It’s the end of yet
another year. What are you proudest of in terms of your translation work? What
did you most enjoy translating?
I loved translating
poetry by Edith Södergran and also parts from Kristina Sandberg’s newest novel
(both works were originally written in Swedish). Kristina recently won the
August Prize in Sweden and is getting a lot of praise, which she deserves, so I
hope more of her work make it into English soon.
This article discusses whether people have a different personality for each language they speak. I’ve often felt somewhat different when speaking Swedish than when speaking English. It’s not just about having a different vocabulary and way of thinking about the world; there’s something about me that feels other. Do others feel the same (or, rather, different)?
A few months ago, I
was asked some questions by email by a student writing an MA thesis on translation.
They are the kinds of questions that come up a lot in regard to the publishing
industry, so I thought they’d be worth posting here. I just gave my own
opinions – what do you think?
What do you think are
the main reasons foreign authors get translated into English?
Frankly, it’s often
the bottom line. An author (often of thrillers or other genre fiction) sells
well in their native country, and publishers here see that and want to cash in
on it. That’s one reason why we don’t see as many literary works translated,
unfortunately. Another reason is the topic/genre/style – if one text does well,
publishers jump on any similar ones.
Do you think the
setting of the novel a deciding factor in publication?
Yes, it can be. There
are trends in translation, as hinted at above. For the past few years, Nordic,
especially Scandinavian, thrillers have been popular. Publishers have been
publishing all sorts of Nordic thrillers (and there has been a lot of Nordic
crime on TV too), some of which is of dubious quality. In research that I
carried out, I found that most readers didn’t differentiate between, say,
Iceland and Sweden, and didn’t really care where the book came from. In some
cases, they didn’t even know they were reading translations. They felt that all
those countries were the same, but they liked the fact that the isolated, often
cold settings seemed to reflect the crimes and the criminal mentality. Such
readers were willing to read any Nordic noir, whether the books were set in
Helsinki or Oslo. So I think the setting matters in a general sense, but that
readers may not care quite as much as publishers think they do.
Do you think foreign
authors are marketed in a different way to domestic authors?
They can be. The
covers often attest to that, showing that these books are from a particular
country (i.e. Nordic thrillers often have snowy, barren settings on their
covers). But I also think publishers try to hide the fact of translation to a
certain extent. Publishers underestimate readers and think the general public
can’t handle translated lit, so they might compare X foreign author to Y
domestic author in order to make the work seem more palatable. Or they might
keep the translator’s name in small letters.
How important a factor
is the author’s nationality?
Clearly, certain countries/ethnicities are more accepted than others,
and some languages are much more translated than others (French, German, and
Spanish come to mind). I keep referring to Nordic lit and that seems much more
acceptable to us in English-speaking countries, perhaps because Nordic people
aren’t seen as too different or too foreign. Publishers seem to feel that
readers might have a harder time connecting to characters in, for instance,
China or Latvia or Venezuela. Again, I think the public is underestimated here.
Sometimes it’s good for translators to be invisible. This article is about bad writing about sex, and it names and shames the authors and their books. However, the author (conveniently?) forgets that some works have been translated. So perhaps the translator should get some of the credit (or shame) too.
I was reading Michael
Rosen’s great new book Good Ideas – a book that is indeed filled with good
ideas for parents, teachers, and anyone really – and he has a section on
getting children interested in language or using language as a way of
interesting children in the world around them (pp. 235-9). Looking at signs in
museums or supermarkets, reading horoscopes in foreign newspapers, checking for
English among foreign words, and so on are just a few ways. I recommend the
book as a whole, but these pages in particular for those who want to start
making their children aware of linguistic and cultural differences.
I studied Latin when I was in grammar and high school and I’m so glad I did. This article discusses “taking an ancient language associated with the academic elite and reviving it as a remedy for the nation’s reading problems”.
This piece is on the word “literally”, which my students use way too often in speaking and writing.
This article is on academic writing, which is often quite poor, I think.
Speaking of academia, this post explores the crazy hours many academics work (and some just purport to work).
This list of the best love poems is quite odd. They only list some poems as translations whereas quite a number are clearly translated, so something has gone awry there. What would be on your list?
This article in the Guardian suggests that British readers are reading more translations these days. Do you think that’s true? What about in other English-speaking countries? (And yes, I’m quoted in the piece.)
One of the most common
recent questions has been what path you need to take if you know for sure you
want to get a PhD in translation studies one day. People ask me whether they
should study languages, literature, linguistics, translation studies at the
undergraduate or MA level, or some other topic entirely.
This is a very
individual choice, and I’m loathe to tell people how to shape their lives and
their careers. Obviously, to apply to and get accepted to a PhD program in
translation studies, you need to show that you have the requisite level of
skill in your chosen language/s and literature/s and other relevant subject
area/s. You’ll need to prove that you have the scholarly background necessary
for doing strong critical work in the humanities (i.e. a BA in sports science
probably won’t help). You may also need to show your expertise as a translator,
especially if you want to do a creative-critical PhD. But how you get these
skills and how you show them in your application will vary.
Personally, my BA is
in literature and creative writing and I have an MFA in creative writing. I
also worked as a practicing translator for some years before applying for my
PhD studies. That pathway worked for me, but I also know people who went for BAs
and MAs in translation first, then directly on to a PhD, and still others who
did undergraduate degrees in fields such as law or medicine and then switched
to languages and translation for their MAs. Others focused on language at the
undergraduate level and then came to literature and literary translation as MA
students. There is no one right way.
