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Working closely with your translators

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Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

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Gary Clarke

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Not sure where to put this - feel free to shift about at will!

I'm currently writing a wee article about the importance of working closely with your translators. Thought you guys might like the cartoon I did to go with it.

translators.jpg
 

Jamesaritchie

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In what sort of case? I've had books translated into other languages, but I have no idea who did the translating.
 

Gary Clarke

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That's the point of the article. The fact that so many authors never get to communicate with their translators and vice versa.
 

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Hm, interesting. The writer in me is ambiguous about working with the translator, as I wouldn't want to interfere with their reading, but I could see myself answering specific questions (some of which might show me things I hadn't even thought about while writing). The translator in me would be absolutely eager to work with the author (an hope that they don't change contact info after the first few questions...), for fear of getting it wrong.

Two standards: free interpretation when I'm a writer, but authorial intent when I'm a translator. Hm...

[It is interesting that the aliens in your cartoon seem to only have trouble with the definite article, while "getting" the indefinite article and the pronouns. Also interesting that they "hold" a notepad. [Unintentionally intersting use of "singular they" in my sentence, here.]]
 
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Gary Clarke

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[It is interesting that the aliens in your cartoon seem to only have trouble with the definite article, while "getting" the indefinite article and the pronouns. Also interesting that they "hold" a notepad. [Unintentionally intersting use of "singular they" in my sentence, here.]]

Indeed they are a complex bunch of vapour producing lifeforms.
 

Jamesaritchie

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That's the point of the article. The fact that so many authors never get to communicate with their translators and vice versa.


Who has the time, and why would a writer worry about it? When a book of yours is translated into twenty or thirty langauges, it would take years just to work with each translator.

I can understand when someone from another country has a book translated into English, but when it's the other way around, there's just no point in worrying about.
 

Gary Clarke

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Who has the time, and why would a writer worry about it? When a book of yours is translated into twenty or thirty langauges, it would take years just to work with each translator.

I can understand when someone from another country has a book translated into English, but when it's the other way around, there's just no point in worrying about.

In my experience it takes hardly any time at all. A couple of hours per translation at the maximum. I most definitely have that time, I most definitely think it's important ( as did the majority of the translators at the conference referred to in the article) and I don't see what the difference is which language is being translated into which - why on earth would it be more important in an English translation work as compared to another language? If it's solely because of the number of potential sales that's a pretty poor reason from someone who regularly bemoans the poor attention paid to quality in writing.
 

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I've now read the article. I'm talking from the perspective as a translator now (I'm not a professional translator, but I could be):

My translation philosophy emphasises faithfulness over a smooth read. That's because, as a reader, I prefer that, too. Since I don't trust myself to catch it all, I've got a rule-of-thumb to keep the structural integrity of the text in tact wherever I possibly can. This is why I would have made none of the decisions in your examples in the first place. Rendering "Loups Garous" as simply "werewolf" or "wolf man" would violate two structural principles (foreign language [especially French], capitalisation; which are important in English). If I were translating into French (which I can't because I don't speak the language), I'd have a problem, now. Similarly, I would never change the mode of address (for example, if I were translating from Japanese, I'd either keep the Japanese suffixes in their entirety, or - less likely - fabricate something that keeps the structural patterns in tact). So, if there's a change in the way someone's addressed then I have to keep this change in tact.

I realise that there are translation philosophies that emphasise a smooth read over faithfulness - making the exercise not only a verbal translation, but also some sort of cultural adaptation. And I also realise that structural faithfulness (my method above) has its own pitfalls - for example, I might be trying to keep the foreign word structural property in the translation, too, but I could be unaware of connotations in the original text (or even in my native language) of what "foreign word inclusion" itself means culturally. It's all very complicated really.

So, yes, authorial input is very helpful (I like understatement). But utterly necessary? I'm not yet convinced. Even with authorial input, a translation will lose layers, gain others, and subtly shift emphasis. If I read a translation, I'm not reading a version of the text they advertise on the cover, not the text. Which is why, whenever possible, I try to read the original. I like bi-lingual texts, if I don't speak the other language, but they're very rarely available. (I had a nice tri-lingual version of Waiting for Godot, but that's because Beckett did the French himself, and collaborated on the German version, so that was a selling point.)

