Found in translation: three literary translators share tips and secrets

A few months ago I mentioned in one of my newsletters that I was submitting my novels to Amazon Crossing, and one of my Undercover Soundtrackers, Alison Layland, sent me a ‘good luck’ note. But I didn’t know that Alison is herself a literary translator – and that made me think it would be fun to run a post on this often unexplored corner of writing life. A call to my Twitter followers unearthed two more literary polyglots. So if you’ve ever wondered if translation would be a good career for you, or considered working with a translator, or are simply curious … read on.

Dramatis personae

Rachel Ward

Rachel Ward

Rachel Ward @fwdtranslations translates from French and German to English, particularly crime fiction, women’s fiction and children’s books. In non-fiction, she has translated recipe books and titles on history, art and politics.

Lisa Carter

Lisa Carter

Lisa Carter @Intralingo translates from Spanish into English. Her work includes literary fiction, historical fiction, a scientific thriller and clockpunk. She’s also done one work of non-fiction, by a Guatemalan Mayan shaman.

Alison Layland

Alison Layland

And Alison Layland @alisonlayland translates from German, French and Welsh into English. Her CV includes a range of nonfiction (travel guides, coffee-table photo books, a recipe book) and, in the last few years literary, crime and romance fiction, alongside her own novel writing. (Here’s her Undercover Soundtrack.) Her most recent translation, The Moonlit Garden by Corina Bomann, is published by AmazonCrossing on 1 February 2016.

To begin at the beguine

Rachel took a languages degree, then a literary translation MA. Alison also had a languages degree and became a freelance translator as a career change. Commissions came as she built up relationships with translation agencies and networked with other translators. Most of her fiction work has been for AmazonCrossing; they have an online portal where translators can register and apply for projects, and recommend books to be considered for translation.

Alison says that if your aim is purely literary translation, it’s often a matter of championing a work in your source language and submitting proposals to publishers – although it can be a frustrating and difficult path. Despite that, this is how Lisa Carter got her break. A collection of short stories by Edmundo Paz Soldán captivated her so deeply that she contacted the author. ‘We worked together and published a couple of his short stories, then I was hired to translate two of his novels for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.’

After that, commissions come from networking and contacts, and being in the right place at the right time. Alison says: ‘My non-fic books have come from translation agencies or direct enquiries via my profile or colleague referrals. My first literary translation, The Colour of Dawn by Haitian author Yanick Lahens, was commissioned by the publisher as a result of my winning a competition in which I translated one of the author’s short stories from French into English.’

Lisa says she’s seen a change in the way work comes to her. In the past, publishers would approach her to see if she was a good match for a particular book. But ‘in the last few years, more commissions are coming directly from authors.’

We’ll look at self-publishing in a minute. But first, let’s consider the literary translator’s most outstanding feature.

2637465223_ae2843bdd8_zThe chameleon factor

There’s more to literary translation than rendering the content accurately. Like ghostwriting, good translation is a work of interpretation. The final work must do justice to the writer’s style. I asked about the challenges.

Rachel: ‘Being able to adapt to a writer’s style is just as important as conveying the meaning. Some voices sit nicely alongside my own, while others take longer to settle into. I do a quick first draft and leave a lot of alternative wordings, and then go back over it again and again until I’m satisfied, or the deadline arrives. I get as many people as possible to read for me too, looking for anything that jars.

Alison: ‘I usually read the novel first, and possibly others by the author, to decide if there are any issues I need to think about. The voice develops as I translate (and often the early chapters need more revision). It can be quite different from your own voice, but again, your writer’s voice changes between different novels and stories.

