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Translators – the unsung heroes of modern fiction

18th September 2019

This post was first published to accompany the August edition of our members only newsletter. Because of the positive response it received, we have decided to repeat it here for a broader audience. If you want to sign up as a member and receive future editions of our exclusive monthly newsletter, then please click here.

Translators can make or break the foreign edition of a novel… they have the great responsibility of re-creating the original work in a new language. Their understanding of the nuances of the original, plus their own writing style, is critical to success. They are co-creators…but they are largely unsung.

Over the last few years we have interviewed several translators about their work. Four of the most prominent were:

Translators - the unsung heroes of modern fiction

Rosie Hedger

Rosie Hedger. Rosie’s translation of Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s Zero was shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2019, and her translation of Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal won an English PEN Translates Award in 2016. Ravatn’s novel was later selected for BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime, broadcast in January 2017, and was shortlisted for the 2017 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. Rosie was a candidate in the British Centre for Literary Translation’s mentoring scheme for emerging translators in 2012, mentored by Don Bartlett.

Don Bartlett

Don Bartlett. Don is a translator from Norwegian and Danish into English. He lives with his family in a village in Norfolk.He is the translator behind some of the most read and talked about Norwegian books of recent years. From Jo Nesbø’s successful crime books to the titanic introspection of Karl Ove Knausgård and his seminal My Struggle series. Bartlett has worked with some of the biggest names in Norwegian literature and has helped make their books into international best-sellers.

Quentin Bates

Quentin Bates. Quentin is a translator from Icelandic into English (and also a novelist in his own right). He escaped English suburbia as a teenager, jumping at the chance of a gap year working in Iceland. The gap year stretched to become a gap decade. He is the author of a series of crime novels set in present-day Iceland (Frozen Out, Cold StealChilled to the BoneWinterlude, and Cold Comfort). He has translated all five books in Ragnar Jónasson’s much acclaimed Dark Iceland series

Translators - the unsung heroes of modern fiction

Jamie Bulloch

Jamie Bulloch.After studying modern languages at Bristol University, Jamie obtained an MA in Central European History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES). He took a couple of years out from studying to teach French and German in London, then resumed with a PhD in interwar Austrian history. Recent literary translations include The Capital by Robert Menasse, Elefant by Martin Suter, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes, which was longlisted for the 2016 IMPAC award and 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. 

We put a series of questions about their work to them. Here are the questions and their answers. Their responses are varied and indicate a fair range of views across the four of them:

TF: What brought you to book translation in the first place? Is it something that you had always wanted to do?

RH: I always loved reading and studying literature, so learning a new language at university was like entering a new world of reading options. I spent a year at the University of Oslo and took every literature course available to me, ranging from pre-1900 Nordic classics to contemporary Norwegian young adult literature and everything in between. I dabbled in translation during my final year studies, and after graduating I took on more work bit by bit, starting with my fair share of commercial translations – manuals on cleaning stainless steel staircase bannisters, that kind of thing – and gradually (and gladly!) moving to focus entirely on translating literature.

DB: I have always enjoyed translation. It was the part of the course I enjoyed most at university. Living in Germany/Scandinavia I often wondered how we would say something I had just heard said. The idea of becoming a translator grew on me slowly.

QB: As with everything else I’ve ever done, a series of coincidences. This wasn’t something I had set out to do, although I had already done a lot of technical and news material translation. It was only when Karen asked me to translate Snowblind that the reality of it kicked in.

JB: 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.

TF: How much do you feel part of the creative process? How much do you feel you are co-author of the translated book?

Translated by Don Bartlett

RH: Translation for me is a process with many stages, and personally it is only really in the latter stages, after long periods of reading and analysing and living with the text, that the creative work begins. I re-read chapters and edit drafts and play with structures and synonyms and read the translation aloud to try to bring together the content and form and rhythm that exist in the original. These creative stages of the process are undeniably the most enjoyable for me, though not without challenges, and I’m so intimately acquainted with all the aspects of the final product that I can’t help but feel a strong creative connection with it.

DB: Karl Ove Knausgaard has called me his co-writer. I certainly feel part of the creative process. After all, it is my words readers read and critics quote.

QB: I don’t feel I’m a huge part of the creative process, and shouldn’t be as the author has already done the heavy lifting in terms of plot, setting, characters, etc. But the translator’s work still is a significant part of the finished article, and a really good translation can make a good book into something special, while a poor or rushed translation can ruin a good book. It’s very much a collaborative process, particularly with the editor as we discuss what works and what doesn’t.

JB: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.

