting in the recording studio while the actor/singer belted out "my jingle" with the immortal words "Rush to the Rainbow", was heady stuff…

Disillusionment sank in pretty fast… I do not intend – I said haughtily to myself and to anyone who would listen – to spend my time and my talent persuading people to use Toothpaste Bright rather than Toothpaste White! And so I ditched copywriting for a couple of decades, feeling rather virtuous.

These thoughts came to me the other day, as I was breaking my head trying to find an intriguing sentence for the Subject line of a marketing email; one which would make the company's CEO actually read the email rather than press Delete.

The marketing letter is intended for a U.K. audience, and in my attempt to get into a British frame of mind, I pulled out half a dozen Monty Python Flying Circus videos; several P.G. Wodehouse novels which by now also bring to mind Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves; and for a dash of racing terminology I threw my mind back to several enjoyable Dick Francis thrillers. All that was missing was a good source for cricket and golf related idioms.

Several hours later, I still had no brainwave for the promotional letter; but I sure had a jolly good time with those videos!

Translators: It's not you, it's the author!

Yesterday I had a pleasant surprise: the book I translated (English>Hebrew) last summer, called The Last Summer, has been published, and I got two free copies in the mail! Since most of my work is not in the field of fiction, and I am not used to seeing my name on the title page, it was really neat. I was tickled pink.

Leafing through the book, I was reminded of the tricky bits. The unclear sentences, the glaring grammatical errors. The things that annoyed me as I was working and made me wonder whether the novel had been edited at all, and if so, why had the editor done such a shoddy job.

A few small examples:
1. "She looked over his shoulder, straight past his head, but still he caught the dot in her eye." – Excuse me? What dot?

2. " Riley had her sock feet on the kitchen table…" – Yes, we do understand that she was wearing socks (as opposed to being barefoot or having shoes on) – but that doesn't make it good English.

3. "When she felt joy, Alice stayed small and to the edges."
- I know there's such a thing as poetic license, but... This simply does not strike me as good writing.

4. "I'm having lots of dreams." [Says Riley, who is running a temperature.] "Nice ones?" "Some. All kinds. I don't think I could divide out nice." – Don't tell me this is good English.

3. "She gave him/her a look." – Perfectly legitimate expression. Except when it's overused, and appears without enough context, so there's no way of telling what kind of look it was!

And these examples are mild ones, compared to the more baffling expressions my colleagues have been coping with!

More recently, I was helping out Daughter #1 who was translating a novel, English > Hebrew. That novel, which the publisher obviously expected to be a best-seller, suffers mainly from atrociously written dialogue. The writer seems to have made every conceivable mistake that creative-writing workshops try to warn against and nip in the bud. So much worse for this novel, because content-wise it is quite interesting, and the epilogue even made it rather touching. I suspect that the publisher, in the interest of making money fast, figured he could get away with little or no editing, counting on the exotic aspects of the book (the Far East, sex, blondes, men, booze, drugs) to sell the book, regardless of really crappy dialogue and other major stylistic faults. I found it insulting that the publisher assumed that the readers would either not notice or not care about the poor writing and editing, so long as the subject matter was titillating enough.

As we all know from experience, translating poorly written texts, whether in fiction, expository prose, user manuals or whatever, is the bane of our existence; what we call in Hebrew "maka she'lo ktuva ba'tora". But I find it most annoying when it occurs in fiction. When a novel is written by an acclaimed author of whom you've grown to expect good writing, you take the obscure phrase or sentence quite seriously. You question yourself before you question the writer. You give the author credit and try to figure out what the phrase means and why he/she chose to make the meaning ambiguous or obscure. Then you proceed to find the best equivalent. Sometimes it's possible to consult the author, and I am told that in such cases the author is very happy to explain.

But what about Grade B or C novels? Pulp fiction? Sloppily written books, novels by dilettantes, amateurs, untalented wannabe-writers who somehow nonetheless get their stuff published? What are we to do when we come across meaningless babble? As professionals, we of course must do our best. For years I've been telling my colleagues (in my Editor's Letters, in lectures, presentations, and any other opportunity I get) that the GIGO approach doesn't work; it just boomerangs and ruins one's reputation.

Nonetheless, I think some translators exhibit too much misplaced respect for the printed word.

I expect some to come down on me like a ton of bricks for making the above statement. But I stand by my words. C'mon guys, admit it: some texts are simply badly written. We all occasionally come across pretentious, obscure phrases that don't mean anything. The writer may have had something very specific in mind, or not. We will never know, because he/she did not communicate it properly.

Again: First you make sure that it's not you, it's the writer. So you consult your native-speaking friends and you post questions to translators' lists. In the case of unintelligible gobbledygook, opinions will vary vastly. As I said above, when the writer is Henry James, you give him the benefit of the doubt. Ah, you say, he made this sentence ambiguous on purpose, because he wanted the reader to see that Mr. Highbrow could have understood it to mean xxx while Miss Prettyface might have understood it to mean yyy. But when the novel is by an as-yet unknown quantity (or worse, by a Known Previous Offender) you have got to trust your own better judgment.

Good luck!