So my simple advice is
to consider what your interests are and where you eventually hope to end up. If
you want to become a pharmaceutical translator, then an undergraduate degree in
medicine might serve you very well. If you know you want to be an academic who
researches the translation of opera, then studying languages and music as an
undergraduate might be a good choice. And so on. Think about who you are and
what will inspire you, and take it from there.
translation by David
Bellos from the French translation by Jusuf Vrioni
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein
Twilight of the
Eastern Gods is, at its heart, a novel about words and writing. It’s about
telling stories, and the importance of literature. It is also an ominous tale
about politics, history, and geography, exploring the Soviet era and its
concomitant political beliefs. Since the time and place frequently are depicted
as rather creepy here, writing, too, can seem to be a suspicious activity.
The main character is
a young foreign writer who has gone to study in a literary institute in the
Soviet Union. All the students are well-known writers from their own regions,
but despite their drinking and partying, they are not typical students. “At
long last, after overcoming their adversaries, having accused them of
Stalinism, liberalism, bourgeois nationalism, Russophobia, petty nationalism,
Zionism, modernism, folklorism, etc., having crushed their literary careers and
banned the publication of their works, having hounded them into alcoholism or
suicide, or, more simply, having had them deported, that is to say, after
having done what had had to be done, they had been inspired to come to the
Gorky Institute to complete their literary education.” (pp. 43-4) Completing
their literary education, it seems, involves dedicating themselves to Socialist
Realism, which doesn’t quite work for our protagonist, who sometimes thinks
about and employs the folklore of his native country in his writing and his
In other words, though
the Institute and the harsh political situation seem to conspire to disenchant
the students in regard to literature (and also in regard to other aspects of
their lives, such as romance), the protagonist still retains his passion for the
written word, even if he just barely does so.
From a translation
angle, an interesting aspect of this book is that it is a relay translation,
albeit one that was delayed by thirty-three years. Jusuf Vrioni translated
Kadare’s novel from Albanian to French, and preeminent translator David Bellos
used Vrioni’s text to make the novel available in English (rather than
translating from Albanian to English, in other words).
Bellos includes a
helpful introduction to the novel, explaining some of the context behind it. He
notes that the work “re-creates Kadare’s experience of this strange ‘factory of
the intellect’ [i.e. the Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow], set
up to produce new generations of socialist poets, novelists and playwrights.”
(p. v) Kadare apparently wrote and rewrote chapters of Twilight of the Eastern
Gods over fifteen years, and the novel wasn’t first published until 1978 (the
French version by Jusuf Vrioni appearing three years later, and it included
sections that Kadare felt he had to take out of the Albanian original). Some aspects
of the novel would be hard, or harder, to follow without Bellos’s information,
or even without larger knowledge of the historical period (for example, Antaeus
the Greek’s situation, pp. 74 fwd.).
While the novel is
about the general themes mentioned above, it is based on an actual event: Boris
Pasternak being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, much to the displeasure
of the Soviet powers-that-be. Bellos discusses how “[t]he account of the
Pasternak campaign given in Twilight of the Eastern Gods has nothing fictional
about it: the discovery of a part of the typescript in the Writers’ Union
residence, the co-ordination of the press, radio and television campaign, the
roles of specific individuals, right down to the inexplicably sudden halt – all
these things really happened…it is also clear from this account of the
persecution of Pasternak that Kadare could imagine finding himself in the same
situation.” (p. ix) Indeed, Kadare did face similar charges and complaints to
Pasternak, “but in the end his real response to the constraints of living as an
international writer under a paranoid, isolationist Communist regime was the
write a novel that is also a declaration of fidelity to Albania and its ancient
folk culture.” (p. x) This duality – loyalty to both a place and to freedom of
ideas – comes through very clearly in the novel.
In short, Twilight of
the Eastern Gods is a fictionalised account of Ismail Kadare’s own experiences,
and it sheds light – even if only twilight – on a challenging historical, cultural,
and political period, while also encouraging the reader to recognise and admire
the power of literature.
On recent evening, I got
in the bath and picked up a novel that had been recommended to me. I was ready
to relax and enjoy some pleasure reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it past
the page of epigraphs. The reason was because the author quoted several
sentences from a variety of other novels, none originally written in English,
but of course didn’t mention the name of the translator.
In other words, the
author quoted Proust and Dante and some other writers in English, but failed to
show any awareness of the fact that these writers had been translated to
English, and that the quoted words had been written by someone else.
I’ve recently learned
about a new publisher based in Madrid, Hispabooks. I’m currently reading some
of their first publications and hope to report back on them soon, but for now I
thought I’d just give some information about the publisher.
Hispabooks aims to
translate Spanish literature to English and to promote it abroad. Here is some
information I was sent:
“Here in Spain around 30%
of what's published every year is in translation, very specially from English,
but as you may well know, the English book market has a much lower rate of
books in translation, with their infamous 3% rate. Within that, books from
Spain are only in the fifth place, behind titles from German, French or
Italian. With our deep knowledge of our own literature we were dismayed to see
how very few of our literary fiction writers managed to get a translation into
English of their work and how sometimes English or American publishers seem to
make a somewhat strange selection of the Spanish titles to translate, taking on
some minor works/authors and leaving out others, to us, more distinctive of
what contemporary Spanish fiction from Spain has to offer nowadays. We have
also seen a trend from publishers abroad to translate more Latinamerican
authors than Spanish ones. All that gave us the feel there was some work to do
there, and we decided to go ahead with Hispabooks!
We released our first titles last summer and have published 10 so far. All
books are by the best literary fiction writers in Spain (most of them
multi-awarded authors such as Marcos Giralt Torrente) and our translations are
by the best native English-speaking translators (Margaret Jull Costa, Peter
Bush, Nick Caistor, Thomas Bunstead, Jonathan Dunne, Rosalind Harvey and so on)
and thoroughly copyedited, if I may say, to great effect. Anyway, I hope you
like how all this sounds and I invite you to visit our web (www.hispabooks.com)
and facebook page (www.facebook.com/Hispabooks), where you may get a first hand
feel of what we do. In our web there are samples of the first pages of all the
books and in our facebook page a somewhat messy track record of our past events
and collaborations, namely taking our authors abroad to literary festivals.
