I receive a lot of emails from people
looking to get into translation and many of the questions I’m asked are common.
So occasionally I try to answer them here.
One that I get asked is how long the hours
are. This is one of the hardest questions to answer, because it depends. How
many hours you work depends on how much work you get asked to do, how much work
you want to do, what type of projects you take on, and how much time and energy
each assignment requires.
You could take on one short translation job
each month or you could work more than full-time as a translator.
Personally, I’ve been at both extremes, and
it’s depended on my circumstances (i.e. how dependent I am on the income from
translation and what other jobs I have). You can fairly easily build up a
career as a freelance non-fiction translator, but to work full-time as a
literary translator is generally harder.
I was recently told
about the Little
Red Schoolhouse writing method and form of writing instruction, which
was started at the University of Chicago in the 1980s. I was surprised I hadn’t
heard of it before.
“LRS is an approach to
writing instruction that proceeds from several core principles:
• Readers come to any
text with a fairly predictable set of questions and expectations. (These
expectations vary somewhat according to the community or discipline: literary
critics v. behavioral psychologists v. political scientists.)
• Effective writing
anticipates and responds to these predictable questions and expectations.
• In order to produce
effective writing, good writers employ a fairly predictable set of routines in
order to plan, draft, revise, and edit.
• Students who come to
understand readerly expectations and writerly routines produce more persuasive
arguments more efficiently.
• Most students
already have good intuitions about what readers want and what writers do: our
job is to help them articulate and define those intuitions, so that they can
more consciously control their writing.
• Our teaching begins
with intuition then proceeds to the principle.
• Students learn
routines best by "over-learning" them; that is, by practicing until
the routines are internalized and students can produce them with minimal
effort. Because reading and writing are complicated tasks, it's best to break
them down into manageable pieces, or sub-routines, for students.
• Once students are
comfortable with the routine, they can learn and practice techniques for
manipulating their writing to produce a range of effects.”
It sounds quite basic
and sensible, and worth looking into for anyone who writes and/or teaches
Many people have told me that children are essentially conservative readers and that they don’t want to read about people from other countries. That definitely hasn’t been my experience. In fact, I think children are curious and interested in the world beyond their homes and their countries.
Here’s a family reading children’s lit from around the world in 2015. It will be fun to see what they read and to follow their progress.
What world lit would you recommend for young readers?
sponsoring are major trends these days. They seem to be ways of avoiding big
companies, or minimizing stress, or trying out more unusual or avant-garde projects,
or to help pay for things that otherwise wouldn’t get paid for. I’ve helped
sponsor a book, for example, and I’ve heard of crowdfunding for clothing lines,
films, performance art, and even funerals.
I was recently told
about sponsoring translations. What do you think of that idea?
Here’s the information
I was given about this particular project:
“Haute Culture Books,
publisher of limited edition volumes is about to begin its first Book Angel
project with the first ever English translation of 'Truth & Justice' by
Anton Hansen Tammsaare.
With the support of
the Tammsaare Museum, National Library of Estonia, Tartu University Library and
Stanford University Library the project allows Book Angels to sponsor the
publication of this classic piece of Estonian culture opening it up to the
English-speaking world after a 70 year wait.
By sponsoring a
hardback print version of the book, Book Angels support the distribution of
free e-books of the text allowing a global audience to discover literary treasures
seldom seen in the English language.
More information can
be found at www.hauteculturebooks.com and www.hauteculturepress.com and if you
have any further questions don't hesitate to contact me.”
It’s the end of yet
another year. What are you proudest of in terms of your translation work? What
did you most enjoy translating?
I loved translating
poetry by Edith Södergran and also parts from Kristina Sandberg’s newest novel
(both works were originally written in Swedish). Kristina recently won the
August Prize in Sweden and is getting a lot of praise, which she deserves, so I
hope more of her work make it into English soon.
This article discusses whether people have a different personality for each language they speak. I’ve often felt somewhat different when speaking Swedish than when speaking English. It’s not just about having a different vocabulary and way of thinking about the world; there’s something about me that feels other. Do others feel the same (or, rather, different)?
A few months ago, I
was asked some questions by email by a student writing an MA thesis on translation.
They are the kinds of questions that come up a lot in regard to the publishing
industry, so I thought they’d be worth posting here. I just gave my own
opinions – what do you think?
What do you think are
the main reasons foreign authors get translated into English?
Frankly, it’s often
the bottom line. An author (often of thrillers or other genre fiction) sells
well in their native country, and publishers here see that and want to cash in
on it. That’s one reason why we don’t see as many literary works translated,
unfortunately. Another reason is the topic/genre/style – if one text does well,
publishers jump on any similar ones.
