Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Commandments of Literary Translation

In the last post, I briefly discussed Clifford E. Landers’ book Literary Translation: A Practical Guide. I enjoyed his “Twelve Commandments of Literary Translation” that he included in the book:

The Twelve Commandments of Literary Translation

I Thou shalt honor thine author and thy reader.
II Thou shalt not ‘improve’ upon the original.
III Thou shalt read the source text in its entirety before beginning.
IV Thou shalt not guess.
V Thou shalt consult thine author and other native speakers.
VI Thou shalt consult earlier translations only after finishing thine own.
VII Thou shalt possess – and use – a multitude of reference works.
VIII Thou shalt respect other cultures.
IX Thou shalt perceive and honor register and tone, that thy days as a translator may be long.
X Thou shalt not commit purple prose.
XI Thou shalt maintain familiarity with the source-language culture.
XII Thou shalt fear no four-letter word where appropriate.

Though I would add to the eleventh commandment that a translator should maintain familiarity with the target-language culture, too, as well as to both languages.


ilaria said...

While I may agree that these books are useful for beginners, I am most of the times uneasy with prescriptive works, because I'm under the impression that they somehow lack context, as comments to the previous post seem to suggest. In theory, I may accept for instance that commandment #2 is correct, but in practice who decides what can or cannot be improved? I remember once I had a literary translation test turned down explicitly because I had not "improved" the text. You may argue that those who assessed that test were not up to their job, yet in any case this is what the publisher expected: an "improved" text. So what I'm trying to say is that these prescriptive books would acquire much more value when taking into account the web of relationships (publishers, proofreaders, editors, readers, critics, etc.) translators are part of.

Eric Dickens said...

Commandments. This is tongue-in-cheek, but there are pearls of wisdom. Commentary:

1. Honouring your author means plagiarism is out. Martel Scliar?

2. Only compensate, in the case of poetry, where you may remove a rhyme or alliteration in one place and compensate at another.

3. I've actually broken this commandment. A novel I flicked through and read part of told my intuition that this was a good book. It has now been published. Not to be recommended as a technique, unless you know your author, though.

4. Easy and honourable. But if the deadline for your 70,000 words is next Tuesday and you've done 27,500, then you will inevitably cut corners in real life.

5. I always try to do this if the author is alive, and I have little faith in mediums and ouija boards for those beyond this Earth.

6. I believe that it can't do any harm to look at as many translations - I mean into other languages - as you can find. When I do Estonian novels, I'm happy to look at the Finnish, Swedish, German, or what's available. If there's already another English translation, maybe you should choose another book to translate. So few things get translated.

7. Yes. The internet is an enormous boon, though.

8. Well, erm, why are you a translator if you want to domesticise everything - unless you're doing thrillers and crime novels where the setting and local culture don't really matter?


10. What if the original is purple?

11. I always do. At present, I'm revising my Finnish by reading the online press - and about a variety of subjects, not just literature.

12. That's obvious. If you're squeamish about profanities and expletives, you limit the books you can translate. Though "Trainspotting" would bore me after three pages.

I agree about the eleventh / thirteenth commandment. My most important translation language is my mother-tongue and target language - English.

B.J. Epstein said...

I don’t think the commandments need to be taken so seriously – they are guidelines, ideas, and if they are not applicable to you, ignore them. One piece of advice doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, for every text, for every situation. Many people, for example, do not read texts completely before they accept assignments; I assume they at least skim the texts, though, to ensure that they feel capable of translating them.

Just for comparison, here is another set of commandments. These have been floating around the internet, so I am not sure of the source, but I think they are the same as a list that was featured in the ITI and SFÖ magazines at some point.

10 Commandments of a Freelance Translator

1. Deliver a good quality job within the deadline.

2. Don’t accept a job outside your abilities.
The “abilities” refer to specific area (a job outside your specialization), format (you are not on friendly terms with the relevant software), deadline (your best turnaround is not high enough to deliver the job on time), subcontractors (specialization again), etc.

3. Before accepting a job, check it thoroughly and fully.
Assess the complexity. Take the word count (and compare it to the word count in the PO). Leaf the file trough to the very end: if the first few pages look innocent it doesn’t necessarily mean the entire file is like that – there might be an ugly surprise closer to the bottom! If the file is to be processed in a specialized program, check if it opens alright (there might be tags or .ini file missing, or your software version is a bit too old to process it).

4. Before accepting a job, discuss all the details.
Payment issue is not a problem with regular clients, but an assignment of a new type might be. A good example is proofreading of a very poor translation: the deadline might turn impossible (and payment on per word basis way too low) because of the inferior quality. Delivery format, use of CAT tools, glossary to keep to – all of these should be discussed in advance.

5. Ask for a later deadline.
You know your turnaround better than anybody else, but it’s always good to be on the safe side. Most of the problems emerging while you are working (a virus, your kids phoning and asking to drive them home from school because they were late for the bus, or a severe headache) won’t last more than a few hours. But it’s these hours that you may be short of to complete the job. On the average, reserve 5% to 20% of the time, depending on the reliability of your system/hardware/working process).

6. Inform the client immediately if something goes wrong.
Internet connection problems, your PC going nuts, files not opening, family events requiring your interference – there are lots of things popping up in the course of work. Don’t hesitate – inform the client at once. In most cases, the deadline would be shifter accordingly, to everybody’s satisfaction.

7. Keep your word.
At times it is problematic – mostly, if you didn’t follow the above rules. While working on the job, you may discover that you undercharged (see #2 & 3), or the progress is too slow (see #1 & 4) – well, nobody was ever killed by a sleepless night. And that’ll be a good lesson!

8. Identify your principles, stick to them and be ready to accept the consequences.
The principles vary – there is no ideal solution – and each one would have its pros and contras. If you look for more jobs and work at lower rates, be prepared that the inflow of work may sometimes be overwhelming (it’s also true for those working at the highest rates, though!) If you subcontract, you will sometimes face with non-delivery or poor quality from your subcontractors. Anyway, try to work out the best principles and put up with their negative consequences! Comply with the general best practices and work out your own, like confirming every business message, getting confirmations of deliveries, storing archives and creating backup files, etc. Time spent on arranging the work process will help you to avoid problems in the future, and you’ll be rewarded for it.

9. Get a confirmation of a job receipt from the outsourcer.
A job is only delivered when the client received it. Even at that stage, the project cannot be regarded as completed: there might be minor changes requested by the end client, or some other follow-up. A job is generally regarded finished only after you get paid for it.

10. Enjoy it!