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Gilles Vilasco acceptance speech (May 26, 2018)

Guest speakers at the Editors Canada annual conference,
Members of the national executive council,
The Executive Director of Editors Canada and the staff of the National Office,
Dear colleagues,

It is with immense pride that I address myself to you: I am proud to belong to your community, to our community, to the community of Canadian editors.

Why such a sense of pride?

First, because of the honour bestowed on me today. The award represents extraordinary professional recognition. And also because this is the first time the prize has been awarded to a francophone, 40 years after the association’s birth.

PRIDE and RECOGNITION. Excellent. But I’m tempted to ask, as in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters—do you remember? “Oh! ah! A Persian, is he? Most amazing! However can anybody be a Persian?”—“However can anybody win the prestigious Tom Fairley Award?”

Tom Fairley Award 101: When editors accept a job and exercise their calling, they do the best they possibly can, I presume. But does this best correspond to the excellence sought for and rewarded by the Fairley? From personal experience, I can answer, “No, the best is not necessarily excellent.” I submitted my candidacy for the 2012 award, for my editing of Le Québec APRÈS Bouchard-Taylor — L’identité religieuse de l’immigration [Quebec AFTER Bouchard-Taylor: The religious identity of immigration]. I felt I had done the best possible job, but it just wasn’t enough.

How to stand out? When I read the descriptions of the books edited by my two colleagues in the short list, to whom I extend warm greetings, I reflect that I wouldn’t like to be in the judges’ shoes. The subject matter seems so rich and substantial that I can imagine just as substantial a job of editing! Even more so since 2017 seems to have been an exceptionally fertile year, with numerous submissions for the award. (Allow me to present my respects to the volunteer judges.) So what must one do—what can one do—to deserve the award?

The recipe seems to lie in a harmonious mix of ingredients: a zest of personal history; a pinch of interests, particularly in history; sprinkle everything generously with skills.

SKILLS? This is the classic triad, “Savoir, savoir-faire, savoir-être” (knowledge, know-how, and life skills). And keep in mind that the possibilities are simultaneous: being the right resource, in the right place, at the right moment, that is, at that moment when the right client really needs the sum of what you are. It’s a matter of timing (we use the English word in French). And why do I use the word “sum”? Because it was the whole of my personal and professional history that led me to practise all the facets of the editor’s trade required for this project: general knowledge, structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing—because of my interest in typography, I am much moved to think of my friend Aurel Ramat, who died on May 20, 2017—and proofreading. Note that the project didn’t involve editing a translation or indexing.

SO WHAT IS THE “RIGHT” CLIENT? A person who has confidence in the editor, who is open to ideas, who can appreciate the added value that the editor brings to the project. I must recognize that, from our first meeting, there was an atmosphere of mutual esteem and great respect between my client and myself. It no doubt goes without saying that editors always show great respect for their clients; in the circumstances, however, a palpable chemistry really grew and lasted throughout the project, remaining intact even after the intense and exacting phase of correcting the printer’s proofs. I cannot help but be pleased. And it’s a privilege that I hope all editors can experience at least once in their lives!

CERTAINLY I WAS WORKING WITH A GOOD CLIENT. BUT IS THAT ENOUGH TO ATTAIN EXCELLENCE? Of course not! It is certain that one’s education and academic experience can play a decisive role. In my case they do, but isn’t that true of everybody here this evening?

To answer this question (“How is it that that an editor can not only presume to compete for the Tom Fairley Award but also dream of winning it?”), let’s go back to editing. In Vie française (A French Life) by Jean-Paul Dubois, translated by Linda Coverdale, the narrator describes his mother’s profession at the beginning of the first chapter:

My mother, Claire, hardly ever talked about her work as a proofreader. Once, and only once, she briefly explained to me that she corrected the grammatical and spelling errors of journalists and authors who were careless about the usage of the subjunctive or the agreement of past participles. You might consider that a relatively repetitive and peaceful task—hardly a stressful one, in any case. You would be wrong, though. A proofreader never rests. A proofreader must always ponder, wonder, and, above all, worry about missing a mistake, an error, a barbarism. My mother’s mind was never at peace, so compelled was she, at all hours, to verify the proper application of a rule or the validity of a correction by consulting a small mountain of books dealing with the particularities of the language. A proofreader, she used to say, is a kind of cheesecloth employed to filter out linguistic impurities. Yet, never satisfied by her biggest catches, Claire Blik was haunted instead by those tiny slipups, that sediment of inaccuracies constantly swarming through her mind. She often rose from the table in the middle of supper to go check something in one of her encyclopedias or specialized reference works, merely to quell a surge of anxiety or lay some niggling doubt to rest. Such behavior was not specific to my mother’s character. Most proofreaders apparently develop this kind of verificative mania. Their occupational hazard is the endless quest for purity and perfection.*

The simplicity of the answer that I can share with you now will not surprise you. You just have to devote all the professional skills acquired throughout a long career to a major project. “Savoir, savoir-faire, savoir-être”: the third of these is, need I remind you, just as important as the other two! And good timing. All these factors had a decisive influence, I believe; in combination they enabled me to earn the recompense that you have awarded me today, and I am sincerely grateful to you. I will share this recognition with all Canadian editors who practise their craft in French.

I would now like to toast the health of all the editors in this room who identify with this compulsive behaviour that typifies editors, according to Jean-Paul Dubois! I love the last sentence: “Their occupational hazard is the endless quest for purity and perfection.”

THANK YOU for your attention and your patience!

* Jean-Paul Dubois, Vie Française. Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, pp. 12–13.