By Essayed Taha
Yasser Abdellatif is an Egyptian author, translator, and editor of the “Without Banks” series of experimental works, published by the Kotob Khan publishing house in Cairo. His novel The Law of Inheritance is available in Robin Moger’s translation from Seagull Books.
Can you define your role as an editor? What do editors do? And what don’t they do?
The role of a literary editor is to refine a text to its best possible form for publication. There are no strict boundaries to the authority of a literary editor; it largely depends on the original writer’s willingness to accept the editor’s input and the editor’s own abilities and permissions granted by the publishing house. The primary goal remains enhancing the text, both in terms of content and presentation, to achieve the highest quality. This involves making linguistic expressions smoother and more elegant, choosing the most fitting words from among synonyms, and ensuring the language flows well and is clear. Additionally, editors should pay attention to the text’s structure, identifying any issues and suggesting structural changes with the author’s approval. With precision, their responsibility is to prepare the text for its final, publishable form. Following this, the language proofreader steps in to serve as the last line of defense, catching any grammar or spelling errors that may have been missed by the writer and the editor.
In your opinion, why is developmental editing important for authors?
To start with, it’s important to clarify that correcting spelling and grammar errors isn’t the primary role of the editor. While editors may address errors they come across, as mentioned earlier, the final check for such issues falls to the language proofreader, who is expected to have skills that are distinct from those of the editor.
Regarding developmental editing, it also hinges on the relationships between the writer, editor, and publisher, particularly in terms of authority and acceptance. This type of editing has a dual nature: it can elevate the text to its highest level of quality, but it can also prioritize maximum “marketability,” often at the expense of creative integrity, if the latter aspect outweighs the former.
Would you be willing to tell us about a time an editor helped you develop your ideas, characters, etc?
This experience occurred while I was writing critical articles for two magazines: Bidoun, which focuses on visual arts, and Maazef, dedicated to music production. Bidoun was an English-language magazine based in Dubai. I worked with the artist Hassan Khan, who was Bidoun’s Cairo editor. I would compose the articles in Arabic, and he would handle the translation and editing into English. We engaged in extensive discussions regarding idea development and the translation process.
At Maazef, I collaborated with writer and academic Zeina Halabi. Here, too, we had conversations about refining ideas and preparing the features. Zeina, with her academic background, paid close attention to what was considered “correct” and what wasn’t. At times, due to academic rigor, she applied strict referencing and citation requirements, akin to scholarly research, although this approach might not always align with journalism, even in the specialized realm of cultural journalism. Notably, this kind of developmental editing didn’t apply to any of my literary works when they were published.
Do you think there are specific challenges for editors working in Arabic? Or if there are misunderstandings that authors have about the editor’s role?
The primary challenge lies in editors and, further down the line, publishers avoiding the pull of commercial marketing trends that dominate many major publishing houses, particularly in the Anglo-American sphere. It’s crucial for them not to adopt editorial policies that stifle the spirit of experimentation and creative exploration. Such a path often results in the production of indistinct works that tend to follow what is mainstream or “trendy.”
What are your most and least favorite parts of the job?
What I find appealing about the role of an editor is that it’s a profession I excel in and genuinely enjoy. This is especially true when I collaborate with a writer to develop their text right from the start. For instance, commissioning them to create a piece for the “Without Banks” series, which I edit at Khan Books in Cairo.
On the flip side, what I don’t appreciate is that, like many writing professions in the Arabic language, whether it’s authoring, translating, or editing—all of which I engage in—they often don’t bring in the expected financial returns. This is primarily due to the relatively small size of the industry and publishing market compared to the vast number of Arabic speakers, especially when compared to the financial rewards associated with these same professions in other languages.