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Brett Jocelyn Epstein: Ken, you started your career as a teacher, and have also been a computer programmer, copy writer, and court assistant. How did you get into translation and how do your other background experiences help you as a translator?
Ken Schubert: I started translating informally soon after I came to Sweden. It seemed the natural thing to do since I've always had a flair for writing. But I actually started doing it professionally as a means to get a work permit – I had been a student up that point, and that doesn't allow you to stay in Sweden long-term.
The key to being a good translator is to have a broad experience of life, both personally and professionally. For most of the texts I get, I can say "Been there, done that..." in one sense or another. It makes a big difference.
BJE: If you think "the key to being a good translator is to have a broad experience of life, both personally and professionally," what does that suggest for young translators who are just starting out?
KS: I'd say that they should focus on the kinds of texts that they can relate to in terms of their own lives and try to read widely and experience other areas. On the other hand, most of us have a vast reservoir of knowledge about many different areas by the time we've reached our late teens. Perhaps I should modify my original statement and say that the key to being a good translator is the ability to relate the text you're translating to your own experience, direct or indirect. If you stop to think about it, you're likely to find that you know a lot more about the subject, at least the essence of what it's about, than you give yourself credit for. Or maybe this has to do with the importance of approaching a text from a comprehensive understanding.
BJE: You've translated literary works as well as more technical documents, such as financial reports and contracts. What kinds of documents do you prefer to translate and why? What sort of translation do you find most challenging? And, to bring all this back to your last comment, how do feel you relate the texts you work on to your own experiences?
KS: There's a thrill to translating literary works. But I never managed to have any of them published, with the exception of a story in an anthology recently. So I wouldn't translate a literary work again unless I knew it was going to be published. Generally the satisfaction of translation is connected with knowing that somebody is going to read and benefit from it. Based on that, I'll take the rather radical position that all kinds of texts are equally challenging and satisfying. Often you have the same opportunity for creativity in an annual report or a letter from the Social Insurance Administration as you do in a novel. In neither case am I talking about creativity in terms of inventing something, but rather in finding ways to reflect the text you are translating in the deepest and most natural way. A phrase might be brilliant in an annual report and lousy in a novel, or vice versa – the challenge in either case is to establish a voice that conveys the spirit of the original and stick to it. As far as relating to my own experience, an annual report is generally about a company that sells a product or service that you have used or seen someone else use – in other words, it's about the everyday world. Of course, that's even more obvious in a novel, which is generally based on universal human experiences.
BJE: Many people find it very difficult, at least initially, to translate contracts, annual reports, instruction manuals, or other such technical documents. They may be experts in terms of the languages involved, and they may even have studied some technical subjects, but it is hard for them to, as you say, relate the texts to their own experiences. Do you have advice for them? Should they look at translation in a different way?
KS: One of the few things I never translate is instruction manuals, and that's probably because I'm lousy at reading them myself. The reason I like contracts and annual reports is that I can easily relate them to the everyday world. Another reason I'm good at contracts is that they are very logical, and I have a logical mind – I majored in math in college. So I would say that people who don't have that bent might want to avoid contracts. But I think that annual reports should be easily relatable for most translators once they get past the misconception that the reports are difficult or unusual in some way.
BJE: I absolutely agree that non-fiction, such as contracts or reports, can be creative and stimulating to work on. There is a thrill in finding the right words and make the text available to a wider audience.
This conversation will be continued in the next post.