Today is the feast day
of St. Jerome and as he’s the patron saint of translators, that means today is International
Translation Day. There are lots of events going on around the UK (and
elsewhere, of course). How will you celebrate?
Let’s all find a way
of honouring translators and translations today!
Like many of you
translators, I’m a language nerd, and I like learning more about languages –
both specific tongues and also languages and linguistics in general. So I
enjoyed Historical Linguistics by
Lyle Campbell; it’s a textbook, really, and you wouldn’t want to read it before
bed, but it is a fun and interesting book to dip into.
Campbell writes on the
first page: ”A number of historical linguistics textbooks exist, but this one
is different. Most others talk about
historical linguistics; they may illustrate concepts and describe methods, and
perhaps discuss theoretical issues, but they do not focus on how to do historical linguistics.” (p. xv) In
other words, the book is quite practical and it’s an introduction to historical
linguistics. It has more than 500 pages about topics including sound change,
linguistic reconstruction, lexical change, language contact, quantitative
approaches (for example, “glottochronology”), and more, with examples from
loads of different languages, including some I’d never heard of before, such as
Mednyj Aleut, Karuk, Cholti, and Uto-aztecan.
If you are interested
in how language changes and develops over time, you know that sound change is a
big part of this. Campbell talks about different ways for this to happen, such
as syncope (“The loss (deletion) of a vowel from the interior of a word”, p.
28), or anaptyxis (“a kind of epenethsis in which an extra vowel is inserted
between two consonants”, p. 30), or haplology (“in which a repeated sequence of
sounds is simplified to a single occurrence,” such as how some people pronounce
“library” as “libry”, p. 34). Campbell then shows how we can see which changes
have taken place and when. “In the history of Swedish, the change of umlaut
took place before syncope...From Proto-Germanic to Modern Swedish: *gasti-z > Proto-Scandinavian *gastiz > gestir > Old Norse gestr
> Modern Swedish gäst...We can be
reasonably certain that these changes took place in this chronological order,
since if syncope had taken place first (gastir
> gastr), then there would have
been no remaining i to condition the
umlaut and the form would have come out as the non-existent X gast.” (p. 39)
In another chapter, he
discusses different models, such as family trees (“the traditional model of
language diversification” which ”attempts to show how languages diversify and
how language families are classified”, p. 187) and dialectology (which “deals
with regional variation in a language”, p. 190), or sociolinguistics (which “deals
with systematic co-variation of linguistic structure with social structure,
especially with the variation in language which is conditioned by social
differences”, p. 193). In still other chapters, he discusses Pidgins and
Creoles, endangered languages, how children speak (“mamma” or “baba”, p. 354), and
writing. Campbell claims that you can reconstruct a language that doesn’t have
a written form (p. 396), but, as he puts it, it is often “a matter of luck, a
matter of what happens to show up in the sources” and sometimes you have to make
guesses (p. 398). But obviously spelling and pronunciation can help in
reconstructing the history of a tongue. For example, in English, there are
words such as “marcy/mercy ‘mercy’, sarten/certein ‘certain’,
parson/persoun ‘person’, and so on..that /er/ changed to /ar/ in the
pronunciation of the writer of these forms. (This change was fairly general,
though sociolinguistically conditioned, and it was ultimately reversed, but
left such doublets in English as clerk/clark, person/parson, vermin/varmint, and university/varsity.)” (p. 398)
Every chapter also has
exercises, in case you want to try your hand at what you’re learning.
This isn’t an
easy-to-read book, but it is a good one for learning a little (or a lot!) more about
Not long ago, a
journalist phoned me. She was writing an article about translated literature
and she wanted some quotes from me. So far, no problem.
She brought up the
infamous 2% number – i.e., only 2% of the books published each year in English
are translations. Yes, I agreed, we aren’t great at publishing translated
literature and we should try to learn from other countries/cultures. However, I
also pointed out that that figure does seem to be going up, and I mentioned
some of the publishers, literary magazines, and other organizations (such as
the British Centre for Literary Translation) that are working hard to get
translations out in English. The journalist muttered a bit, then cut me off.
A few days later, I
saw the final article. I wasn’t quoted, which was fine, but what was irritating
and frustrating was that she ignored all the positive things I told her.
Instead, she wrote that just 1% of the books published each year in English are
translations! She didn’t refer to any of the new translation-centered
publishers or anything else. Instead she just lamented how sad this state of
Idioms/proverbs/clichés can be one of the hardest bits of a language to learn, and they can also be really challenging to translate.
If a Swedish text says, “Don’t sell the bearskin before you’ve shot the bear,” should the translator keep that phrase as is (to retain the Swedishness of the text) or replace it with, say, “Don’t sell your chickens before they’ve hatched” (to make the text fit the English language better)? Or is there another, better solution (a footnote, for instance)? Interestingly, when I go to schools to talk to young people about translation, they are always evenly divided on this topic, with half the people wanting to keep the Swedish phrase and half wanting to replace it with an English equivalent.
When someone recently sent me a link with a list of Swedish idioms, I found it very interesting.
I then found a bunch of similar sites for English-language idioms, and I quite liked this one.
Perhaps you can add additional links for other languages in the comments.
I really liked these pictures of untranslatable words, but I do have to question the premise: if the words/concepts aren’t translatable, how can they be turned into illustrations? Drawing is a form of translation too, right?
By now, many of you will have seen Weird Al Yankovic’s music video “Word Crimes”, but I couldn’t help linking to it anyway. It’s way better than the original song it is parodying (I won’t give any publicity to the song and artist by naming them), and it’s a funny, tongue-in-cheek treat for word nerds.