Do you think the
setting of the novel a deciding factor in publication?
Yes, it can be. There
are trends in translation, as hinted at above. For the past few years, Nordic,
especially Scandinavian, thrillers have been popular. Publishers have been
publishing all sorts of Nordic thrillers (and there has been a lot of Nordic
crime on TV too), some of which is of dubious quality. In research that I
carried out, I found that most readers didn’t differentiate between, say,
Iceland and Sweden, and didn’t really care where the book came from. In some
cases, they didn’t even know they were reading translations. They felt that all
those countries were the same, but they liked the fact that the isolated, often
cold settings seemed to reflect the crimes and the criminal mentality. Such
readers were willing to read any Nordic noir, whether the books were set in
Helsinki or Oslo. So I think the setting matters in a general sense, but that
readers may not care quite as much as publishers think they do.
Do you think foreign
authors are marketed in a different way to domestic authors?
They can be. The
covers often attest to that, showing that these books are from a particular
country (i.e. Nordic thrillers often have snowy, barren settings on their
covers). But I also think publishers try to hide the fact of translation to a
certain extent. Publishers underestimate readers and think the general public
can’t handle translated lit, so they might compare X foreign author to Y
domestic author in order to make the work seem more palatable. Or they might
keep the translator’s name in small letters.
How important a factor
is the author’s nationality?
Clearly, certain countries/ethnicities are more accepted than others,
and some languages are much more translated than others (French, German, and
Spanish come to mind). I keep referring to Nordic lit and that seems much more
acceptable to us in English-speaking countries, perhaps because Nordic people
aren’t seen as too different or too foreign. Publishers seem to feel that
readers might have a harder time connecting to characters in, for instance,
China or Latvia or Venezuela. Again, I think the public is underestimated here.
Sometimes it’s good for translators to be invisible. This article is about bad writing about sex, and it names and shames the authors and their books. However, the author (conveniently?) forgets that some works have been translated. So perhaps the translator should get some of the credit (or shame) too.
I was reading Michael
Rosen’s great new book Good Ideas – a book that is indeed filled with good
ideas for parents, teachers, and anyone really – and he has a section on
getting children interested in language or using language as a way of
interesting children in the world around them (pp. 235-9). Looking at signs in
museums or supermarkets, reading horoscopes in foreign newspapers, checking for
English among foreign words, and so on are just a few ways. I recommend the
book as a whole, but these pages in particular for those who want to start
making their children aware of linguistic and cultural differences.
I studied Latin when I was in grammar and high school and I’m so glad I did. This article discusses “taking an ancient language associated with the academic elite and reviving it as a remedy for the nation’s reading problems”.
This piece is on the word “literally”, which my students use way too often in speaking and writing.
This article is on academic writing, which is often quite poor, I think.
Speaking of academia, this post explores the crazy hours many academics work (and some just purport to work).
This list of the best love poems is quite odd. They only list some poems as translations whereas quite a number are clearly translated, so something has gone awry there. What would be on your list?
This article in the Guardian suggests that British readers are reading more translations these days. Do you think that’s true? What about in other English-speaking countries? (And yes, I’m quoted in the piece.)
One of the most common
recent questions has been what path you need to take if you know for sure you
want to get a PhD in translation studies one day. People ask me whether they
should study languages, literature, linguistics, translation studies at the
undergraduate or MA level, or some other topic entirely.
This is a very
individual choice, and I’m loathe to tell people how to shape their lives and
their careers. Obviously, to apply to and get accepted to a PhD program in
translation studies, you need to show that you have the requisite level of
skill in your chosen language/s and literature/s and other relevant subject
area/s. You’ll need to prove that you have the scholarly background necessary
for doing strong critical work in the humanities (i.e. a BA in sports science
probably won’t help). You may also need to show your expertise as a translator,
especially if you want to do a creative-critical PhD. But how you get these
skills and how you show them in your application will vary.
Personally, my BA is
in literature and creative writing and I have an MFA in creative writing. I
also worked as a practicing translator for some years before applying for my
PhD studies. That pathway worked for me, but I also know people who went for BAs
and MAs in translation first, then directly on to a PhD, and still others who
did undergraduate degrees in fields such as law or medicine and then switched
to languages and translation for their MAs. Others focused on language at the
undergraduate level and then came to literature and literary translation as MA
students. There is no one right way.