My mother tongue is German. When I was picking up Haruki Murakami for the first time (Wind-up Bird Chronicles), I was faced with the decision whether to pick up the German or the English version, both of which were easily available to me. Since I'd heard that Murakami had been collaborating with his English translator, I've automatically picked up the English version. I simply trusted it more.

But I'm curious. So I picked up the (a, as I later found out) German translation. To my amazement, it was called Mr. Aufziehvogel. Mr.? An English mode of address, in a German version of a Japanese text? What? I began to read... The book had been translated into German from the English translation. It took me a while before I'd recovered enough to remember to put the book back onto the shlef. I walked away in a daze. How could anyone even think of publishing a translation of a translation?

So, yes, if I hear that an author has collaborated with the translator that's a selling point for me. I'm less wary of the translation. (I'd still prefer to read the original, but there aren't many languages in which I could this.)
 

Gary Clarke

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You sound like the kind of translator everyone would love to have :0) ( in the instance of Loups-Garous? It happened - I won't say which translation. Suffice to say I had send an e-mail to the publisher ( as I always do) saying that I was there and available should thetranslator have any questions, no worries, just ask. And also leaving some very small notes forclarification. Needless to say I wasn't contacted.) In the case of the French translation I was contacted :0D And we're thinking of going with a Russian or Polish word (definitely a non-French word) but we're going to play with it when the time comes to see what flows best.

Do you think - once the translator has had some small communication with the author about which bits are important and which not - that a mix of both the approaches you outline might work? Especially for work like Sebastian Barry, or Cormac McCarthy? Both of who play with words and structure so much?

edited to say: for example, I use small animal references in descriptions some times, as a foreshadowing, I explained to my German translator my reasons and then left it up to herself ( in case it didn't work in German)
 
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aruna

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Who has the time, and why would a writer worry about it? When a book of yours is translated into twenty or thirty langauges, it would take years just to work with each translator.

I don't worry about it, but it's always nice if you acn give sime input, and possibly even meet the translator; it also helps if the translator likes or loves the book.
I was able to meet my German translator. I was also sent the German proof by my publisher and was allowed to make corrections; there were quite a few.
One of my other translators, the Danish one, wrote me a letter asking for clarification on one point. I was really pleased about that.
I don't worry if I can't read the language myself, but little things in the German translation really bothered me; for instance translating "he chuckled" as "er kicherte", which means, he giggled.

I can understand when someone from another country has a book translated into English, but when it's the other way around, there's just no point in worrying about.
Why? What's the difference?
 
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Do you think - once the translator has had some small communication with the author about which bits are important and which not - that a mix of both the approaches you outline might work? Especially for work like Sebastian Barry, or Cormac McCarthy? Both of who play with words and structure so much?

I actually think that all real translation is a hybrid between these approaches; that's because you can't be 100 % faithful in another language, and you'll always stick to the book (or it wouldn't be a translation). I don't set out translating with a conscious desire to be faithful to the original at the expense of smooth readability. It's really just an extension of my general personality (e.g. I try to be as verbatim as possible when quoting others, and I fret about misrepresenting them even so, by selective quoting...).

It's when discussing translation problems that you realise which position you tend towards:

For example, in a poetry translation workshop (English --> German), the word "bingo" came up in a british poem. I translated the game as "Bingo", only changing capitalisation (in accordance with German capitalisation). Other people used different words, I forget which, but I think "Tombola" was one of them.

Now, there are basic questions you could ask:

- Does a native speaker of German understand a reference to "Bingo"? (I do think so; a couple of years later national television started a Bingo Show on TV, so now there's really no question of "Bingo" going mainstream.)

- Does the context make clear that we're talking about a game, or do you have to know what "Bingo" is, to get the game reference?

- Is the exact manner of the game important to the poem? Are slight substitutions acceptable?

etc.

Whatever you do, you're taking risks. Use "Bingo" and you're risking to kick people out of the poem. Use "Tombola" and you risk "false" associations (not to mention that - at least in Austria, where I live - there is an ambiguity in usage, where Tombola could reference the Italian game, or simply a charitable lottery with donated prizes...).

