What I’ve Learned from my First Literary Translation

Yesterday was the day. I turned in my first ever literary translation. According to the publisher, the book will come out in March, which I’m extremely excited for. In the past, the only experience I had translating was in college. I worked on ancient texts that were straightforward and the authors were clearly dead.

The frank saying, the deader the better, is one that is usually appealing to most translators. I think overall I agree with this statement on the heels of my maiden voyage, but who knows, perhaps my opinion will change if I keep up with this.

However, I did find a few positive aspects of being in contact with the very much alive author.

1. She was able to inform me of the type of voice she wanted the narrator to have. There was no way for me to know this because she had not written the character with a specific voice in the original German.

2. Knowing her real-life inspiration behind the story.

3. Hearing her opinions on what she liked about how her story could be portrayed in English that she was not able to accomplish in German (i.e., she liked the added mystery that English was able to lend specifically in regards to German being a masculine/feminine language and English is not).

4. etc.

Now, on the flip-side, she was WAY too nit-picky. Seriously, we quarreled over a versus the. Not all authors are like this I’m sure, but by the end of the process, I had more confidence in telling her: “It sounds fine. Don’t worry. Native English speakers will understand.” I had to keep reminding myself that I was the authority of my language in this instance.

In the end, the translator is the one who makes the decisions. The original work has been transformed into something else completely. If you ever take a look at the beginning of a translated work, there will be the author’s original copyright as well as a copyright for the translation credited to the translator–almost as if these are two completely different entities.

This weekend, the author finally told me that she was happy with it and apologized for all of the nit-pickery. In my mind, I knew that she was just nervous of putting her work into someone else’s hands (especially when multiple languages are involved).

I guess my words of wisdom to anyone who is looking to work on a literary translation for the first time would be: make sure to find a work that you are really excited about. The story I translated was perfectly fine, but it was not my choice (for various reasons I will not get into). At times, it felt like a slog because I had no passion just an everyday interest in the actual story. Parts of it dragged but when I hit really intriguing moments, it was a pleasure to work on it. If you’re trying to translate for publication, finding an author that hasn’t been translated before into the language you’re working with is the best way to go. I’ve heard this from numerous people, both translators and publishers. If you do decide on a writer who is alive, you have to figure out the legal rights situation. So, just remember, in that case, the deader is better.

I would advise against literary translation if you’re a scatter brain. You’ve got to keep yourself in check. I have a full notebook filled with my scribbles for just this one translation. No matter how fluent someone is you will still utilize at least 2 dictionaries. You have to be savvy with language dictionaries. Also remember that translating isn’t a solo activity. I ran stuff by both English speakers and German speakers.

But the most important thing is you have to be a talented writer. Word-for-word translation is bad. Literary translation is good.

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5 comments

  1. Must have been a pretty amazing experience.
    I worked as a translator briefly during college for the courts (a very different thing I’m sure), but I remember thinking that despite my absolute fluency in the languages concerned, how difficult and nuanced translating actually was. I can image that its even more so when dealing with a text, narrative, story structure, and author.

  2. Finally! I’ve been waiting for some translation-related stuff from you 😉 I very much like the sentence ” the most important thing is you have to be a talented writer,” which is so true. What I like about translation, any kind actually, is that you get to be someone else, just speaking another language. You have to know what kind of register that someone would use, what kind of vocabulary, idioms, long vs short sentences, more vs less elaborate, etc. Translation is so much about psychology and observation! Thanks for the post!

    1. Yes. I wasn’t sure if that line would come across as pretentious but I think it’s true. I just read a English translation of a German poet’s very difficult 5 page poem (re: sound poem). Because the translator was a good writer, his translation was truly phenomenal.

      I have been slacking on writing about translation lately. Because I just sent the story off to the editor & publisher, I’m taking the next week off to relax my brain! But I certainly have some upcoming translation-related events in the next few months: book fairs, etc.

  3. Congrats. 🙂

    I think any writer would’ve been nit-picky about their work being translated into another language. It’s perhaps like giving up a part of yourself to allow someone else to remold what was created.

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