So my simple advice is
to consider what your interests are and where you eventually hope to end up. If
you want to become a pharmaceutical translator, then an undergraduate degree in
medicine might serve you very well. If you know you want to be an academic who
researches the translation of opera, then studying languages and music as an
undergraduate might be a good choice. And so on. Think about who you are and
what will inspire you, and take it from there.
translation by David
Bellos from the French translation by Jusuf Vrioni
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein
Twilight of the
Eastern Gods is, at its heart, a novel about words and writing. It’s about
telling stories, and the importance of literature. It is also an ominous tale
about politics, history, and geography, exploring the Soviet era and its
concomitant political beliefs. Since the time and place frequently are depicted
as rather creepy here, writing, too, can seem to be a suspicious activity.
The main character is
a young foreign writer who has gone to study in a literary institute in the
Soviet Union. All the students are well-known writers from their own regions,
but despite their drinking and partying, they are not typical students. “At
long last, after overcoming their adversaries, having accused them of
Stalinism, liberalism, bourgeois nationalism, Russophobia, petty nationalism,
Zionism, modernism, folklorism, etc., having crushed their literary careers and
banned the publication of their works, having hounded them into alcoholism or
suicide, or, more simply, having had them deported, that is to say, after
having done what had had to be done, they had been inspired to come to the
Gorky Institute to complete their literary education.” (pp. 43-4) Completing
their literary education, it seems, involves dedicating themselves to Socialist
Realism, which doesn’t quite work for our protagonist, who sometimes thinks
about and employs the folklore of his native country in his writing and his
In other words, though
the Institute and the harsh political situation seem to conspire to disenchant
the students in regard to literature (and also in regard to other aspects of
their lives, such as romance), the protagonist still retains his passion for the
written word, even if he just barely does so.
From a translation
angle, an interesting aspect of this book is that it is a relay translation,
albeit one that was delayed by thirty-three years. Jusuf Vrioni translated
Kadare’s novel from Albanian to French, and preeminent translator David Bellos
used Vrioni’s text to make the novel available in English (rather than
translating from Albanian to English, in other words).
Bellos includes a
helpful introduction to the novel, explaining some of the context behind it. He
notes that the work “re-creates Kadare’s experience of this strange ‘factory of
the intellect’ [i.e. the Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow], set
up to produce new generations of socialist poets, novelists and playwrights.”
(p. v) Kadare apparently wrote and rewrote chapters of Twilight of the Eastern
Gods over fifteen years, and the novel wasn’t first published until 1978 (the
French version by Jusuf Vrioni appearing three years later, and it included
sections that Kadare felt he had to take out of the Albanian original). Some aspects
of the novel would be hard, or harder, to follow without Bellos’s information,
or even without larger knowledge of the historical period (for example, Antaeus
the Greek’s situation, pp. 74 fwd.).
While the novel is
about the general themes mentioned above, it is based on an actual event: Boris
Pasternak being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, much to the displeasure
of the Soviet powers-that-be. Bellos discusses how “[t]he account of the
Pasternak campaign given in Twilight of the Eastern Gods has nothing fictional
about it: the discovery of a part of the typescript in the Writers’ Union
residence, the co-ordination of the press, radio and television campaign, the
roles of specific individuals, right down to the inexplicably sudden halt – all
these things really happened…it is also clear from this account of the
persecution of Pasternak that Kadare could imagine finding himself in the same
situation.” (p. ix) Indeed, Kadare did face similar charges and complaints to
Pasternak, “but in the end his real response to the constraints of living as an
international writer under a paranoid, isolationist Communist regime was the
write a novel that is also a declaration of fidelity to Albania and its ancient
folk culture.” (p. x) This duality – loyalty to both a place and to freedom of
ideas – comes through very clearly in the novel.
In short, Twilight of
the Eastern Gods is a fictionalised account of Ismail Kadare’s own experiences,
and it sheds light – even if only twilight – on a challenging historical, cultural,
and political period, while also encouraging the reader to recognise and admire
the power of literature.
On recent evening, I got
in the bath and picked up a novel that had been recommended to me. I was ready
to relax and enjoy some pleasure reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it past
the page of epigraphs. The reason was because the author quoted several
sentences from a variety of other novels, none originally written in English,
but of course didn’t mention the name of the translator.
In other words, the
author quoted Proust and Dante and some other writers in English, but failed to
show any awareness of the fact that these writers had been translated to
English, and that the quoted words had been written by someone else.
I’ve recently learned
about a new publisher based in Madrid, Hispabooks. I’m currently reading some
of their first publications and hope to report back on them soon, but for now I
thought I’d just give some information about the publisher.