You might be interested in this journal. Here’s the info I’ve received:
Asymptote's Summer issue was launched this week. Our Latin American Feature includes heavyweights César Aira, Sergio Chejfec, Rául Zurita, and Cristina Perri Rossi alongside new and heretofore untranslated voices; there’s also:
● an interview with Amit Chaudhuri on the Nobel winner Rabindranath Tagore
● an excerpt from Violette Leduc’s now-uncensored 1954 novel, championed by Simone de Beauvoir
● fiction by the 2013 European Union Prize for Literature Winner Faruk Šehić, accompanied by a video of the author reading the text.
● Japanese surrealist poetry newly translated by Yuki Tanaka & Mary Jo Bang (who recently translated Dante’s Inferno)
● a survey of contemporary Thai fiction, and much much more.
The edition, beautifully illustrated by Singaporean guest artist Robert Zhao Renhui, is available for free at http://asymptotejournal.com.
Children’s literature is, happily, a growing field of study (and a growing field for publication, including in translation). People often ask me where they can go to study the subject, so I’m pleased this helpful list now exists. It even includes my undergraduate course.
In my last post, I mentioned scholar and Chinese-to-English translator Lucas Klein. Lucas told me about The Translator Writes Back, a new blog where translators can respond to reviews/reviewers. There isn’t yet too much action on this blog, but it looks promising and I hope more people contribute.
In June, there was an East Asian translation studies conference held at my university. While attending some of the interesting sessions, I got a chance to catch up with Lucas Klein. Lucas and I went to high school and worked on the literary magazine together in Chicago and he subsequently went on to become a translator from Chinese to English. He lives, teaches, and translates in Hong Kong.
I’m often contacted by
people who are interested in doing a PhD in translation, but they want help
coming up with ideas for topics. This is a bit odd, I suppose, because if
you’re going to do research, you should have enthusiasm for your topic, which
generally means there’s something that intrigues you that you want to devote
three or more years of your life to.
Nonetheless, here are
some general, broad suggestions for topics/approaches for a PhD dissertation:
(you do a translation and then write a critical commentary on it)
--the translation of a
--interpretation in specific
--subtitling of a
--translation as an
strategies for particular types of texts or specific challenges in translation
--an analysis of the
translation of a text/author to one or more languages
--translation and ethics
--translation as a
I’m sure you can think
of some more. Are there any additional suggestions?
English-to-Hebrew translator Gili Bar Hillel recently asked other translators, including me, for tips for new translators, which she then posted on her blog. Her original post was in Hebrew, but due to popular demand, she’s now put an English version up.
It’s time for another round-up of interesting articles and other links.
I love Oliver Burkeman’s weekly column in the Guardian (and his two books based on the column). A recent column was on writing. He notes: “It’s the writer and reader, side by side, scanning the landscape. The reader wants to see; your job is to do the pointing.”
The New Yorker questions whether literature should be useful.
The BBC notes that young people are lacking language skills. “The UK’s education system is failing to produce enough people with foreign-language skills to meet a growing need from business, the CBI has said. Nearly two-thirds of about 300 UK firms surveyed by the business lobby group said they preferred staff with these skills. French, German and Spanish were highly prized but Arabic and Mandarin were growing in importance, it said.”
Here is some
information about a new translation prize you might be interested in submitting
work for. Also see https://gulfcoastmag.org/contests/prize-in-translation for more details.
We Are Now Accepting Entries
For the Inaugural Gulf Coast
Deadline: August 31, 2014
Gulf Coast is now accepting entries for
the inaugural Gulf Coast Translation Prize. In 2014, the contest is open to
poetry in translation. The winner receives $1,000 and publication in the
journal. Two honorable mentions will also appear in issue 27.2, due out in
April 2015. All entries will be considered for paid publication on our website
as Online Exclusives.
This year’s contest will be judged by Jen Hofer, a Los
Angeles-based poet, translator, social justice interpreter, teacher, knitter,
book-maker, public letter-writer, urban cyclist, and co-founder with John
Pluecker of the language justice and literary experimentation collaborative
Antena. Her recent translations include the homemade chapbook En
las maravillas/In Wonder (Libros Antena/Antena Books, 2012); Ivory
Black, a translation of Myriam Moscona’s Negro marfil (Les
Figues Press, 2011, winner of translation prizes from the Academy of American
Poets and PEN); and two books from Dolores Dorantes by Dolores
Dorantes (Counterpath Press and Kenning Editions, 2008). Her
essays, translations and poetry are available or forthcoming from numerous
small presses, including Action Books, Atelos, Counterpath Press, Kenning
Editions, Insert Press, Les Figues Press, Litmus Press, LRL Textile Editions,
Palm Press, Subpress, Ugly Duckling Presse, and in various DIY/DIT
incarnations. She teaches bookmaking, poetics, and translation at CalArts
and at Otis College.
Poetry: Send up to 5 pages of poetry translated into English.
Preference will be given to contemporary work published within the last fifty
As part of your submission, include the text in its original
language, provide a brief synopsis (no more than 200 words) of the author you
are translating, and indicate whether you have, and can grant us, permission to
publish the original work and the translation. If you have rights to reprint
the original text in the U.S., please let us know that as well.
Demonstrations of Permission
We will not consider submissions without permissions. In your
submission, please provide one of the following:
--A document stating that the original text is in the public domain.
--From the copyright holder: Written
permission granting you right to translate the work in your contest submission.
Permission should name the work being translated, date consent was given, and
identify the copyright holder.
--Please let us know if you have rights to
reprint the original text in the U.S.
- Submit up to five translated
poems, including the original text, single .doc, .docx,
.rtf, or .pdf file.
- Only previously unpublished
work will be considered.
