This month will be my 34th September writing editorials – 9,124 and counting. Only a few dozen (51 in whole or in part, to be exact) with the Buenos Aires Times, which is celebrating its first anniversary today. The series began in another newspaper and another century in 1985 (and another currency, the austral) when a November invitation to Japan found then-Buenos Aires Herald editor James Neilson needing to find an understudy in a hurry to pen the leaders in his absence. I was asked to write a test editorial (on the neverending subject of making teachers worthy of their hire, and vice versa), which passed muster and was published on September 25, 1985.
Between then and the death of the Herald (which ended as a daily on October 16, 2016, and as a weekly on July 28, 2017) over 9,000 editorials followed. Since readymade world news in English from international agencies was always so much easier than the local coverage so painstakingly translated and condensed from local sources, the Herald editorial was always dedicated by way of compensation to explaining Argentina to outsiders. With very few exceptions (thus 9/11 17 Septembers ago prompted 17 consecutive leaders on that mega-terrorism) outside the year 2008 when international editorials replaced the translation for the only time in around half a century – between the odium of crushing the newspaper’s traditional independence and exposing his Kirchnerite masters (or rather mistress) to some honest opinions in a language she could understand, the then-new owner Sergio Szpolski sought this escape in a wider world. These international analyses appearing under the main editorial (which I long excluded from my total as an involuntary imposition) add 372 written in just over a year to my personal tally.
The translation accompanying the editorial in all my experience (save in 2008 and now with the Times) is worth a paragraph. This hugely expanded our scope by offering our opinion to a much wider audience but we can take no credit for shrewd marketing – the obligation to render editorial opinion in Spanish was imposed by a military dictatorship (not the most notorious 1976-83 tyranny but a junta from the preceding 1966-73 period) who wanted to know what was being said about it and they ended up doing us an enormous favour. Apart from broadening the market, the translation greatly reduced the error rate because any mistakes had to pass a double or even triple filter (if not by the translator, then by the editor on a final read if the Spanish seemed strange). The late Inés Pardal for almost two decades and Anali Trevin in the Herald’s last decade were the unsung heroines of the translation.
The dedication to local analysis and translation into Spanish were not the only preconditions for writing Herald editorials – there was also a structural tradition to be respected. This was what was known in the trade as the “French model” of three paragraphs (rigidly maintained in the Herald for over 70 years at least but relaxed in the Times where the average length of an editorial has grown from 400 to 600 words) – thesis, antithesis and synthesis or conclusion. This might seem an intolerable corset but it brings to my mind a verse of Goethe I love and which counters the Sturm und Drang Romanticism usually linked to his younger phases : “Vergebens werden ungebundene Geister/nach der Vollendung reiner Höhe streben./In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,/und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben” (which, loosely translated, reads : “In vain do uninhibited spirits shoot for the heights, the first lesson comes from finding our limits and the law can only set us free”). This quote goes far toward explaining why Germany is Germany and Argentina is Argentina although it should be added that for a long while in the last century Germany forgot its Goethe.
Anyway, the virtue of this rigid structure here is that it bars the editorial from pursuing a single line or thrashing one issue to death, as often happens with columns – the editorial is thus protected from overlap with the column and its identity guaranteed. The obligation to give both sides effectively prevents the editorial from laying down the law even though there is a conclusion – the purpose then becomes to ask the questions rather than answer them. A purpose which will always maintain its value because, as that first editorial on teachers’ pay 33 Septembers ago might show, some questions are never answered.