Hispabooks aims to
translate Spanish literature to English and to promote it abroad. Here is some
information I was sent:
“Here in Spain around 30%
of what's published every year is in translation, very specially from English,
but as you may well know, the English book market has a much lower rate of
books in translation, with their infamous 3% rate. Within that, books from
Spain are only in the fifth place, behind titles from German, French or
Italian. With our deep knowledge of our own literature we were dismayed to see
how very few of our literary fiction writers managed to get a translation into
English of their work and how sometimes English or American publishers seem to
make a somewhat strange selection of the Spanish titles to translate, taking on
some minor works/authors and leaving out others, to us, more distinctive of
what contemporary Spanish fiction from Spain has to offer nowadays. We have
also seen a trend from publishers abroad to translate more Latinamerican
authors than Spanish ones. All that gave us the feel there was some work to do
there, and we decided to go ahead with Hispabooks!
We released our first titles last summer and have published 10 so far. All
books are by the best literary fiction writers in Spain (most of them
multi-awarded authors such as Marcos Giralt Torrente) and our translations are
by the best native English-speaking translators (Margaret Jull Costa, Peter
Bush, Nick Caistor, Thomas Bunstead, Jonathan Dunne, Rosalind Harvey and so on)
and thoroughly copyedited, if I may say, to great effect. Anyway, I hope you
like how all this sounds and I invite you to visit our web (www.hispabooks.com)
and facebook page (www.facebook.com/Hispabooks), where you may get a first hand
feel of what we do. In our web there are samples of the first pages of all the
books and in our facebook page a somewhat messy track record of our past events
and collaborations, namely taking our authors abroad to literary festivals.
Today is the feast day
of St. Jerome and as he’s the patron saint of translators, that means today is International
Translation Day. There are lots of events going on around the UK (and
elsewhere, of course). How will you celebrate?
Let’s all find a way
of honouring translators and translations today!
Like many of you
translators, I’m a language nerd, and I like learning more about languages –
both specific tongues and also languages and linguistics in general. So I
enjoyed Historical Linguistics by
Lyle Campbell; it’s a textbook, really, and you wouldn’t want to read it before
bed, but it is a fun and interesting book to dip into.
Campbell writes on the
first page: ”A number of historical linguistics textbooks exist, but this one
is different. Most others talk about
historical linguistics; they may illustrate concepts and describe methods, and
perhaps discuss theoretical issues, but they do not focus on how to do historical linguistics.” (p. xv) In
other words, the book is quite practical and it’s an introduction to historical
linguistics. It has more than 500 pages about topics including sound change,
linguistic reconstruction, lexical change, language contact, quantitative
approaches (for example, “glottochronology”), and more, with examples from
loads of different languages, including some I’d never heard of before, such as
Mednyj Aleut, Karuk, Cholti, and Uto-aztecan.
If you are interested
in how language changes and develops over time, you know that sound change is a
big part of this. Campbell talks about different ways for this to happen, such
as syncope (“The loss (deletion) of a vowel from the interior of a word”, p.
28), or anaptyxis (“a kind of epenethsis in which an extra vowel is inserted
between two consonants”, p. 30), or haplology (“in which a repeated sequence of
sounds is simplified to a single occurrence,” such as how some people pronounce
“library” as “libry”, p. 34). Campbell then shows how we can see which changes
have taken place and when. “In the history of Swedish, the change of umlaut
took place before syncope...From Proto-Germanic to Modern Swedish: *gasti-z > Proto-Scandinavian *gastiz > gestir > Old Norse gestr
> Modern Swedish gäst...We can be
reasonably certain that these changes took place in this chronological order,
since if syncope had taken place first (gastir
> gastr), then there would have
been no remaining i to condition the
umlaut and the form would have come out as the non-existent X gast.” (p. 39)
In another chapter, he
discusses different models, such as family trees (“the traditional model of
language diversification” which ”attempts to show how languages diversify and
how language families are classified”, p. 187) and dialectology (which “deals
with regional variation in a language”, p. 190), or sociolinguistics (which “deals
with systematic co-variation of linguistic structure with social structure,
especially with the variation in language which is conditioned by social
differences”, p. 193). In still other chapters, he discusses Pidgins and
Creoles, endangered languages, how children speak (“mamma” or “baba”, p. 354), and
writing. Campbell claims that you can reconstruct a language that doesn’t have
a written form (p. 396), but, as he puts it, it is often “a matter of luck, a
matter of what happens to show up in the sources” and sometimes you have to make
guesses (p. 398). But obviously spelling and pronunciation can help in
reconstructing the history of a tongue. For example, in English, there are
words such as “marcy/mercy ‘mercy’, sarten/certein ‘certain’,
parson/persoun ‘person’, and so on..that /er/ changed to /ar/ in the
pronunciation of the writer of these forms. (This change was fairly general,
though sociolinguistically conditioned, and it was ultimately reversed, but
left such doublets in English as clerk/clark, person/parson, vermin/varmint, and university/varsity.)” (p. 398)
Every chapter also has
exercises, in case you want to try your hand at what you’re learning.