- The contest will be judged
blindly, so please do not include your cover letter, your name, or any contact
information in the uploaded document. This information should only be pasted in
the “Comments” field.
Contest Guidelines for Postal Mail Submissions
- Only previously unpublished
work will be considered.
- Please address postal mail
ATTN: Translation Prize
Department of English
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-3013
- The contest will be judged blindly, so your contact information
should appear only on your cover letter.
- Please include your $17 reading fee, payable in U.S. dollars to
This review was originally
published in Wales Arts Review. It’s worth republishing here not just because
it’s about an interesting book in translation but also because the story of the
book’s translation is intriguing in and of itself!
by Anne Ch. Ostby
278 pp., Victoria, Australia: Spinifex, 2013.
translation by Marie Ostby
of Love by Anne Ostby tells a story that arguably
has not previously been discussed quite so openly, beautifully, and sorrowfully
in literature before. It is a depressing read, yes, but it also has a welcome
aura of hope, and belief in the human spirit. Human trafficking and
prostitution are issues that must get more attention; while this novel is set
in India, this is not just an Indian tale. Early on, the narrator notes,
“Principles were a luxury that no one in Prem Nagar could afford.” (p. 23)
Again, this could apply to many other locales around the world.
This is Ostby’s description of the women
principles in Prem Nagar who are unable to afford: “Girls sitting on chairs in
doorways, on covered wooden platforms, or on benches under the thatched roof,
in the semi-dark entrance to what they called home. Dressed in dazzling,
sequined saris, tight blouses in feisty red or elegant peacock blue, with their
shining hair oiled and newly combed. Heavily made-up eyes fixed in a distant
gaze, long earrings gleaming in the afternoon sun, aggressive, pink lipstick.
Slouching shoulders over small, pointy breasts. The workforce of the Town of
Love.” (p. 7)
If that doesn’t both break a reader’s heart
and draw a reader in, it’s hard to know what would.
Norwegian novelist Anne Ostby became
engaged in this topic by chance. As she wrote to me by email, “I lived in Iran
at the time [in 2007], and my husband had an Indian colleague. I knew he was
married, but his wife was not there, and I had heard something about her
running an NGO back home in India. But she visited Tehran now and then, and
during one of those visits I met her: Ruchira Gupta, founder and President of
the anti-trafficking NGO Apne Aap, which has helped thousands of women get out
of a life of prostitution and violence. She has received all sort of
international honours for her work, the UK Abolitionist Award and the Clinton
Global Citizen Award among them. Ruchira is an incredibly brave and inspiring
woman, and I am honoured that she has written an afterword to the book. But
back to Tehran: at our very first meeting, I asked Ruchira about her work. The
more I listened to her, the more I wanted to know, and when all of a sudden she
said, ”Why don’t you come visit me in India and see what we’re doing?”, I
immediately thought, ”Yes, I want to do that.””
Anne did go visit Ruchira in India. She
ended up making multiple trips, meeting women, seeing the work Apne Aap carried
out, doing research, and, eventually, writing the novel. Anne notes that she
was especially touched by the situation of Nat women in India; their families
often had multiple generations of prostitutes, and Ostby, as the mother to
three daughters, thought, “How it must be, how it must feel, to give birth to a
baby daughter, and know, holding that tiny body in your arms, that this is
going to be her future?”
That concern for the women (and even a
concern for the men who pimp them out and live off them) comes through clearly
in the novel. “Something had been shattered forever. All she could do now, all
anyone could do, was to wrap gentle arms around what was left. Cradling,
rocking, softly kissing the wound.” (p. 117) These women have a very hard life,
but some of the do finally find a way forward.
A reader can sense the research that has
gone into this book, but that doesn’t mean that Ostby is showing off, the way
some writers do. Her novel feels authentic, and not as though she is simply
cramming as many facts and details as she can into it. “The first puri
halwa-vendor wheeled in and parked his cart, the aroma of deep-fried bread and
coconut-sprinkled sweets drew in a breakfast-hungry crowd around him. Smells
and sounds coloured the morning…” (p. 255) Such sentences set the scene and
bring the story alive, serving as a vibrant backdrop to this sad tale of
For me, one of the most interesting aspects
of the production of this book, besides the research, is the translation. The
translator is one of the novelist’s daughters, Marie Ostby. Anne told me by
email that Marie is a PhD student in English at the University of Virginia in
the US and is fully bilingual. Anne wrote me, “I knew she would "get"
the book, and my language, down to the slightest nuance and detail. ..I knew no
one could do it better. She has an extremely fine-tuned ear for both Norwegian
and English language, and she was touched by the story and wanted to convey the
exact sentiments that she felt were present in the Norwegian ms. Additionally,
I wouldn't have been able to cooperate as closely with any other translator as
I did with Marie. During the process, which took months, we were in touch over
every chapter and every paragraph, at times down to detailed discussions over a
word. I think she felt no pressure to consult me like this, it was more a
matter of really wishing to convey the exact same sentiment in the English text
that she felt in the original Norwegian one. It was a slow and at times
painstaking exercise, but I couldn't have wished for a better translation of my
text.” It isn’t often that one hears about a child translating her mother’s
literary work, and judging by the excellent English version here (I’ve also
looked at the original Norwegian text), Marie Ostby is a skilled translator,
and we will hopefully be seeing more of her translation work (perhaps she’ll
translate more of her mother’s books).
In an afterword by Ruchira Gupta, she notes
that this book “is an important voice in the history of slave resistance…The
women of Apne Aap want a world in
which it is unacceptable to buy or sell another human being, and they want to
imagine an economy in which one is not forced to sell oneself. This book is
about such women, and also shows that any one of us could be a Rukmini or
Darya.” (p. 278). And as Anne Ostby has pointed out, “we are talking not only
about a gender issue, but also about a social issue, and a poverty issue. Human
trafficking is complex in its cruelty, with so many players involved, and yet
it is so alarmingly simple: it’s a violation of human dignity, an unacceptable
trade with human beings as merchandise.”