You don't always pick the "faithful" version, and you don't always pick the "smooth" version, as risks vary in likelihood and severity of catastrophe. (For example, likelihood of people not understanding "bingo" has decreased with a national telivision game show airing, but the misunderstanding, should it occur, would still be as severe as ever.) Finally, if the text contains other culture-specific words, some of which are more familiar than others, you run into the problem of consistency. If, say, the word "bingo" would occur in a very specific cultural context, it's harder to justify substitutions, than when it occurs in a metaphoric subtext.

You really shouldn't use your translation philosophy as a prison. But when you're looking at what you think is a "bad" translation, it helps to realise that other people have other values. And values change with time.

Take, for example, what German television did to Cheers. (Click on more infos, and read.) They gave the cast Germanised names; e.g. Norm = Helmut.

This was controversial back then (especially since they made changes to the characters, too!), but it's unthinkable in present day Germany. The re-runs of Cheers do not use these old dubs, either. They couldn't. A modern audience would be baffled. This reflects a change in priorities, which in turn reflects higher global mobility (of both people and information).

What the distinction means, in the end, is that: if you want a cultural conversion (for whatever reason - e.g., there are dialectal versions of the Australian movie Babe [the talking piglet], in both Austrian and Swiss dialects), I'm probably not the translator you want. I could probably do it to some extent, but someone else would deliver better quality at a higher speed. It doesn't mean that I pick my philosophy and stick with it come what may.

And again, this is all theoretical, since I'm no professional translator (even though my only publications to date are two translated poems, one of which must have been decent as it has been re-printed).
 

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I don't worry if I can't read the language myself, but little things in the German translation really bothered me; for instance translating "he chuckled" as "er kicherte", which means, he giggled.

See, that's where translation is fiendishly difficult.

"Kichern" covers all (most?) of "to giggle", but "to giggle" doesn't exhaust "kichern".

There is no single word that covers all instances of "to chuckle". Sometimes you may even have to paraphrase, because there is no good word at all.

"To chuckle" is one of these words that you cannot translate reliably, and I wouldn't rule out that "kichern" could work, too, depending on context. Now I trust your reaction (you've lived in Germany, if I'm not mistaken?), but it's not as simple as "kichern" means "to giggle". There is a reason why "to chuckle" often gets translated as "kichern". Sometimes it fits, often it's awkward, sometimes it's plain out of place. But the borders are blurring. This is exactly why your input would be so very valuable.

The problem is difficult. First, different languages describe laughing in different ways. Then, languages are correlated to the cultures they're used in. And these cultures also influence the very way that people are laughing. That is: before lauging-language differs, laughing culture differs. And putting your laughing language over another laughing culture is bound to cause problems. There may be things you "get", but can't articulate. Translators run up against this all the time. It's not rare.
 

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There is no single word that covers all instances of "to chuckle". Sometimes you may even have to paraphrase, because there is no good word at all.

"To chuckle" is one of these words that you cannot translate reliably, and I wouldn't rule out that "kichern" could work, too, depending on context. Now I trust your reaction (you've lived in Germany, if I'm not mistaken?), but it's not as simple as "kichern" means "to giggle". There is a reason why "to chuckle" often gets translated as "kichern". Sometimes it fits, often it's awkward, sometimes it's plain out of place. But the borders are blurring. This is exactly why your input would be so very valuable.

Thanks for the explanation! However, I have a good example of just plain unnecessarilty awkward translation, and right in the first paragraph of the book! The last sentence, and the viewpoint character and voice is a small child, is: he went outside to have a pee.
This was transleted into a German expression so antiquated, so formal, so euphemistic, I had never heard it myself. I've forgotten the exact wording; "um seine .... zu verrichten" or something like that (can't remember the word. This was in the hardcover edition. I objetcted so strongly that they changed it in the paperback to "um Wasser zu lassen".
Still not the same as pee, but much better.
 

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The last sentence, and the viewpoint character and voice is a small child, is: he went outside to have a pee.
This was transleted into a German expression so antiquated, so formal, so euphemistic, I had never heard it myself. I've forgotten the exact wording; "um seine .... zu verrichten" or something like that (can't remember the word. This was in the hardcover edition. I objetcted so strongly that they changed it in the paperback to "um Wasser zu lassen".
Still not the same as pee, but much better.