TF: How much do you research the subject matter in a book you are asked to translate?

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

RH: Most projects I’ve worked on have required some degree of research. I recently translated a novel set in Norway during WWII – Norwegian citizens involved in helping the Jews under Norway’s period of occupation used all sorts of code to communicate their plans, so an individual would be described as one bag of turnips, for example. I read some reports on humanitarian efforts during the holocaust to bulk up my knowledge on that book. On my last project, I needed some specific information about an apartment building and yard in Oslo, and a resourceful colleague eventually helped me to track down what I needed on an estate agent website where the seller had uploaded pictures. Information in unexpected places!

DB: What would we do without the internet? A book I am translating at the moment is about fishing techniques and I have spent hours researching the processes involved and the terms used.

QB: Not a great deal… for Ragnar’s books I’ve had to use maps and pictures to build up a picture of the setting, as although I’ve spent a great deal of time in Iceland, I’ve never been to Siglufjördur. I seem to have to do more research for technical translation, especially if there’s legal or financial terminology in there.

JB: 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.

TF: What is your working relationship with the author?

RH: My experiences thus far have been great – authors have been happy to respond to my pedantic questions and most are excited to see their work published in English. Occasionally authors express surprise about the questions asked by translators – we might end up with a whole host of questions about something seemingly minor, such as exactly what somebody does with a blanket before they curl up on the sofa – is it around their shoulders? Or around their torso like a towel? Is it draped, or wrapped? On the whole, authors seem to enjoy the fact that translation involves such a close reading of their work.

DB: This varies from author to author. Some authors are very hands-on; some are happy to leave the translation to me. All of them are helpful when called upon. The relationship is important, and discussion can result in changes to the original as well as the translation. I like having contact with authors but try to bother them as little as possible. Authors have many translators.

QB: We get along fine, and probably have a closer relationship than most authors do with their translators. I can ask questions whenever there are any, but these tend to arise more during the editing process, when it becomes a three-way discussion between the author, translator and editor. It’s actually most unusual for an author to get any involvement in the translation. My own books have been translated into Dutch, German, Polish and Finnish, and I’ve never heard a single word from any of the translators.

JB: 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.

TF: Do you always translate into rather than out of your native language?

Translated by Quentin Bates

RH: I do, yes, and I personally couldn’t operate the opposite way, though have huge respect (and enormous envy) for those who can.

DB: Always into.

QB: I think almost all of us translate into their native language. It’s very rare for a translator to be able to work in both directions, at least with literary translation. I always get a shiver when I see the words ‘translated by the author’ as these generally fall short.

TF: How long does the average book take to translate (if that is not a ‘piece of string’ question)?

RH: It is difficult to say and really depends on the publisher’s schedule. The complexity and length and style of the text play into this too – some might instantly ‘click’ and others take time to absorb and adapt to. I like to do a fairly quick first draft and spend the majority of the time re-working this, and if I can stick it in a drawer somewhere and come back to it after even a few days away, I always spot things I want to change and improve.

DB: It is. The more complex/poetic the language, the more time you spend searching for solutions.

QB: That’s definitely a piece of string question! And very elastic string…!

JB: 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.

TF: Do you think that, in general, translators get the public credit they deserve?

RH: I think things are decidedly better than they once were – brilliant and active campaigners using #namethetranslator on Twitter do a great job highlighting translators’ work when reviewers forget, and translators are being invited to attend events more frequently, which is a nice nod to their part in the creative process. There seems to be a renewed interest in translated literature, partly as a result of independent publishers taking risks on exciting and diverse books, and it’s nice to see their efforts leading to increased credit for all the parties involved in the process.

DB: Perhaps not everywhere, but the situation is definitely improving. I don’t feel unappreciated.

Translated by Rosie Hedger

QB: It’s good to see translators getting equal billing, such as on Amazon, but that’s a relatively recent development and translators seem to get far more recognition these days than they used to.

TF: Is book translation your only job? Is it possible to earn a living from it?

RH: I know some full-time literary translators, but not many. I am a university lecturer and researcher in the field of language and linguistics – up until last year I was doing this full-time with translation squeezed in wherever I could manage it, but I now teach and research part-time to allow more time to focus on translation.

DB: It is now. After a shaky start, yes, I have managed to earn a living from it.

QB: I have plenty of other things to do… Some of them I’d love to be able to jettison to concentrate on books, both my own and translations, but that’s not likely to happen for a while – if ever. I’m not sure if it’s possible to earn a living from translating, at least, not from a fairly niche language like Icelandic.

A big thank you to all four for their very informative answers.

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