Interview with Katie Botkin

It’s been a fairly narrow career path for me, it’s true, but I always told my students that a love of English can take you far in any field. The world runs on precise, honest, compassionate communication.

Katie BotkinKatie Botkin is a freelance writer and the managing editor of the MultiLingual magazine, which covers language, translation, localization, and global culture. She decided at the age of six that she wanted to be an author, and to that end, she has learned to embrace her perpetual curiosity about almost everything. She is currently working on various articles and projects, including a novel about homeschooling culture. Her personal website is http://kbotkin.com/

  • At which point of your life did you feel sure that your love for the English language was going to narrow your career path?

I was six when I decided that I wanted to be a writer. I studied journalism in college because it seemed more profitable than sticking to fiction, and then quickly became disillusioned with the world of newspaper management. I tried teaching English on three continents, dived into linguistics in grad school, and wound up editing and writing for a linguistically-driven magazine. It’s been a fairly narrow career path for me, it’s true, but I always told my students that a love of English can take you far in any field. The world runs on precise, honest, compassionate communication.

  • To what extent do you think editing can actually improve a written piece while still paying attention to the original intents of its author?

To a large extent! I thrive on good editing in my own writing. It’s very helpful to have a second set of eyes, both for typos and content-wise. Writers can easily leave pertinent details out of a narrative, or repeat themselves too much, most often because it’s all so well thought out in their own heads. Good editors know when to ask questions about ambiguities and inconsistencies.

  • How much is terminology important in an editor’s everyday life, in your opinion?

It’s important for proper nouns most of all, and creative writers should strive to be consistent so readers don’t get confused. Of course, this can cause problems of its own —for example, I would personally find it less difficult to read Russian literature if it stuck to one consistent name for each character, instead of varying between full legal names, short forms, endless diminutives and so on. It would be less effort for me, but it would obviously not be an accurate depiction of Russian culture. Of course, the more technical and brand-specific the text is, the more important consistent terminology becomes.

  • Could terminology databases/glossaries and journalistic editorial guidelines be related? For example, do you think it would be useful for media companies to have their own glossary, besides guidelines?

Yes, and they often do! MultiLingual magazine, where I work, has a fairly extensive glossary that we update every year. It’s online so our writers (and readers) can access it, although we often edit quite a bit ourselves —it’s rare that writers go to the trouble of working from it.

  • Sometimes it is vital to have the right term at the right moment. Could you describe a situation in which a term complicated your life?

Well, we’re constantly checking on the proper spelling of businesses, for example. More often than you’d think, the businesses themselves are inconsistent in their spelling and capitalization, so it’s hard to know which is preferred.

  • Could you tell us something more about Translators without Borders, the non-profit association for which you (used to) edit the website’s newsletter?

They do humanitarian translation work for a variety of nonprofits. Currently, they’re working on the ground in Greece to help translate materials for refugees arriving from Syria. The work they do is hugely important for underserved linguistic groups.

  • We know that this organisation assists in translating more than two million words per year for several NGOs (such as Médecins sans Frontières, Médecins du Monde, Action Against Hunger, Oxfam US and Handicap International). But what does ‘humanitarian translation’ mean to you?

Translation for good, regardless of cost. Accurate translation is nearly always beneficial for cross-cultural communication, as long as you bring cultural understanding into the equation as well. Often, translation is most expensive where it is most needed — smaller languages with fewer translators tends to make things difficult, particularly in areas where these smaller languages and language groups abound. Translating for these areas is not financially lucrative, and in a world where linguistic training tends to go hand in hand with how much money you can make from it, this means these areas are often linguistically underserved. Humanitarian translation is probably the only translation option there is for most minority languages.

  • Since you are a book lover, would you share with us which are your favourite English translation examples of foreign novels, and why?

I loved Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee’s version of Les Miserables as a 17-year-old, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Iliad before that. The latter is a retelling rather than a straight translation, but that made it very accessible while still staying true to the original Greek formality and intent. I probably never would have ventured to read the Iliad as a child otherwise. Most recently I really appreciated Harry T. Willetts’ translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. It’s the book as Solzhenitsyn intended it, rendered into English for the first time. Literarily, politically, and philosophically, I loved it. Pragmatically, the book begins with a cast of characters listing everyone who appears in the book, along with any derivative names they may go by. It’s a literary terminologist’s dream come true.

  • On your own website, you wrote: “So my day job consists of managing a magazine about translation and cultural differences, including editing a host of articles written by people whose first language is not English. In these instances, it is very helpful to know how language works — the way French deals with certain idiomatic expressions that would not make sense translated literally, for example.” What is your best advice to non-native English writers, then?

It’s the same advice I would give to writers of any kind: read the best writing that you enjoy, write what you enjoy, and get an editor or teacher you enjoy to help you along the way.

  • In general, how much power do you think written language has, compared to spoken language?

I would say “the written word endures,” but that’s changing with the digital age. I find it much easier to organize my ideas in written form — I just recently gave an interview for a documentary, and we recorded the same anecdote several times because I kept leaving things out or wandering off point. I’m used to being able to go back and just add or delete things, so it was challenging to do it all in the moment. In the era of soundbites, I think it can be particularly hard to speak effectively.


Interviewed by Eva Barros Campelli

evabarrosBorn in 1989 in Rome (Italy). Wrote 300+ film reviews, covered the Rome’s and the Venice’s film festivals, and still managed to obtain a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. She attended a post-graduate course at the London School of Journalism, had a Web Editor assistant work experience at Good Things magazine, and enjoyed the British lifestyle for a while. Member of the Italian Journalists’ Association as well, she later contributed to the Huffington Post USA and HelloGiggles. Currently passionate about human rights and international politics – though in her spare time she always complains that too many books, songs and movies break her heart and ruin her life.

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