This is indeed an unacceptable violation of
human dignity. We must bear witness to it, by reading works such as Town of Love, and we must help
organisations such as Apne Aap as they attempt to ameliorate the situation for
I hadn’t heard of this great organization, Found In Translation, before, but thanks to my fellow Bryn Mawr College alumna Enid and her son Noah, I’m pleased to have now done so.
The organization’s mission is: “To help homeless and low-income multilingual women to achieve economic security through the use of their language skills” and “To reduce ethnic, racial, and linguistic disparities in health care by unleashing bilingual talent into the workforce”. It sounds fantastic, and I recommend that you look into the work they do.
In April 2013, I ran
the second Nordic Translation Conference. Based on that event, I’ve now edited
a collection of articles about Nordic literary translation. The book has just
been published and I think it looks great. Check it out: True
North: Literary Translation in the Nordic Countries.
Check out the most recent issue of Spolia magazine. I have some translations of poems by Edith Södergran in there, along with an introduction to her work. It's generally a great magazine too; I love how it highlights translation!
There are many reasons
why I’d recommend Daniel Mendelsohn’s wonderful book The Lost, but for now I’ll
just mention Mendelsohn’s exploration of translation. He is a translator, so
perhaps it makes sense that he has a particular interest in translation, but it
also feeds into his story.
First of all, during
some of his trips, he has an interpreter/guide with him. Few books actually
acknowledge the use of interpreters, so I appreciated that he did. Many authors
simply act as though they were able to communicate with local populations
through their own abilities, never acknowledging that there was a layer of
interpretation between them.
Also, and more
importantly for the story, Mendelsohn talks about different editions of Jewish
books, and the way the translators interpret the works differently, thus making
the readers see them from varying perspectives. Mendelsohn’s analyses of
religious passages and their interpretations are fascinating counterpoints to
his travels and his explorations of his family history. For example, he
discusses the story of Cain and Abel and how Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Ittzhak)
and (Rabbi Richard Elliot) Friedman translate the story, and how they analyse
the story and their own translations. Sometimes Mendelsohn even says which
version he prefers and why. The biblical tales he chooses always fit with the
themes of whatever he is thinking about or going through at the moment, and
this has the effect of highlighting just how essential translation is.
I found it hard to put
The Lost down, and I definitely recommend it, both for the translatorial
aspects and as a generally fascinating read.
Well, the semester has
ended, and I feel exhausted by all the classes I’ve taught, essays I’ve read
and marked, students I’ve met with, and articles and translations I’ve
produced. So I’m going to take a short break. See you back here in a few
If you’re in Norwich,
come hear a reading of literary translations at the Book Hive bookstore on
London Street on 3 June at 6.30 pm. The reading is free and will include work
translated by UEA staff and students from German, Spanish, Italian, French,
Swedish, Russian, Greek, and Latin. There’ll be free snacks and drinks too.
I’ve just learned about this new press, Phoneme, which is a non-profit publisher interested in translation. I hope to read at least one of their books in the near future, but for now, it’s worth looking at their website, which has some interesting media and information.
Whether academic English should be quite so academic is a really fascinating debate. This article seems to argue for it remaining as it is. I, however, believe that accessibility is important. I think academics ought to try to write clearly and simply; sometimes people simply hide the fact that they have no or few ideas behind overly complex language.
Many of us who are
translators are pretty obsessed with language. For some of us, this means we’re
real linguaphiles, and we can’t stop ourselves from wanting to learn more
tongues and take more language classes and buy more “teach yourself” language
I’ve been told by some
people, however, that translators should just specialize and should focus on
the one or two languages that they really know best. They say you can confuse
yourself or spread your brain cells too thinly across the language zones. They
say you no longer look like an expert but rather something of a dilettante.
I don’t agree. Yes, I
think you need to continually improve your skills in your source and target
languages (and this means reading, writing, speaking, and listening in them as
often as possible, ideally every day). But I also think that the more you learn
about other languages, the more knowledge you have about how language works
generally, and how things sound in your source and target tongues in
particular. You’re more open to the possibilities.
What do you think? How
many languages do you know or have you studied? And out of those, how many do
you work with regularly?
“The Dalkey Archive Press and the University of Illinois are offering a summer session of its Certificate in Applied Literary Translation from 9 June to 5 September in Dublin. The program is an intensive training experience that will result in a full-length translation and publication by the Dalkey Archive Press. The program is aimed at translators just starting their careers, and we've already had a successful track record with students in the program.
Recent publications from students include:
Brendan Riley, Spanish (Final project: Hypothermia, by Álvaro Enrigue [Mexico], published 2013)
Eric Lamb, French (Final project: My Beautiful Bus, by Jacques Jouet [France], published 2013]
Lauren Messina, French (Final project: Origin Unknown, by Oliver Rohe [France], published 2013)
Darren Koolman, Spanish (Final project: The No Variations, by Luis Chitarroni [Argentina], published 2013)
Rhett McNeil, Portuguese (Final project: The Splendor of Portugal by Antonio Lobo Antunes [Portugal], published 2011)”
Literary analysis is
difficult even for the most confident readers; people sometimes find it hard to
get past visceral “I liked it” or “I hated it” reactions when it comes to
literature. Perhaps not surprisingly, it seems even more challenging for some
to think critically about translated literature.
So I’ve developed a
set of reading guidelines/discussion questions, which I use in reader workshops
and reading groups. I’ve included a section specifically on translation. Here
are the questions I have so far:
Who is the translator?
Where is s/he from? Does that influence the
What is his/her background? What education
does s/he have? What languages does s/he work with? What other texts/authors
has s/he translated?
