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Found in translation… (top book translators)

25th October 2014

Top book translators.

Translators are the hidden heroes of many a successful ‘English’ novel on the shelves of our bookstores. Their work sits alongside that of the author in bringing stories and characters alive for us. And, we are told, the language into which you translate should always be your native one. A good knowledge of the language you are translating from is of course very important, but it is the complete fluency and feel for the language you are translating into that is absolutely crucial.

TripFiction interviewed three top translators to find out a bit more about their role. We spoke to Don Bartlett (translator of the Jo Nesbø books and other Norwegian novels), Brian FitzGibbon (translator of ‘Butterflies in November’ – shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014 – and many other works in Icelandic) and Jamie Bulloch (translator of ‘Look who’s Back’, ‘Love Virtually’, and a myriad of other books from German to English).

Our questions were:

What brought you to book translation in the first place?

PhantomFrom Don: I came to translation through a realisation that there were many good books that had not been translated and a desire to earn my living as a translator. From Brian: Before moving to Iceland, I lived in Italy for many years and worked there as a translator, translating pretty much anything that came my way. During that period I translated countless Italian film scripts and plays. I’d studied drama at university and, being a playwright myself, have always been interested in all forms of creative writing, so I guess my transition to the translation of novels was a fairly natural one. From Jamie: My undergraduate degree was in modern languages, after which I switched to history at MA level and for my PhD. The original plan was to get a permanent academic job, but after a number of years covering several people’s sabbaticals and applying unsuccessfully for all vacant posts in modern European history, I realised I would have to look elsewhere. I had been doing a little technical translation on the side and was looking to expand this when I was invited to do a sample of an Austrian novel by Christopher MacLehose. He liked it and I was commissioned to translate the whole book.

How much do you feel part of the creative process?

From Don: I feel I am a co-writer, doing my best to achieve the same effect the book had on its original language. From Brian: I think the main goal of any translator is to create an invisible bridge between the original text and the reader and therefore attract as little attention to the translation as possible. You want readers to forget the fact that they’re reading a translation, so in a way it’s about forging a new ‘original’ and that calls for a fair bit of creativity. From Jamie: The aspiration of any translation should be to read fluently and appealingly in the target language. A high degree of creativity is required to achieve this, as literal renderings of phrases and sentences are often inelegant. There are also occasions when even greater challenges present themselves such as translating rhymes or jokes, especially puns. Although a lot of spadework is required to produce the first draft, the subsequent reworking and polishing of the text calls further on the translator’s resources of inventiveness.

How much do you research the subject matter of a book you are asked to translate?Fitzgibbon

From Don: How much research I do varies according to the book, but I generally travel to where the book takes place to breathe in the atmosphere and to get the geography right. From Brian: I happen to live in the environment in which most of the novels I translate are set (Iceland) so I don’t have to research them as such, but I do bombard people with questions. From Jamie: Each novel will inevitably touch on a number of subjects – sometimes in great detail – about which I know very little. Sometimes a brief Google search will suffice for the purposes of the translation; on other occasions I may feel a need for a more thorough understanding of the topic to allow me to proceed with confidence. The internet is an indispensable tool here, without which I would feel hopelessly lost.

How closely do you work with the author?

LookFrom Don: Authors vary: some will answer questions but stand back; others are very interested to help; others again use your translation as a basic for their further input. From Brian: Fortunately all the authors I’ve translated have been living ones so, yes, I’ve always worked in close collaboration with them. This is greatly helped by the fact that Icelanders generally have a very high standard of English and can often provide valuable input. That wouldn’t be possible if I were, for example, translating an Italian author with little or no English. From Jamie: This depends. Three of my authors are dead which makes this a bit tricky, For the rest, I will contact an author whenever there’s a problem I can’t solve using other resources available. So far this has been the case with about a third of the books I have worked on. Occasionally the conundrum is the result of an error in the original text which hasn’t been picked up, despite the book having been already published in German. It has been claimed that nobody scrutinises a text as closely as the translator, and this is absolutely correct. If I can’t fully understand something, I don’t feel in a position to translate it. One book for which there was substantial contact with the author was Timur Vermes’ book ‘Look who’s Back’ , published earlier this year. I was very fortunate to take part in a one-week residential colloquium with the author, his publisher and eleven other translators. We went through the novel page by page flagging up our individual questions. Sitting beside the Chinese translator made me realise how much simpler my own task was.

How long does the ‘average’ book take to translate?

From Don: There is no average. Everything depends on the length of the novel and the grade of difficulty. From Brian: That can vary a great deal, but I would generally say about five months. From Jamie: This is hard to answer, because I’m usually juggling translation with family or other work commitments. Assuming the time was fully my own, I suppose it would take around six weeks to produce the first draft. But then you have to factor in the extra days you spend rereading the text, addressing the copyeditor’s and proofreader’s queries, and undertaking the final polishing.

A big thank you to Don, Brian and Jamie for agreeing to take part in the Q&A session. Clearly there is comparability between the ways they each work – but equally obviously there is much that differentiates the approach of one from the others. Translation is an occupation where individual style and methodology are critically important to the end product.

Tony for the TripFiction team

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