22 August 2008


A few weeks ago, I read an interesting piece about the editorial
responsibility of correcting text when quoting from a printed source. For
example, if a journalist wanted to quote this text:

"I wants to see big muntains befor I died."

Should the journalist change it to 'I want to see big mountains before I
die," or should she leave it as is. On the one hand, changing the text may
remove essential clues as to the nature of the writer (say, a sociopath).
On the other hand, not changing the text may leave in place a barrier to the
reader's emotional comprehension (ie dismissing the writer as ignorant when
in fact she may be a precocious five-year old). I don't recall the
resolution that the journalist reached, but I was reminded of that article
when I read a piece in THE NEW YORKER about Tavis Smiley (of whom I'm a big
fan). The piece quoted Tavis Smiley saying (not writing) on Obama:

"If the brother wins, I'm gon' be on the front line of the electric slide -
I'm gon' be there celebrating, like everybody else."

If you've ever heard Smiley speak, you know that while he has more
soulfulness to his voice than Obama, he's also just as articulate and
intelligent. I wonder, then, at the thought process behind the
transcription of "gon'." Why not use "going to?" What does using "gon'"
tell us about Smiley that we needed to know? That he's African-American?
We already knew that. That he has a relaxed speech pattern? Why not change
"celebrating" to "celebratin'," or "the electric" to "th' 'lectric?" Or
maybe there's something more subtle?

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