What is the context s/he is translating in
and what role does that play?
Is the translator also a writer? How do
those two roles influence one another?
Has the translator written about the art of
translation? What are his/her views on it?
How has his/her translation work been
Can you detect the translator’s voice in
Are you aware that you are reading a
translation? Why do you think you notice the “translationness” of the text?
How do you think this translator has
managed to maintain the author’s voice, style, rhythm, positioning of the
words, relationship of words to each other, and all the other factors that make
up a creative work?
Is this a “good” translation? What would
that mean and how could you tell?
What makes this text international and in
what ways does its “internationalness” matter? Also consider whether and how
the text enhances (or, alternatively, diminishes) your understanding of the
author’s or book’s cultural background.
What other points for analysis/discussion
would you add?
The Story of English in 100 Words by British linguist David Crystal is a
fascinating and well-written book in an easy-to-read format. Each chapter deals
with only one English word that Crystal thinks is very important and that
explains something about the history of English and/or English-speaking
countries. Crystal explores words in detail, in an almost archaeological manner.
Some of the words he
discusses are roe, riddle, bone-house, pork, grammar, undeaf, bloody, billion,
polite, trek, dude, schmooze, doublespeak, blurb, sudoku and chillax. As this
list shows, the words come from different time periods (the 6th
century up until today), different languages (Old Norse, Latin, Yiddish,
Japanese, etc.) and different aspects of life (food, politics, science, slang,
etc.). The history of English is broad and interesting.
Crystals book is
different from other language books because he talks about the history of the
language through individual words. Most language books either just tell the
story of the language through the people (i.e. the Vikings came in this year
and they changed the language like this…) or through just describing the
important words; Crystal does both here, at the same time. He explains, among
other things, that after 1066 in England, when the Normans came, “Anglo-Saxon
words could not cope with the unfamiliar domains of expression introduced by
the Normans, such as law, architecture, music and literature. People had no
choice but to develop new varieties of expression, adopting continental models
and adapting traditional genres to cope with the French way of doing things.” (p.
xv) New words included chattels and dame.
Another good example
of an interesting history is the word “hello”. Crystal writes, “It’s such a
natural expression, used every day as a greeting. Surely this is one of those
words which has been in the language for ever? In fact, its first recorded use
is less than 200 years old.” (p. 163) During the 14th century,
people said hal/hail, which meant be healthy. Then they started to say hallo,
hella, hillo, hollo and hullo, but now it’s most often hello and sometimes
hallo. But why? “The word was around in the early 1800s, but used very
informally, often as part of street slang. The more formal usage seems to have
emerged when the telephone was invented. People had to have a way of starting a
conversation or letting the other person know they were there, especially if
they were using a line where the connection was always open…Thomas Edison, the
inventor of the telephone, evidently preferred Hello. This was the word he
shouted into the mouthpiece of his device when he discovered a way of recording
sound in 1877.” (p. 165) Technology has influenced the development of language
in many ways.
Crystal has written
many books on language, including about texting language, the Bible and
language, Shakespeare’s language, and dialects, and his books are always fun
and interesting. You can dip into The Story of English in 100 Words as you like
and learn something new about English. It’s an enjoyable read.
Dialect has long been one of my special interests. I still think it’s one of the most difficult parts of a text to translate. Not long ago, someone sent me a this link, which features a summary of a talk I gave on translating dialects.
That article also talks more generally about translating accents and notes, “Because accents and dialects are so often used as a way of portraying the character’s social standing, using the standardised form of the target language in a translation can remove much of the texture of that character. Yet, when you’re worried about misleading or even offending the reader this can seem like the only option.”
It can seem like the only option, that’s true, but I’d argue that often that’s not the option that best serves a text or the audience. What do others think? What tips do you have for translating dialects and accents?
Following on from my “How’s the Pay?” post a few days ago, I thought I’d mention working for free.
Recently, someone asked on Facebook about doing work for free and that reminded me of this great list from Katy Derbyshire. (Her whole blog is worth looking at, incidentally.)
Someone on Facebook also posted this website in response to the question about working for free.
Both links are helpful, I think.
In my opinion, when you’re starting out, yes, do some stuff for free or for discounted prices, but be careful about what you do and who you do it for. Later in your career, you might want to do work for free for a charity or because of the connections it might lead to or for some other reasons. But just like in any industry, translators are highly skilled professionals and there’s no need to do high quality work without getting paid. It’s not fair or right.
One of the questions I’m asked most often,
both by email and in person, is how much translators get paid. “How much do you
actually make?” folks ask. I sometimes wonder how polite of a question that is
and whether they’d ask that of, say, a teacher or a doctor or a salesperson.
Well, anyway, the pay depends. How long
have you been a translator? What type of work do you do? Where do you live?
The Translators’ Association here in the UK writes on their website: “The negotiation of fees is a matter for the
individual translator and client to resolve. In the Society's experience of
reviewing contracts, we have found that UK publishers are prepared to pay in
the region of £88.50 per 1,000 words.” That’s a sensible starting place.
Obviously, some really complicated jobs will require you to ask for a higher fee,
while a simpler job that allows you to use translation tools and includes a lot
of repetition of words will earn you less. Likewise, if live in a country with
a really high cost of living, your prices should be higher. A small job may
make you want to ask for a flat fee, rather than a per word rate. But start
from the assumption that you want to earn around £0.08 per word.
“Can you actually make a living as a
translator?” people also ask me.
The answer to that question is yes, and no.
It too depends. It depends on what type of
translation work you do, how good you are at both translation and networking,
how able you are to work alone for long hours and to chase down work, and how
long you’ve been at it for. If you’re just starting out and you only translate
poetry, you most likely won’t be able to work full-time as a translator. If you
have a medical degree and you want to specialize in pharmaceutical texts, then
you might have a better shot. If you’re an award-winning translator of
thrillers, you’ll probably end up having to turn down work.
