When I was invited to write about the challenges and rewards of being a non-native speaker editor of English, it felt like the cat was being let out of the bag after a very long time. I am a non-native English speaker and an editor, but I never think of myself as such – to me, I’m simply an English editor. And now, finally, someone has noticed my big, fat secret.
Abi’s (this blog’s coordinator’s) invitation opened up something I hadn’t until then been ready to acknowledge. I imagine that seeing my name people must wonder where I’m from, how good my English actually is and what’s my claim to editorial competence (I also like to imagine they have better things to do). In today’s interconnected world, I could’ve been born in the UK to Polish parents – a lot of immigrant children carry non-English names. But I learned English in another country and came here in my 20s, and when I speak, the first thing you’ll notice will be my unfamiliar accent. Working as an editor, I’m basically asking to be judged on my language at every turn. Shouldn’t an editor be someone whose English, both written and spoken, is impeccable?
By virtue of my background, I’m facing two kinds of challenges already – my name and how I sound. Until that email from Abi, I would deal with them through avoidance. First, I’d be stumped if you found any mention of my background on my public profiles. I’d decided long ago that this would be my weak spot and didn’t want to draw attention to it in case this made anyone doubt my skills. And second, I would simply avoid speaking with clients, at all cost. Unfortunately for me, there are some people who just don’t get the message – and don’t do email. I now thank them.
To a certain extent, the challenges I’ve experienced as an editor of English are internal and come from the idea of what an editor should embody, which to me, and many others, is language knowledge and competence nearing the heights of perfection. As a profession, I think we are quite unique in holding ourselves, often publicly, to such incredibly high linguistic standards that it must come at a price. One of the consequences is that this makes some of us anxious communicators – and the challenge is multiplied for someone who has learned English as an adult. What I’d like us to remember though is that language is a system and therefore can be studied and learned. So can editorial craft. I studied English literature and linguistics for 5 years at university and have worked as an editor of English for nearly 12 years; that gives me close to 17 years of experience as an English-language professional. And I’m still learning – I take editing courses, I read industry books, scour the internet for current language trends, go to conferences – everything we all do as editorial professionals. I find professional development and education to be the best remedy for the lurking ‘English-language editor’ impostor syndrome that rears its head in moments of self-doubt.
The rewards are perhaps the same for me as for everyone else who loves their job. Contact with authors is immensely rewarding; one of my authors calls my editing her work ‘magic’ – it doesn’t get better than this! I engage with incredibly dedicated, knowledgeable and inspirational people who care about how they write, I read books and papers on topics I wouldn’t have come across otherwise, I learn and grow thanks to what I do for a living, and, to use that worn out cliché, I love reading. A challenge now is picking up a book for pure enjoyment, our common complaint I suppose.
I keep going back to that email from Abi, because it’s shifted something for me, prompting a change in how I think about myself and present myself to the world. That same evening, I edited my website bio to say I wasn’t born in the UK and I didn’t graduate from a UK university. Perhaps that’s another step in overcoming my biggest challenge – my own prejudice against myself as a competent, expert, non-native English-language editor.
*As a disclaimer I’d like to add that I have never experienced anything but kindness, encouragement and trust from my colleagues of various nationalities, not least the native speakers of English.
Kasia Trojanowska, APM (CIEP), MA (hons) English Lit, is an academic and non-fiction English-language copy-editor, proofreader and text designer. She was born and educated in Poland and came to the UK for no specific reason in 2007. Shortly after arriving in London, Kasia found her editorial calling and a first job as an assistant scientific editor. She works both with authors who are English native speakers and those for whom English isn’t their first language, and simply loves her job.
Kasia says: I hope it comes across from my blog that ‘non-native English speaker’ is to me an empowering term – it’s part of who I am and I’m proud of my linguistic heritage.
The CIEP’s own view on the use of these labels is available here: ‘”Non-native” and “native”: Why the CIEP is no longer using those terms’.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.