See, that's exactly what I've talked about above. As I said above, my translation strategy is faithfulness first, so I would have just said "um zu pinkeln," which is a word-for-word translation [ETA: No, it's not! See last paragraph], and easily understandable.

I suspect the phrase was "um seine Notdurft zu verrichten". It's not antiquated; I hear it now and then. But it is very formal and certainly euphemistic. I can kind of see, though, how the translators arrived at that. In German, tense-choice alone topicalises formality:

The default past of literary narrative is the preterite (what is the simple past in English), while the default past of speech is the perfect. So, you'd say, "Er hat viel gelacht!" ("He laughed a lot!", literally, "He has laughed a lot"), but to "translate this into narrative German" you'd say "Er lachte viel!" ("He laughed a lot!") [It's more complicated than that, but this is not the place to go into detail.] This creats a rift between every-day narration and literary narration that doesn't exist in English. So translators will often have a more formal mindset when rendering this into German, than they have when reading it in English.

While I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with "er pinkelte", I can see how some German readers might feel in an incongruence of language style and word-choice. There's a relaxed relationship between everyday language use and literary language in English (where one can slip into the other) that just doesn't exist in German. The difference is almost always accentuated, even if you have a conversational narrator: Some do actually use the perfect aspect as the default in German narration, but that's a very deliberate, folksy style.

Btw, I'm using "literary" here as a very broad category: narration in official publishing channels (this includes journalism, biography, fiction... all sorts of written narration really). It's not quite the same as "written German", because you'd probably not use the preterite in written personal letters or emails.

Finally, I notice an added complication that you're saying "went outside to have a pee", rather than "went outside to pee". The difference, in style, between these two variants is something I don't catch at all with "um zu pinkeln". To my (non-native speaker) ears, "to have a pee" does sound a more polite than simple, straightforward "to pee", but it's a nuance that German just can't capture. The thing is: I've just now realised that I'm not "being faithful" either. Closer, I think, but that's actually debatable.

Hm...
 

Gary Clarke

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For example, in a poetry translation workshop (English --> German), the word "bingo" came up in a british poem. I translated the game as "Bingo", only changing capitalisation (in accordance with German capitalisation). Other people used different words, I forget which, but I think "Tombola" was one of them.

I think Patricia Wood came across a similar problem when discussing 'Lottery' with her Japanese translator ( I could be wrong) Something to do with the word 'ticket'? Gah, wish I could remember.

A Tombola here (Ireland) refers specifically to the drawing of winning tickets from a tumbling drum. I can see the parallels to Bingo ( they use a tombola in bingo) but if we were translating back from German into 'Irish' English ( as in your German version of the Murikami book) there'd be some confusion :0D

One of the moments I loved in the German translation of Poison Throne was when Astrid asked me what kind of carpentry did Lorcan primarily do, as there were different words for the different disciplines of carpenter. Lovely moment.
 

Gary Clarke

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Chuckle and giggle have such different conotations, don't they? a complete change of tone and character. Dawnstorm's explanation of that is so interesting - again one of those moments in which the work benefited from contact between translator and author.

I wonder if this communication is standard in German publishing? It's just interesting that we both got to speak to our German translators.
 

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I suspect the phrase was "um seine Notdurft zu verrichten". It's not antiquated; I hear it now and then. But it is very formal and certainly euphemistic. I can kind of see, though, how the translators arrived at that. In German, tense-choice alone topicalises formality:

.

No, it wasn't, because I would know that expression. It's something I never heard before or after, and many Germans told me it was completely dated. I'm thinking now it might have been something similar to "sein Wasser herauszudruecken" but even more euphemistic. Soemthing old ladies might say! It's driving me crazy, not being able to remember and I don't have a copy of the book -- I even called a friend in Germany but she only has the English...

I've only really heard "kichern" in resect of schoolgirls etc giggling, so to my ears it sounded ridiculous. But if Germans understand it then it's OK.
 

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I wonder if this communication is standard in German publishing? It's just interesting that we both got to speak to our German translators.


I don't think it's standard at all -- I just happened to know the language and lived inGermany at the time, so I suppose they were happy to bring us together. Which German publisher do you have?
 

