Today I am pleased to share a fantastic interview with translator Ros Schwartz and Karen Sullivan from the publishers Arcadia who discuss the fabulous and often unsung work done by translators who help introduce us all to the wonderful world of foreign language fiction.
Ros – What process do you go through when you first receive a manuscript for translation?
I read it and decide whether it’s right for me. You have to feel empathy with a book to translate it well. Once I decide to accept the job, I start thinking about the specific challenges, which are different for each book. These questions are constantly in the back of my mind and I ponder them while swimming lengths, standing in the queue at the Post Office or sitting on a bus.
Ros – How much direct input do you have with the author? Is it a constant flow of communication or a series of submissions?
I generally contact the author at the beginning of the process to introduce myself and let them know how delighted I am to be working on their book. I inform them of the deadline and ask if it will be OK for me to email them any queries towards the end. I try not to pester authors with unnecessary questions. Often, problems early on resolve themselves once I’m immersed in the book. If there is something that doesn’t seem clear, I check it with two or three native French speakers first, and if they’re stumped, I ask the author. When a book is at the translation stage, it can be more than a year since the author wrote it, and when asked what they mean, it’s not uncommon for them to reply, “I really have no idea.”
Ros – Is it difficult to keep to the intention of the author? I would imagine that sometimes there can be a danger of missing a point the author intends to make given possible social or linguistic differences.
It’s my job to know about those social and linguistic differences! Translators don’t just transpose words, they act as cultural bridges. Take a word like ‘suburbs’ for example. The connotations are completely different in French and in English. When an English person says ‘I grew up in the suburbs’, we picture a pleasant, leafy, middle-class environment. When a French person says ‘I’m from the banlieue’, it means the equivalent of our inner cities. So my job is to get across the implicit social/class connotation.
As a translator, you are primarily a reader and then a writer. No reader can ever be 100% certain that they have received the text as the author intended. A translator is a very close reader, but can only convey his or her reading of the book – which you hope is as close to the author’s intention as possible. That’s why empathy is so important.
Ros – How does the author approve a translation, if, for example, they don’t speak English, how will they be able to ensure that the integrity of the story is maintained?
The author rarely has the power to ‘approve’ the translation, unless they have superstar status like Claude Lanzmann or Yasmina Reza. There has to be trust. The author needs to trust the publisher to find the best translator for their book. One problem with translating into English is that a lot of foreign authors (or their friends) think their English is better than it is, and they can start querying the translator’s choices. Of course if an author’s English is excellent and they ask to see the translation, then it is a courtesy to let them see it.
As a translator you take responsibility for your translation, and work in a holistic way to find an appropriate ‘voice’. It is important to be true to the spirit and intention of the book, and not work at the word-by-word, line-by-line level. Once the translation has been accepted by the publisher and copy-edited, I wouldn’t expect an author to start nitpicking.
Ros – What do you love about translating?
Every book’s a challenge, a new adventure. I learn something new every single day. It’s a privilege to spend months with a book and really be inhabited by it. You appreciate it on so many more levels than as a casual reader. I love words, I love language, I love the process, I love the sense of satisfaction when the book is printed and my name’s on it. I love the freedom of working for myself, I love the exchanges with authors and editors, the rich relationships, and I love being part of the translation community.
Ros – How did you come to be a translator?
Ah, well, like most translators, in a rather unorthodox way. I dropped out of university (it was the early 70s!) and ran away to Paris. I came back in the early 80s, having spent a year in India, and thought I’d get ‘a proper job’ but times had changed, and I discovered that I was totally unemployable. No one was interested in a dropout who could speak several languages but didn’t know how to do anything else, not even type, and had never had a job in the UK other than as a student. So I launched myself as a translator and literally learned on the job. I had fallen in love with a book and translated it while still in Paris but hadn’t found a publisher for it yet (I did eventually, after five years). There were not translation courses then, no peer training. I was fortunate enough to receive a commission – from Pete Ayrton at Serpent’s Tail – and after that I took myself to the Frankfurt Book Fair and picked up a couple of titles which I then found publishers for. I haven’t looked back since.
Karen – How do you know that a foreign language manuscript is one that you’ll want to publish? Do you receive them with a translated version when they are submitted?
It’s always difficult to choose, partly because there are so many wonderful books on there, from many, many different countries, but also because we have to make a decision based on a sample translation, a pitch by a publisher or agent and usually a reader’s report of the whole book. We have a stable of excellent readers who will take a look at anything we think looks great, and not only give us a full synopsis of the book and an opinion of its merits, but also provide a little background to the book and the author, which we may not have. Our readers are invaluable. Then, it’s a question of waiting until we get the translation. There’s a bit of a fingers-crossed moment, but we’ve never been let down yet.
Karen – How much input do you have in the translation process?
A fair bit, really. We choose the translator and often have the text delivered in chunks so that we can be involved, pick up any problems that may emerge at the outset, and also understand what it is we are publishing! In the case of something like Zenith Hotel, by Oscar Coop-Phane, I sat down with Ros Schwartz for several hours going through the text almost line by line. I point out bits that I think may not work for an English market (very few of those) or may need qualification, or didn’t make sense to me. Good translators (and Ros is one of the very best) are always happy to explain, to rethink, to talk through potential solutions. Translations are, like all manuscripts, edited, and in this case the ‘author’ is really the translator. We are very respectful of that, and trust their judgement completely. It’s lovely to work together on the polishing, though. Translators are the life blood of a lot of what we do, and the interaction is integral to a successful book.
Karen – I would guess that you must have a lot of trust in your translator. How important is the relationship between translator, author and publisher?
I think I may have just answered that. We choose translators who have an excellent cv and produce high-quality, very readable, very beautiful translations. As I mentioned above, the translator is, in fact, very much the ‘author’ for the duration of the translation process, and we put our faith in their ability to write this book – capture the nuances of the language, the subtleties … Dialogue is particularly hard to translate successfully in my view, and we’ve been very luck to have some brilliant translators. Sean Kinsella managed to turn ‘600 pages of pure energy’ in Norwegian into 600 pages of pure energy in English, in a completely dialogue-driven book (See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg) and that is a feat I can only stand back and admire. We trust the translator. The author trusts the translator and us. The translator trusts us to give support and input, and to promote their work, too. So many people forget about the translators when they review books, which is a travesty! Their work is exceptionally difficult and completely crucial to the success of the book!
Karen – How do you know that the translated version is the version that the author intended to write and isn’t the translators version?
You don’t! If something comes in that seems wildly different from the book we thought we had commissioned and, indeed, the sample translation provided by the agent or publisher, we might get the original reader to take a look and give his/her thoughts. In reality, however, this is very, very rare. We have wonderful translators who are very happy to explain their choice of words, their approach, everything else. They agonise over single sentences (Sean Kinsella, Ros Schwartz and Kaija Straumanis, who translated Flesh-Coloured Dominoes from the Latvian are great examples of this), they worry about such minute detail, we simply know we are in good hands. Most if not all of our translators work closely with the author, too, to query intention, literary devices, plot mechanisms, etc., to ensure that the final product is exactly what the author wrote in another language, with tiny tweaks to make it accessible to an English-speaking audience. We’ve never yet had an unhappy author, and we are, most certainly, delighted publishers! It’s an honour to be able to publish some of the best of world literature and it is certainly a huge responsibility to be sure we do it properly. Without a team of experienced, very talented translators, it would simply never be possible.