Aha! – Joseph Conrad Mark 2 🙂
Aww far, far from it Caroline, but a role model indeed! 🙂
Thanks, Kasia, for taking a deep breath and letting that cat out! I think we all suffer from impostor syndrome to some degree so I expect there will be lost of nodding heads and wry smiles in response to your lovely post.
Thank you Cathy! Isn’t the cat photo just excellent?! I have Abi and the blog team to thank for it 🙂
You’re certainly right about impostor syndrome; we talked about it at our last editing coffee and it’s just made me think how easy it is to fall prey to it, particularly working in isolation as some (most?) of us do.
Actually, I had a very negative reaction to that photo. Hopefully, your readers have more than two brain cells to rub together and would not introduce their pet to that bag. BUT showing any animal in a plastic bag is irresponsible, IMO.
Thanks for reading, Nancy.
Thanks for reading, Nancy. I’m sorry the photo has upset you – you’re obviously a caring soul. As far as I know, it came from the internet, but I don’t know how it was taken and how cats play with plastic bags (I don’t have a pet). As you say, our readers should be more responsible than taking it literally and trying this with their pets (please don’t!), and thank you for bringing this to everyone’s attention.
Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your experience, Kasia!
Thanks for reading Sophie and your lovely comment!
Thank you, Kasia! I like how you said it “overcoming my biggest challenge – my own prejudice against myself”!
Thank you, Zlatka! I actually realised that only while writing this post (you can imagine how long it must’ve taken me to finish it, but Abi is a saint and wasn’t too hard on me ;)) I had never any reason to think that anyone thought any less of me because of my non-UK background, yet I assumed they would, so I was shy about it. I feel like I deserve a big facepalm 😉
As a Portuguese who wants to pursue a carrier in English Proofreading, I can totally relate to what you have described in your text. I have to say that after reading this I feel more confident and not wondering anymore if I’m really trying to achieve something impossible.
Cristina, thanks so much for your comment, it’s people like you I was hoping to reach with this post. In the words of one famous ex-president (or his campaign manager ;)), yes, you can! 🙂
Oh yes. I very much understand your position! Though mine is slightly different (UK born, with a Polish father), I do sometimes wonder how authors will respond to someone with an obviously Polish name correcting their grammar and spelling. Happily, they are always absolutely fine.
Hi Maria, you and me both. But I guess if someone didn’t want to employ us, they wouldn’t, no matter our name. At one point I worked in an editorial team of 2 and my co-editor also had a Polish name (UK-born with Polish parents) – our journal masthead looked eccentric at best 😉
You’re a delight to work with Kasia and as someone who was state educated in the UK in 1980s, my grammar is appalling. Thankfully I’ve learnt to own my shortcomings!!!
Bex!! I’m going to be wholly unprofessional and thank you publicly with a <3 ! The feeling is very much mutual – you and your team make positive change a reality and it's something we can all be inspired by. Thank you for reading.
Thank you Kasia, for expressing so well these insights into the experience of the non-native English editor. As a Dutch native speaker and novice English editor/proofreader this is exactly how I feel, including the fear of ‘not being good enough’ for this profession, simply because English is my second language. I know of myself that I am capable of doing a good job (and I’m committed to keep learning and improving), but it’s mostly the fear of what clients might think when they hear me speak with an accent (which I also try to avoid at great lengths…) or find out I’m not a native speaker; it’s like I feel I have to prove myself all the time. Your article gives me confidence I can do this and must give myself some credit! Thank you very much for sharing.
Sofia, if you feel this is your calling, then I’m sure you’ll put every effort into making it as an editorial professional! I also hear that Dutch people have a pretty good grasp of English 😉 I wish you every success in your chosen career. Thank you for reading.
