Lately, I’ve come to question more and more how on earth I could have ‘chosen a career’ in language. Everything I do professionally has to do with words and language: from editing texts to translating, from teaching the alphabet as well as German and English, from hand-lettering quotes to writing this blog to keep you up to date, even. Although I made some compelling arguments for precisely this when asked by my former university why one should endeavor to study English, it’s become increasingly apparent to me that while I may be good at it (judging by my career success, in my modest opinion) – I may not be suited for it at all.
wrong is right and right is left
Let me explain what I mean. I love words. I always have, from as young as I can remember. Language is a beautiful thing. We learn in literature classes that well-written sentences should be short and include only what the reader desperately needs in order to understand. And yet we hail authors who use – and even over-use – adjectives in their writing. There’s a myriad of ways to say the same thing. But there’s often no really ‘right’ way to say something – there are just some that are more eloquent than others, and some that may be grammatically incorrect, or what you might call ‘wrong’. (But hey, I have a habit of ending my sentences in prepositions, which is also considered ‘wrong’, so what do I know?) This, for me, is the beauty of language: there are so many rights, and only very few wrongs. How you say what you say says so much more about you than you might realize.
And yet, this is a strange thing. In all other aspects of life, I prefer to have clear-cut rules, where there is one right and one wrong. I find this makes life and its decisions much easier. But alas, dear reader, you might be gasping ‘absolutes results in closed-minded thinking allowing for no faults or disturbances’ – and yes, that’s true. The biggest problem with this kind of lifestyle is acknowledging the fact that one’s own ‘right’ might not be the actual ‘right’, or – as with language – that there may not be a ‘right’ at all. (Not to mention the fact that I’m not too fond of the use of the word ‘right’ in its other meaning.) Only in my thirties have I begun to learn to function in a world not of black-and-white but of more than fifty shades of grey. And, well… spoiler alert: I’m still alive and well. Shocker.
So why the career stress? What I love so much about language as its avid student and recipient truly aggravates me as its teacher and producer of it. If there are so many different ‘right’ ways to say something, how can one possibly find the ‘best right’? I’ve come to find: you can’t. You can only find what suits you best. And this is the true problem. In my line of work, I must be able to explain these choices to my clients (and also sometimes to my students). This is something I believe is unique to editing – other professions working with language can always ‘explain’ their choices with ‘personal style’. As an editor, style only goes as far as rules go – or, actually, vice versa. First come the concrete rules you can apply, then you consult the previously agreed-upon style guide (which might break some rules due to the client’s house style), and then you might consider leaving the ‘mistake’ you flagged, considering it style. That can be a slippery slope at times.
from a to (insert letter of choice here)
So there you have the source of my doubts that overcome me at times (usually when I have time to reflect and am not currently working, i.e. holiday breaks and weekends). Sometimes I wish I worked in a field that had clearer directives: if you do A, then you must do B, there is no other option. Yet at the same time, I really think I might be so utterly bored that I’d search for the ambiguity language offers elsewhere in my life than in my career. And that might… well, how do I put it?… suck even more (for lack of a better word). So, there’s nothing left to do but suffer the ambiguity in silence (or in print) and relish the fact that I am truly blessed to work in a field that constantly has me thinking and wanting to improve the world, others, and – above all – myself.