Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Literary Translation: A Practical Guide

In the last post, I mentioned Clifford E. Landers’ book Literary Translation: A Practical Guide. I happened to pick it up at the library a couple of weeks ago and I think it is a good book for beginners; it discusses many of the things I have posted about here before, and has information about a lot of aspects of translation, some of which people don’t necessarily consider. For example, his chapter on a day in the life of a literary translator shows the different decisions he makes (about contractions, honorifics, swear words, and much more) and the research he carries out as he translates. There is also information in the book about contracts, copyright, ethics, and ideology. His view is quite pragmatic; when trying to decide whether to define certain dishes referred to in a literary text, he says that he is not translating a cookbook or a sociological treatise, but a novel. Therefore, no long explanations or footnotes should be used. In sum, Landers’ guide offers a broad view of literary translation as well as some short discussions of particularly challenging or interesting topics, and it is worth reading.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

La Dernière Translation

Not long ago, I read Clifford E. Landers’ book Literary Translation: A Practical Guide. I will write more about the book itself in upcoming posts, but for now, here is a poem included in it:

La Dernière Translation
by Millôr Fernandes
translated by Clifford E. Landers

When an old translator dies
Does his soul, alma, anima,
Free now of its wearisome craft
Of rendering
Go straight to heaven, ao céu,
al cielo, au ciel, zum Himmel,
Or to the hell – Hölle – of the great
Or will a translator be considered
In the minute hierarchy of the divine
Neither fish, nor water, ni posson ni l’eau
Nem água, nem piexe, nichts, assolutamente
What of the essential will this
mere intermediary of semantics, broker
of the universal Babel, discover?
Definitive communication, without words?
Once again the first word?
Will he learn, finally!,
Whether HE speaks Hebrew
Or Latin?
Or will he remain infinitely
In the infine
Until he hears the Voice, Voz, Voix, Voce,
Stimme, Vox,
Of the Supreme Mystery
Coming from beyond
Flying like a birdpássarouccelapájarovogel
Addressing him in…
And giving at last
The translation of Amen?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Round-Up of Articles

I’m off to a conference on story-telling now, so here is a list of interesting articles to keep you occupied until I return.

article on why you shouldn’t rely on Babel Fish – apparently it nearly caused a diplomatic incident.

Here’s a
piece on language enrollments increasing. Thank you to Erika Dreifus for sending me this article!

article is on the spread of English as a global language and how that might change the standard form of the language.

information on the influence of Irish on American slang.

article is on titles, but it includes a paragraph on translation that shows how some authors are not understanding when it comes to challenges involved in translation. Here is quote:
“He even described receiving a letter from a Finnish translator, which said (in Heller's paraphrase): ‘I am translating your novel Catch-22 into Finnish. Would you please explain me one thing: what means Catch-22? I didn't find it in any vocabulary. Even assistant air attaché of the USA here in Helsinki could not explain exactly.’ Heller added: ‘I suspect the book lost a great deal in its Finnish translation.’´

Not too surprising – Americans are reading less, as this
article discusses.

Unfortunately, the
last two speakers of a dying language won’t speak to one another.

Finally, this
article discusses translation in English-speaking countries. It says:
“In Germany 13% of books are translations. In France it's 27%, in Spain 28%, in Turkey 40% and in Slovenia 70%, but in Britain and America the best estimates suggest that the fraction of books on the shelves which started off in another language is somewhere around two per cent…Translation is considered by many universities to be insufficiently significant or original to add lustre to an academic CV, while publishers routinely sweep evidence of translation off the covers of books.”

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Name and Shame: Dealing with Problem Customers

I recently had an unpleasant experience with a customer. I rarely work with agencies, but not long ago I was contacted by an agency and invited to work on the Swedish and Danish parts of a large, multilingual project. Since I have trouble saying “no”, I agreed.

Before I started the work, I signed a contract. The agency had calculated the number of words and written how much I would get paid. The project itself was sent to me in an unusual program that makes it hard to count words, but I eyeballed the text and thought the amounts listed on the contract looked about right. So I signed.

Immediately, I noticed that a few sentences in the Swedish part were not Swedish, so I pointed this out several times to the project manager, who didn’t seem to understand or care. I translated the Swedish parts, ignored the rest, and everything seemed fine.

A week later, I got a new contract and was told to sign it. Suddenly, the price I was getting paid was close to one-half of what I had originally agreed to. I protested, explaining I had already signed a contract and agreed to a fee. Yes, I was told, but they had initially just estimated the number of words and now they had actually counted the words (not including the few ones that they only now figured out were not Swedish). So the original contract didn’t mean anything, as it had, they claimed, just been an estimate.

Of course at this point, I’d already submitted the translation, so it seemed that there was nothing I could do but agree to the new price (and, no, I didn’t feel like wasting my time counting all the words). But I strongly resented this tactic and felt that I was being cheated; I had followed my part of the contract, and now they were going back on what they had promised. What, then, was the point of having a contract?