Lisa: That’s exactly it: we are chameleons. We have to sublimate our own personal style to portray what we have been given, down to the very last detail. The challenge is how to reflect all of the nuances of an original, rather than keeping our own voice at bay. I spend a lot of time studying a text before I begin to translate it. I look for how an author created a certain tone or mood or effect – things like sentence and paragraph length, determining what literary devices are being used, finding all of the elements that are specific to an author and a particular book. Only after I have deconstructed the text do I allow intuition to take over and begin putting words on the page. I then compare my draft to the original, to make sure I’m being faithful. Whenever time allows—and I always try to build this into my contracts — I let the manuscript rest before another edit. Then, depending on the situation, I might send the manuscript to the author to read (if they are fluent enough in English) so we can discuss the work as a whole before submitting it to the editor.’

Lisa has a lovely post here on the daily grapple with nuance.

nameCredit where it’s due – how is a translator acknowledged?

Alison says translators are often overlooked in media reviews, radio broadcasts and festival programmes, but the recent #NameTheTranslator Twitter campaign aims to draw people’s attention to this. And to thank them when they do give credit.

Rachel says the translator’s name should come after the author – ‘eg Traitor by Gudrun Pausewang, tr. Rachel Ward, Andersen 2003. There is some dispute about whether the translator’s name should go on the front cover, but it should definitely be on the title page, and the translation copyright should belong to the translator, not the publisher.’

An occupational hazard

Alison points out an interesting hazard of the translator’s life: ‘On the few occasions when readers don’t like aspects of a novel – the characters or plot – they might attribute it to “something being lost in translation” – regardless of whether it is a translation issue.’

What about working with self-published authors?

Lisa has just begun a self-publishing venture with an author from Spain, Luis Sanz Irles. His novel was published traditionally in Spanish, and they will self-publish the translation into English. ‘I’ve been wanting to do this for years, and so am truly excited.’

Rachel says she has worked with self-published authors on a few occasions. She says there are artistic advantages – ‘you can go straight to the horse’s mouth with questions on meaning. I might suggest an explanatory aside or that it might be good to add something to help the reader with an unfamiliar idea.’ But this access has disadvantages: ‘Obviously we both want to get it right, but there has to be a cut-off point if it comes to haggling over words or beloved phrases.’ There are business angles to consider as well, and the translator has to take on the bulk of the marketing. Rachel has a lot more about this on her blog.

More advice, information and secret handshakes

Rachel and Alison recommend The Emerging Translators Network and the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors. And Lisa offers a ton of information and tuition on her website.

Thanks for the chameleon pic Swaminathan. Alison’s portrait is by Sandra Dalton.

Over to you! Have you worked with a translator or are you considering it? Have you worked on translations yourself? Is there anything you’d like to ask our intrepid trio? In the meantime, clavar tu novela.

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  1. #1 by taks1960 on January 31, 2016 - 11:48 pm

    Reblogged this on Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life.

  2. #3 by Ali Stegert on February 2, 2016 - 7:16 am

    Fantastic article. Thanks for the insight into this interesting work.

  3. #5 by Daniel Trujillo on March 1, 2016 - 5:07 pm

    Hello. Thanks for the incredible insight. I believe that translators ought to be granted at least half the time it took for the author to produce the work to complete the translation. I see it as a rewriting and recreating effort, and should be valued as such. Perhaps commercial deadlines are the greatest threat to good quality, faithful translations.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 1, 2016 - 8:09 pm

      What an interesting point, Daniel. Although we perhaps wouldn’t need to for some literary writers, who spend much longer thinking about the structure and character than they do about the phrasing. But I like your point about rewriting and recreating.

      • #7 by Daniel Trujillo on March 2, 2016 - 2:36 pm

        Thanks, Roz. In my opinion translation is a cross cultural effort, which means the translator must get in the shoes of the readers, who are their readers on a way, and tell them the same story the author told their original readers, which implies not only understanding the story but retell it from the same place from when e it originally stemmed, be it reality or fiction. In that way, I feel the translator’s name ought to be next to that of the author, on the cover of the book.

  4. #8 by Alexander M Zoltai on June 26, 2016 - 2:20 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Translation is a strange Art & Roz Morris lets us hear from three of these artists in today’s re-blog…

  1. Three Literary Translators Share Tips and Secrets - Intralingo
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