A now dearly departed friend of mine was a living archive of Iroquoian linguistics. The first hour I sat down with him consisted of me asking questions, him reeling references off the top of his head, and my pencil trying desperately to keep up. To one of his suggestions I responded, “I’ve seen that one, but I had a hard time reading it.” To which he replied, “Well, you should have seen it before I rewrote it for her!”
My first semester in graduate school my Linguistic Field Work professor was asked if there was a difference between an informant and a collaborator. His answer, as I remember it—an informant is someone from whom you gather data, a collaborator is someone who really should be listed as a co-author.*
If ‘author’ mapped 1:1 with ‘writer’ the word amanuensis would not exist. But in my experience anthropologists tend to be largely oblivious of that fact. Growing up in an American Indian community I was not, and I was not alone. Plenty of people had strong feelings about who exactly the authors of a few fairly well-known ethnographies of our community were.†
So from time-to-time when you look at the author line recall invisible writers like my friend who helped make an Optimality Theory analysis of a Northern Iroquoian language accessible for posterity, and think about the typesetters who helped turn a copy edited and proofread Microsoft Word document into a small work of art. And imagine a universe of possible invisible authors: the patient old men and women who have expressed the same thing a dozen different ways because they know the ethnographer doesn’t understand no matter how much s/he is convinced s/he does, and the significant others whose solicited thoughts and advice were rewarded with an evenings’ worth of sulking. Seeing the end of the anthropological publishing process asks a lot of the individuals whose names end up on the author line, but it never asks it of them alone.
*Fiona McLaughlin and Thierno Seydou Sall’s chapter “The give and take of fieldwork” in the Linguistic fieldwork collection co-edited by my professor and Martha Ratliff is a must-read for any and all ethnographers.