This is one reason why I don’t like working with agencies, but even direct customers sometimes try to change fees after they have received the translated text. Some translators ask for payment (or partial payment) upfront, to avoid these kinds of situations, but often assignments are expected back quite quickly, which means the translator doesn’t have the time to wait for a check to clear or a transfer to show up in their bank account before starting the job.

It is a difficult to find an ideal solution to such situations; one thing we translators could do is to publicize the names of problem customers, both so our fellow translators don’t get burned as we have and also to shame these clients into treating their translators better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Literary Translation Prizes Event at Waterstone's in Hampstead

Those of you in or near London might be interested in the following event at Waterstone's in Hampstead. If I lived closer to London, I certainly would go.

Literary Translation Prizes Event

Daniel Hahn (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2007) chairs a discussion between winners and runners-up of three of this year's major literary translation prizes:

Sarah Ardizzone (née Adams) - WINNER - Scott Moncrieff Prize for French translation(for her translation of Faïza Guène's 'Just Like Tomorrow'). Cultural journalist and translator of many beautiful books for children, by Daniel Pennac and others.

Nick Caistor - WINNER - Premio Valle Inclán, for Spanish translation(for his translation of Dulce Chacón's 'The Sleeping Voice'). Translator of many of Spain and Argentina's leading writers, e.g. Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alan Pauls, Jose Saramago, Eduardo Mendoza, Juan Carlos Onetti, Rodolfo Fogwill, Manuel Vazquez Montalban.

Anthea Bell - RUNNER-UP - Schlegel-Tieck Prize for German translation(for her translation of Eva Menasse's 'Vienna'). Translator of the Asterix books (with Derek Hockridge) and many adult and children's authors e.g. W.G. Sebald, Cornelia Funke, Wladyslaw Szpilman, Hans Magnus Enzensberger & Stefan Zweig.

THURSDAY 15th NOVEMBER AT 7PM Tickets £3, available in person or on 7794 1098
Waterstone's 68-69 Hampstead High St. NW3 1QP

Monday, November 12, 2007

Educating the Consumer

This weekend, I had a rather gratifying experience. I was at the eye doctor and I began chatting with a salesman there who was helping me order new lenses for my glasses. He asked me what I do and I told him a bit about my research and about my work as a translator. He was curious about this and asked me more.

That led to a big discussion of what translation is, why people in English-speaking countries resist learning other languages or reading translated literature, and why translation is important, especially for children. This man offered me the platitude, “Children are our future,” and while a cliché, it is nevertheless true; translated fiction is essential because it gives children – our future – the opportunity to learn about other cultures and peoples. More knowledge is never a bad thing; my view is that if we all made an effort to learn about people from different backgrounds and in different situations, there would be more intercultural understanding and thereby fewer stereotypes and eventually less fighting.

The man told me that he often bought books for his girlfriend’s children but that he had never once thought to check if the books were translated and, if so, from what language, or even if they were about people from other cultures. And he had certainly never stopped to consider how those books might be translated and what agenda the authors, translators, publishers, librarians, and other adults might have in terms of writing, translating, publishing, or promoting those books. “Your research sounds interesting,” he told me. “This has really given me something to think about.”

So my day was a success, not necessarily because I finally ordered my long-needed new lenses, though that was also good, but because I had the chance to educate a consumer on the importance of translation and to make him a more aware reader and purchaser of books. And who knows? Maybe he’ll mention our conversation to other people and they, too, will start to think about all this.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Round-Up of Articles

Once again I’ve noticed quite a few articles of interest of late.

Here is a
piece on translation software from the Wall Street Journal.

interview with Pierre Bayard from the New York Times discusses reading.

An article from The Hindu looks at an anthology of short fiction from South India and discusses translation in India.

This BBC
article on interpreting is from a few years ago, but is nevertheless worth reading.

An interview with lexicographer Erin McKean provides insight into a career working with dictionaries.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Wicked Stepmother Tongues

I saw this interesting blog post on using “stepmother tongues”, i.e. on people who write in or translate to a language other than their native one.

I have worked on translations to Swedish with native Swedish speakers, but I doubt I would ever want to be completely responsible for any jobs to Swedish, because it is not my native language and I know there are things I would miss or be unable to translate as well as I could when working to English. I turn down such assignments when asked to take them on, explaining why. Likewise, I regularly write articles and essays in Swedish, but I would probably not want to write fiction in any language other than English. You just have a different feel for your mother tongue than you do for your stepmother tongues.

Some rare people are true bilinguals and can write in or translate to more than one language equally well. And some people do eventually feel comfortable and confident working in a language other than their native one. The post mentions Samuel Beckett and Milan Kundera as examples; Vladimir Nabokov is another one, as is Elias Canetti, though he did learn German from a fairly young age.

But I confess that I am suspicious when people profess “true fluency” in a multitude of languages and take on assignments requiring them to translate both to and from their native language. Many people do have stepmother tongues, but sometimes those stepmothers can be wicked and can make us think we are better at them than we actually are.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Blog Update

The old archive by category has been taken away and in its place, there is now a clearer and more organized system of finding everything by label. See on the left, below the various links. This will make it easier for you to find the topics that interest you. Incidentally, feel free to email me with ideas for or comments on the blog.