What everyone ought to know about translation

I’ve been in the translation business for over thirty years and translated just about every kind of document you can name. I can assure that translating fiction is different from other kinds of translation, and that every book is an adventure in and of itself. I can also state with certainty that translation is rooted in something deeper and broader than foreign rights acquisitions and the mechanics of getting a work from one language into another. 

According to David Bellos, the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, “…the practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different—we speak different tongues and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same—that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist. Nor could anything we would like to call social life.”


The mechanics

It’s hard to follow that statement up with anything lofty, so I’ll talk about the actual mechanics. I approach a novel to translate in three phases: I read it, I do an initial translation, and then I do the real work. By this time, I understand the author’s intentions and I have a good feel for the author’s voice. This is when I kneed the English text and infuse it with the author’s voice; I adapt it so that the author’s intentions and story come through in another language and cultural context.  Sometimes, I spend time with the authors when I think more in-depth adjustments are needed in order for the story to reach the readers intact. 

After that, there are two more phases: editing, with our translation editor,  Amy Richards, whose astute redlining improves all of our translations. This is followed by a final go at the text.

Bellos calls translators matchmakers, because ultimately, they “find matches, not equivalences…in the hope and expectation that their sum will produce a new work that can serve as an overall substitute for the source.” He also says that “no translation can be expected to be like its source in more than a few selected ways…If meaning and force are kept the same and if in a limited set of other respects a translation is seen to be like its source, then we have a match.”

Of course, readers will not necessarily know how close the final result is to the source, so I would add that ultimately, for readers, what counts is that the end result is a good read. 

From the source

Julie Rose on translating The Greenland Breach

“The translation needed to be detailed—there’s a lot of info—but also spare, with all fat trimmed off, so as to not get in the way of the movement.”

Sophie Weiner, who translated White Leopard among other titles, on translating in general:

“Translation is all about making creative choices to solve verbal and cross-cultural issues. Aside from blatant mistranslations in meaning, there is no such thing as a wrong translation. A translation will never be an exact copy of the original, and it doesn’t aspire to be one. In my opinion, its purpose is to bring people in contact with new and sometimes challenging worldviews.”

Sally Pane on seeking out places in the book on a trip to Paris:

“I thought I had fallen for an imaginary destination [Clos Bretonneau in Montmartre Mysteries] on this scavenger hunt ‘Cooked up’ [sorry!] by authors Alaux and Balen, but I was happy to discover the real thing. Once I stepped into it, I understood why they chose the unusual little gem as the backdrop to the mystery.”

Jeffrey Zuckerman on Paris, after translating The City of Blood:

“Paris feels too beautiful for cutting-edge science research, so well preserved are its cobbled streets and yellowing façades. Building restrictions keep nearly every part of Paris less than 121 feet tall (with only a few skyscrapers and the Eiffel Tower), and many blue street signs are lovingly repainted. This scheme is so entrenched in the French mindset that a recent futuristic film, Renaissance, envisioned a Paris that has its streets replaced with thick glass and expanded not by building up but by digging deep underground. But how does this love for decrepit buildings mesh with science labs that need to be sterile and clean? Or with police investigations that require state-of-the-art technology? These were questions in my head as I translated The City of Blood for Le French Book, and I was delighted to find answers in the book’s pages.”