Sensitive proofreading is more or less a recent editorial trend that started in the United States. It consists in avoiding offending groups of people with literary works that would represent them in an inappropriate way. It concerns both adult and children’s literature. Sensitive proofreading seems to be in line with the “trigger warning” phenomenon, which also comes from across the Atlantic and which now also influences the discourse of authors around the world, by alerting readers to the existence of passages containing actions or words that could cause emotional suffering. As sensitive proofreading is gaining ground in French publishing houses, it is very likely that this new editorial approach is already on its way to Africa. It is in this perspective that I suggest you take stock of the contours of this new profession, with Kanelle VALTON.
Good morning Kanelle, you are a “sensitive proofreader”. Can you explain what it is and … what it is not!
I could summarize the principle of “sensitivity reading” by saying that it is a careful proofreading of the way historically minoritized social groups are represented. My work focuses on detecting cultural or historical notions that may have escaped the mind of the author or the proofreaders. My expertise is in texts that speak of the experiences of Caribbean and African Americans. Other proofreaders focus on gender, homophobic, or classist biases. Contrary to what one might think, a proofreader’s job is not to censor the text, but rather to accompany and alert the author or translators to their blind spots, to the unintentional perpetuation of clichés, to the clumsy use of a word or to an anachronism that may have escaped them.
You say you prefer the term “expert proofreader”. What makes you an “expert” proofreader in this field? Have you had any specific training?
We can also refer to it as “specialized proofreading”. My annotations and suggestions for correction are always justified by academic works in sociology or history. I feel that my experience as a black Caribbean woman is never enough to build a consensus with my collaborators. I am acutely aware that the social groups involved are not monolithic and that some issues are debated within the minority communities themselves. When this is the case, I don’t give a clear-cut answer, I prefer presenting the terms of the debate, situating them historically and let the publishing house build its position on this basis. To date, there is no specific training to go through for this work.
This job started in the United States. Is it now systematic for European publishers?
I have been solicited by 3 publishing houses for a total of 6 books over the last year. I am not sure that the job is widespread, and I am frequently confronted with questions related to the relative youth of the profession such as: how much should I charge? What should I be credited with in the acknowledgements? How far should I go in contributing my input to the text?
We can however consider that the so-called “sensitive reading” is part of a tradition of collaborative work around books: texts are often the subject of several readings and mobilize several expertise.
In what way is the job of sensitive proofreading not a form of censorship of a text?
My recommendations do not have the value of a verdict. Once transmitted, they are the subject of a collective arbitration that involves the editors, the translators if necessary, and the author or authors. I am content to bring to light, with the help of scientific references, questions related to the involuntary perpetuation of prejudices and received ideas, to imprecise translations or to misunderstood cultural references.
Can sensitive proofreading be applied to a text in a mother tongue, as well as to a text to be translated, or is it only restricted to the second category?
My first experience was with a text written in English and translated into French. The goal was to ensure that the translation of the African-American author’s text was as accurate as possible. I specifically looked at how the African-American vernacular English was translated. I also paid specific attention to the description of hair textures or shades of black skin. I also elucidated references to African-American culture and history that had escaped the rest of the team.
How do authors typically view sensitive proofreading of their work?
There is often some apprehension about my work, which I can understand. I come to question creative or translation choices that are sometimes taken for granted or that have been thought through for a long time. In general, the uneasiness eventually disappears: the main thing for me is not to have the last say, but to make sure that all these choices are made conscionably.
Do you make a living as a “sensitive reader”? In other words, do you make a living from this profession?
So far, I have been approached on an ad hoc basis by publishers who have heard about my approach and wanted to try it out. As is often the case in the publishing industry, the remuneration is modest. It is far from being a full-time job and I have a busy professional life.
Sensitive proofreading for African books.
Children’s literature about Africa is undoubtedly subject to clichés. Do you think, however, that a children’s book written by an African author and dealing with a story set in Africa could nevertheless convey clichés?
We all have our blind spots. I can imagine an urban African author of bourgeois social class deciding to write a novel set in a modest rural family in the last century. One could imagine that he or she, because of his or her experience very far from that of his or her characters, might have an inaccurate view of the daily life of that family or of the historical context in which his or her story is set. If the author’s intention was to deliver a realistic story, an expert proofreader could usefully intervene.
Apart from tales, it is known that until the 1990s, African readers mostly forged their tastes and imaginations with foreign children’s literature, for lack of enough supply on the Continent. What impact do you think these clichés have had on this generation?
The cultural products that surround children shape their dreams, their aspirations, their criteria of beauty, their values. I believe that the stereotypes perpetuated in certain contents are dangerous for minds in development, which do not yet have the intellectual means to defend themselves.
Do you think that African publishers would gain by using sensitive readers?
As soon as we write about a universe that is foreign to us, why not surround ourselves with proofreaders who are familiar with that universe? I think we have everything to gain if the question of authenticity is important for the story.
Do you carry out specific actions to make the practice of sensitive proofreading known?
I don’t have any specific actions in this sense, but I am always happy to be able to dispel the concerns that this practice raises.
Interview conducted by Laurence MARIANNE-MELGARD for Muna KALATI.