This isn’t an
easy-to-read book, but it is a good one for learning a little (or a lot!) more about
Not long ago, a
journalist phoned me. She was writing an article about translated literature
and she wanted some quotes from me. So far, no problem.
She brought up the
infamous 2% number – i.e., only 2% of the books published each year in English
are translations. Yes, I agreed, we aren’t great at publishing translated
literature and we should try to learn from other countries/cultures. However, I
also pointed out that that figure does seem to be going up, and I mentioned
some of the publishers, literary magazines, and other organizations (such as
the British Centre for Literary Translation) that are working hard to get
translations out in English. The journalist muttered a bit, then cut me off.
A few days later, I
saw the final article. I wasn’t quoted, which was fine, but what was irritating
and frustrating was that she ignored all the positive things I told her.
Instead, she wrote that just 1% of the books published each year in English are
translations! She didn’t refer to any of the new translation-centered
publishers or anything else. Instead she just lamented how sad this state of
Idioms/proverbs/clichés can be one of the hardest bits of a language to learn, and they can also be really challenging to translate.
If a Swedish text says, “Don’t sell the bearskin before you’ve shot the bear,” should the translator keep that phrase as is (to retain the Swedishness of the text) or replace it with, say, “Don’t sell your chickens before they’ve hatched” (to make the text fit the English language better)? Or is there another, better solution (a footnote, for instance)? Interestingly, when I go to schools to talk to young people about translation, they are always evenly divided on this topic, with half the people wanting to keep the Swedish phrase and half wanting to replace it with an English equivalent.
When someone recently sent me a link with a list of Swedish idioms, I found it very interesting.
I then found a bunch of similar sites for English-language idioms, and I quite liked this one.
Perhaps you can add additional links for other languages in the comments.
I really liked these pictures of untranslatable words, but I do have to question the premise: if the words/concepts aren’t translatable, how can they be turned into illustrations? Drawing is a form of translation too, right?
By now, many of you will have seen Weird Al Yankovic’s music video “Word Crimes”, but I couldn’t help linking to it anyway. It’s way better than the original song it is parodying (I won’t give any publicity to the song and artist by naming them), and it’s a funny, tongue-in-cheek treat for word nerds.
You might be interested in this journal. Here’s the info I’ve received:
Asymptote's Summer issue was launched this week. Our Latin American Feature includes heavyweights César Aira, Sergio Chejfec, Rául Zurita, and Cristina Perri Rossi alongside new and heretofore untranslated voices; there’s also:
● an interview with Amit Chaudhuri on the Nobel winner Rabindranath Tagore
● an excerpt from Violette Leduc’s now-uncensored 1954 novel, championed by Simone de Beauvoir
● fiction by the 2013 European Union Prize for Literature Winner Faruk Šehić, accompanied by a video of the author reading the text.
● Japanese surrealist poetry newly translated by Yuki Tanaka & Mary Jo Bang (who recently translated Dante’s Inferno)
● a survey of contemporary Thai fiction, and much much more.
The edition, beautifully illustrated by Singaporean guest artist Robert Zhao Renhui, is available for free at http://asymptotejournal.com.
Children’s literature is, happily, a growing field of study (and a growing field for publication, including in translation). People often ask me where they can go to study the subject, so I’m pleased this helpful list now exists. It even includes my undergraduate course.
In my last post, I mentioned scholar and Chinese-to-English translator Lucas Klein. Lucas told me about The Translator Writes Back, a new blog where translators can respond to reviews/reviewers. There isn’t yet too much action on this blog, but it looks promising and I hope more people contribute.
In June, there was an East Asian translation studies conference held at my university. While attending some of the interesting sessions, I got a chance to catch up with Lucas Klein. Lucas and I went to high school and worked on the literary magazine together in Chicago and he subsequently went on to become a translator from Chinese to English. He lives, teaches, and translates in Hong Kong.
Originally from Chicago, I lived in southern Sweden for nearly 5.5 years, and moved to southern Wales in September 2006. I completed a Ph.D. translation studies in June 2009 at Swansea University, with a dissertation on the translation of children's literature.
Now I live in Norwich, England, where I am a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, and I also work as a translator, writer, and editor.
Contact me at bravenewwords (AT) gmail (DOT) com.