I loved this! Thank you. I was taught English literature by a wonderful Polish woman named Barbara Gzazdik who escaped the war (yes, I am now at the pointy end) and travelled across Europe to safety. At the time we didn’t question the fact that she wasn’t a native-born English speaker – it just was. She was an inspiration to some of us; she died only a couple of years ago.
Best of luck with your endeavours.
From one imposter to another – it’s not restricted to ESL people I assure you!
Thank you for your wonderful comment, Margie, it has really lifted my spirits. I wanted to recall that part of our shared history in my text, but that was risking turning it into a rambling mess. Clearly, it was meant to be a part of this as you’ve miraculously filled that gap! Re: the syndrome, I think it’s good to collect any positive feedback we get after we submit our work and return to it occasionally to remind ourselves we’ve done well and we can do well again!
Yes, we do need to revisit to give ourselves little pats on the back once in a while. And I hear you loud and clear about history. I love to read rambles, but it has to be the right time and place – you kept strictly to the point. So much of everything good to you.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I’m a non-native editor of English too, and it is encouraging to read about the impostor syndrome, which I’ve felt as well.
It seems to be something many editors share, no matter which language our parents speak. As I can also edit in my native language (admittedly, not as well as in EN) but I’m quite shy socially as well as not very eloquent when it comes to talking, I’ve felt the same in my native language. So, my logic says that it doesn’t have much to do with my non-native status, but sometimes I feel it does.
Although colleagues have treated me with nothing but kindness and respect, I do get the odd look when I mention what I do for a living, mainly due to my accent. I believe my work speaks for itself, but at the same time I do know some opportunities to show said work to prospective employees are cut short because of my non-native status – I’ve had a couple of colleagues say that there’s no way their employer would even send me a trial.
In any case, thanks again. Your post makes me feel more confident. I’m not a unicorn after all – or if I am, there are more of my kind 🙂
Hi Niko, thank you for your thoughts! I can relate to that too – getting the odd look. I kind of relish it, seeing it as a challenge (throwing the gauntlet sort of thing) 😉 I’m slightly appalled that some people would say that their employer wouldn’t even send you a trial, but at the same time, if the game is worth it, I’d go to that employer directly, bypassing those ‘well-wishing’ colleagues! As you say, your work speaks for itself. I also don’t take it personally if someone is uncertain about working with me – I’m completely fine with it, it’s up to them who they buy services from.
Keep it up, Niko and cherish your inner unicorn. You know, it’s my favourite mythical creature! 🙂
I was so pleased to see this article, I have the same issue. As my name is so obviously foreign, I always worry what authors and clients might think of me despite having similar work/study experience to yours. Thanks for your take on this, it’s really helpful!
Thank you so much for your comment, Maartje. Isn’t it interesting how we worry what others ‘might think’ of us, whereas what they actually think is more likely to be cause for celebration (and that little pat on the back that Margie Riley spoke about earlier)? Human nature!
I’m glad my blog has helped, keep at it! 🙂
Thank you for writing this, Kasia!
I moved to Malta as a child and did both my secondary and tertiary education in English. However, even after a Master’s in Teaching English and almost a decade in the teaching industry I still have moments when I feel that my name and my (nowadays thankfully slight!) accent work against me, so it is wonderful to see that others are in a similar situation and have overcome it just fine 🙂
Thank you for sharing your experience, Roberta. We worry about our accents so much.. but yes, embracing that which makes me stand out has helped me come to terms with it. Sounds like you’re doing great, too! All the best.
Nice blog Kasia 🙂
I have a different sort of anxiety that comes from not formally being taught English grammar at school (it was unfashionable at the time). All my grammar knowledge really comes from foreign-language learning. I can’t always explain why something is right or wrong grammatically (though I know it is). Also, I’m disappointed that is not your cat…
Thank you for reading, Fiona! It’s good to share our anxieties, I find – when we become aware of them, they tend to lose their hold over us..
Alas, my dog doesn’t get along with cats unless they run from him, then he’s the happiest boy