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EDITING editing aboriginal voices

Editing Aboriginal voices

Editing Aboriginal writing: is it different?

Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or Indigenous?

Australian Aboriginal English

Representing people's voices in print: English words

Representing people's voices in print: language words

Glossing Aboriginal languages

CATE workshop, August 2009

Useful resources for those editing Aboriginal writing

Representing people's voices in print: English words

While vernacular literacy materials continue to be published throughout Australia, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people write and are published in English. However, two key things need to be borne in mind: firstly, the English used by many Aboriginal people is not standard Australian English; and secondly, the representation of their voices in print form is viewed by some people as a political act.

I deal with Australian Aboriginal English in a companion page and so here I'll discuss the second point: the politics and practicalities of representing voice.

I once edited a manuscript co-authored by a non-Aboriginal academic and an Aboriginal man; this Aboriginal man, while literate, made the deliberate decision not to write his contribution. This left the non-Aboriginal co-author the role of both writer and scribe. The Aboriginal contributor spoke in a variety of Aboriginal English that was also peppered with words from his native tongue, which is undergoing a revival in his area of New South Wales. This issue of how to represent this man's voice in print focused on two areas: punctuation and presentation of English words; and presentation of non-English words in what was a predominantly English text. (This second point is dealt with in the page on Language words.)

A great deal of discussion between the authors, the publisher and myself as the commissioned editor went into how best to represent voice using the tools at our disposal – mainly punctuation marks and fonts. We dismissed the use of different fonts as too busy on the page and so our talk focused on how to deal with dropped letters (such as the missing "h" at the beginning of words, "g" in "ing" endings, and the "d" at the end of "and") and variations in pronunciation using alternative spellings.

Literary fiction allows more latitude when dealing with the spoken word, as anyone who has read James Joyce or Tim Winton can testify. But oral histories tend to be published within the academic canon. If the freedom of expression that makes Finnegan's Wake so delightfully incomprehensible were applied to an Aboriginal voice then it would not make it to the typesetter.

Dropping letters from words is usually dealt with by showing an apostrophe (as in the contractions "can't" and "shouldn't", or the final letter loss in "goin' " and "bein' ". But when there are lots of contractions and lost letters the transcription becomes littered with the apostrophes to the point where it is not merely distracting but makes the text almost unreadable, or at least hard work.

Consider the following:

Unbeknowns' to 'im, Uncle 'Arry an' Unca Tony 'adn't bin in the 'ouse, 'n' even though 'e were follerin' 'em back 'e couldn't find neither of 'em. 'E took that babaarr and started chuckin' it around everywhere, scarin' everyone.

This is not an actual extract from any work I've edited but contains features from several works that I have.

None of us enunciate our words individually; rather, we produce sounds made up of groups of words and the hearer hears these groups of words and creates meaning from them.

Problems occur when transcribers attempt to maintain the essence of a "person on the page": what fiction authors refer to as "voice" – the mannerisms and patterns that distinguish a character. There's a temptation to overplay the presentation of individual words in order to try and capture voice but this can happen at the cost of readability of comprehension.

In the above extract, the problems with dropped letters are compounded for a number of reasons. The final "t" in "unbeknownst" runs into the leading "t" of "to" and so is not clearly heard. But does not hearing it mean that it should not be recorded? Similarly, the dropping of initial "h" in "He" at the start of the second sentence results in an inelegant capitalised "e" preceded by an apostrophe. And then there's the variation in "Uncle" and "Unca", which might be true to the speaker but jars on the page. The reader (well, this reader) wonders whether this is deliberate or just sloppy.

None of us sign our signature the same way twice and probably never say the word "uncle" the same way twice either. Should the transcriber record variation and difference? And, if she does, should the editor query this?

In this instance the we agreed that the "-ing" endings should remain without either the "g" or an apostrophe, which is still readable and removed a lot of apostrophe clutter. It's also not entirely unfamiliar to anyone who's read a number of oral histories (or James Joyce or Tim Winton). Variations in pronunciation were maintained, though not within the same block quote; that is, the same speaker might say both "uncle" and "unca" but if this was in the same quoted section than one would become "dominant". Apostrophes were retained for dropped aitches on a select group of words (which were listed on the style sheet). The exception was proper nouns, which never took an apostrophe ("Harry" not " 'Arry").

With these standards in place, the above quote looked like this:

Unbeknownst to him, Uncle Harry an Uncle Tony hadn't bin in the house, an even though he were follerin em back he couldn't find neither of em. He took that babaarr and started chuckin it around everywhere, scarin everyone.

There's a risk of bowdlerising the speaker's voice in any editing of the spoken word and, ultimately, it comes down to agreement between all parties and the level of compromise that the speaker, the scribe/author and the publisher can be happy with. And then the editor can apply their agreed-to standards. It could be argued that the above quote loses some of the speaker's voice but I would argue that it retains enough of voice while remaining readable and visually elegant; removing the apsotrophe clutter makes it more inviting and more likely to actually be read rather than skimmed over.

Finally, and importantly, a note was prepared in the introduction alerting the reader to the conventions used in the transcriptions. I believe that this is critical in maintaining the reader's trust: variations may appear but must be accounted for otherwise we'll hear that familiar lament, "It was a great book, but gee it was badly edited".

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