I recognize that this isn’t necessarily
very helpful of a response. But it does reflect reality for translators. As you
broaden your customer base and get more experience, you’ll get more work and be
able to raise your rates. But it’s unrealistic to expect that as soon as you
print business cards, you’ll suddenly be very busy with work.
That’s why many translators have “portfolio
careers” or “parallel careers”, developing their freelance translation careers
while also doing other work, such as working for a translation agency or
publishing company, teaching, painting houses, practicing law, doing admin
work, etc. It’s also quite stimulating to have different aspects to your career
and to have the opportunity to move from one task to another. Personally, I feel
it makes me a better translator.
The poet and Hungarian-to-English translator George Szirtes, who was a colleague of mine at the University of East Anglia until he retired recently, wrote this great piece entitled “Afterword: The Death of the Translator”.
Can translators be superstars? A very few
do seem to have celebrity status, at least in the world of literature. One
thinks of people such as Maureen Freely, Eliot Weinberger, David Bellos, Clare
Cavanagh, and Lawrence Venuti, among a few others.
And it is these people who have contributed
short articles to a collection edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, In
Translation. To read how great translators think about their work is enough
reason to get the book. But it’s also an interesting and thought-provoking
collection of essays, mostly about translating into English.
In their introduction, Allen and Bernofsky talk
about the importance of translation, especially into English. They write, “translators
into English can be said to labor in the service of monolingualism, as
translation consolidates the global domination of English by increasing the
degree to which the culture of the entire globe is available through English. At
the same time, translation works to strengthen the pluralism of world languages
and cultures by giving writers in all languages the opportunity to reach
English’s global audience while still writing in their native languages.” (p. xv)
They also note that a “paradigm shift in
the translator’s role is under way…[t]here is a generational move toward an
image of the translator as an intellectual figure empowered with agency and
sensibility who produces knowledge by curating cultural encounters.” (p. xix)
This helps to explain why we see books such as In Translation now.
There is a good range of topics explored
here. For example, Peter Cole, a poet and translator from Hebrew and Arabic to
English, writes about ethical issues and about what is required of a
translator. He implies that translation can be an uncomfortable job, and that
making decisions isn’t easy. “To remain in bilingual or even polyglot mysteries
is to enjoy the full resonance of literary possibility—to be tortured by its pleasures,
if not always to be pleased by the torture; to decide is to find oneself—for a
while—blessedly free of those doubts, but also hemmed in by one’s choices,
possibly forever.” (p. 4) Cole feels that translation is “a matter of life and
death—of reprieve (extended life for the work and possible its translator) or
of execution (Again, of the work and possibly its translator). And when that
work is from an earlier era, it leads to either profanation or resurrection of
the dead.” (p. 13) One can add that it’s about the author’s life or death too.
Meanwhile, Catherine Porter, a professor
emerita of French and translator of academic texts from French, makes a case
for translation being taken seriously as a scholarly activity. She writes, “If
we agree that our institutions should meet the demand for educated translators
and interpreters, we must make room for translation studies in our curricula
and develop a more capacious understanding of translation as a scholarly
pursuit. It is my belief that scholarly and literary translations should be
accepted and evaluated on the same basis as scholarly monographs in decisions
about hiring, promotion, and tenure.” (p. 58) That is an idea that will surely
challenge many people within academia.
In other pieces, Maureen Freely talks about
Turkish and translating Orhan Pamuk; Jose Manuel Prieto writes about
translating Osip Mandelstam from Russian to Spanish (and Prieto’s essay is
translated to English from Spanish by Esther Allen); Christi A. Merrill offers
a riddle and the idea that translators and authors should be called “storywriters”;
and Ted Goossen suggests that for English readers “books need to be dubbed, not
subtitled” (p. 186) because of the audience and publishers’ demands for
In short, the essays in this book are
varied and fascinating, and the superstar authors/translators included raise
many points to consider.
“Literally” literally annoys me. My students often say (and write) things such as, “I literally died laughing.” No, you literally did not. Read about it here. Then laugh at this poster, which I own and use in class!
What is the coolest word in the English language? Do you think it’s “discombobulate”? Check out this post.
I used to live in Wales and still love going there, so this article on translating from Welsh intrigued me.
In late October, the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker gave a talk at the
university where I work on adaptation and translation.
It was a tour-de-force
of a talk, exploring what we mean by a “source” or “original” (connecting this
to the concept of the source of a body of water), and discussing some of her
own experiences translating/adapting. She questioned whether there is a true
source and if it should always be the authority. She felt that just like a
river, a source is always changing.
She also noted that a
good translation should reveal, and that people might need to read multiple
translations in order to get these revelations about a text (and its context).
has adapted many different texts and she said adaptation is essential because
it keeps stories alive. Today, media can play this role, perhaps more than
plays and novels. She said, “We need film and TV because they may be the only
way that stories survive.”
These were just a few
of the ideas she raised during her talk, which was generally quite
I always think it’s a great idea to set
translation goals for the year ahead.
As usual, I want to improve as a translator,
and this means working on different texts, working with authors/editors,
improving my linguistic knowledge, and going to conferences. That’s quite a lot
to do, of course, so I’ll see what I can accomplish during 2014.
Another major goal is to continue read
translations and to think about the work of translators.
Originally from Chicago, I lived in southern Sweden for nearly 5.5 years, and moved to southern Wales in September 2006. I completed a Ph.D. translation studies in June 2009 at Swansea University, with a dissertation on the translation of children's literature.
Now I live in Norwich, England, where I am a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, and I also work as a translator, writer, and editor.
Contact me at bravenewwords (AT) gmail (DOT) com.