If you’re bilingual and thinking of getting into translation as a job, and you consider yourself fairly au fait with the world of literature, then chances are you’ll want to look into the field of literary translation.
After all, how much more fun would it be to translate the words of great authors, as opposed to legal contracts or the instruction manuals for vacuum cleaners?
Before you start shopping your services around as a literary translator, though, it’s worth taking a more in-depth look at what literary translation actually involves, as it’s a whole other ball game to your usual translation projects.
The large majority of translation projects are for technical documents – training manuals, contracts, instructions, presentations, etc. These projects will often require some insider knowledge of the industry, to ensure you use the required terminology and understand abbreviations, acronyms and so forth.
This aside, though, many normal translation projects will contain a large amount of repeated phrases and terms, and this is where computer assisted translation (CAT) tools can ease the workload.
CAT tools identify repeated text and replace it with the translation automatically, reducing the total amount of words you have to translate. Furthermore, because the flow of the text is not so important, you can generally translate one word or one line at a time, rather than having to read and translate a paragraph at a time.
When it comes to literary translation, though, this approach of a word or line at a time is destined to produce nothing short of garbled nonsense. In poetry and literature, the flow of the text and the choice of the words is absolutely crucial for communicating meaning.
Not only that, but unless you’re translating Dan Brown, it’s likely the original author will have peppered the text with metaphors, allusions, slang, cultural references and other signifiers that can be difficult, if not impossible, to translate across language and culture.
Take, for instance, this paragraph from Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’:
‘At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights...feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.’
Or this from Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’:
‘Notre-Dame rises tomb-like from the water. The gargoyles lean far out over the lace facade. They hang there like an idea fixed in the mind of a monomaniac. An old man with yellow whiskers approaches me. Has some Jaworski nonsense in his hand. Comes up to me with his head thrown back and the rain splashing in his face turns the golden sands to mud.’
How can you communicate the rhythm and poetry of those excerpts, or the metaphors such as ‘lilac evening’ and ‘lace facade’? Indeed, how would you translate outmoded slang like ‘kicks’?
It’s no easy task, for essentially the literary translator is taking on a role of equal significance to the original author; although the translator is not responsible for creating the plot and characters, they are responsible for the choice of words that give the story its mood and its meaning.
This is why you’ll often find that books which have been translated several times by different translators will be wildly different in their translations, because so much of the translator, and their authorial voice, choice of words and understanding of the text, is relayed in the translation.
Consequently, the undertaking of a literary translation is much more work-intensive than any other form of translation. The generally recommended process for conducting such a translation goes like this...
1) Firstly, read through the entire text, taking notes along the way, to get a grasp of the author’s style and the flow of the story.
2) Then, read through again, this time translating as you go. If you can’t come up with an appropriate translation for a phrase or a cultural reference at the time, leave it and make a note to come back to it.
3) Once your first draft is done, take some time away from the project – a day or two – so that when you come back to it you have fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.
4) Then continue with the drafting process – checking your translation against the source text - as many times as is necessary, until you feel that every word choice is as accurate and appropriate as can be.
5) Lastly, after you’ve had another break from the project, read the final translated text by itself, to make sure that it flows naturally and makes sense in its new coat of language.
As you can see, producing a quality literary translation is in a whole other field to translating technical documents, with its own host of challenges. However, while the money may not be significantly better, it does come with the bonus of being creatively satisfying, as well as contributing to the world’s canon of literature, which surely is reward enough for any dedicated reader and writer!