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But I'm curious. So I picked up the (a, as I later found out) German translation. To my amazement, it was called Mr. Aufziehvogel. Mr.? An English mode of address, in a German version of a Japanese text? What? I began to read... The book had been translated into German from the English translation. It took me a while before I'd recovered enough to remember to put the book back onto the shlef. I walked away in a daze. How could anyone even think of publishing a

That's anothet interesting point. There's far more translation from English into other languages, than vice versa, or other languages into yet other languages.. I can imagine that this can lead into very foreign territory as far as faithfulness is concerned. The trouble is that English is a global language so most non-English editors are probably able to read a novel in English and ocmmission it, whereas the reverse is not true. I suspect that few English editors can read original German or Urdu or Japanese novels!
I have a friend who is German and translates Danish books into German. She says that in many cases the would-be translator has to discover books on her own and actually propose them to editors who do not speak the original language.
 

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In my experience it takes hardly any time at all. A couple of hours per translation at the maximum. I most definitely have that time, I most definitely think it's important ( as did the majority of the translators at the conference referred to in the article) and I don't see what the difference is which language is being translated into which - why on earth would it be more important in an English translation work as compared to another language? If it's solely because of the number of potential sales that's a pretty poor reason from someone who regularly bemoans the poor attention paid to quality in writing.

If it only takes a couple of hours, you sure are doing the entire book. From my experience, it isn't just an odd phrase here of there that's problematic, but darned near every sentence in a book.

English is the big language, and where the vast majority of sales take place. So in English, you'd better get it right.

I might worry about geting in completely right in another language, as well, if it were only one or two. But thinking you're getting everything right by spending a couple of hours on a book just makes no sense.

Sometimes you just have to trust people to do their job. Mine is writing books. The publishers handle translations. That's their job, and they won't to do it right because it costs them money when they get it wrong.

I've also found that any good translator is usually better off without my "help."
 

Gary Clarke

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If it only takes a couple of hours, you sure are doing the entire book.

Pardon? I don't understand this.

From my experience, it isn't just an odd phrase here of there that's problematic, but darned near every sentence in a book.

How do you know this if you haven't talked with your translators? I certainly haven't had this problem, yet, and if I did find the translator was getting bogged down in irrelevant details ( unlikely considering the speed they have to get the work out) I'd let them know and they'd probably relax and go ahead with their job. It's called being professional.

English is the big language, and where the vast majority of sales take place. So in English, you'd better get it right.

So you are just talking sales. Up to you. I'm talk quality - something most translators I spoke to were also very interested in.

I might worry about geting in completely right in another language, as well, if it were only one or two. But thinking you're getting everything right by spending a couple of hours on a book just makes no sense.

The translators aren't asking you to do their job for them, they perfectly capable of 'getting everything right' - they only ask that we be available to answer a few questions. You have an inflated idea of how much they might need you, I think. In my experience the translator needs clarification on very few and very specific things - and those very few things make their work easier and the end result better.

Sometimes you just have to trust people to do their job.

In the course of doing their job, it seems that most translators would like to ask us a few questions. That's part of doing their job well.

Mine is writing books. The publishers handle translations. That's their job, and they won't to do it right because it costs them money when they get it wrong.

It costs the translator their reputation when it goes wrong - why would you not want to help them out by answering some relevant questions?

I've also found that any good translator is usually better off without my "help."

You seem to have talked to quite a few of your translators for someone who isn't interested in talking to your translators. The ones I've talked to would prefer more communication with their authors - fact.
 

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I don't worry about it, but it's always nice if you acn give sime input, and possibly even meet the translator; it also helps if the translator likes or loves the book.
I was able to meet my German translator. I was also sent the German proof by my publisher and was allowed to make corrections; there were quite a few.
One of my other translators, the Danish one, wrote me a letter asking for clarification on one point. I was really pleased about that.
I don't worry if I can't read the language myself, but little things in the German translation really bothered me; for instance translating "he chuckled" as "er kicherte", which means, he giggled.


Why? What's the difference?

The problem I have with helping translators is that the questions they have are seldom where teh errors happen. When a translator isn't certain, they ask someone who knows. Maybe the writer, maybe someone else.

I've found that almost all major errors happen when the translator is absolutely certain they do know something, so they don't ask anyone, and they're then wrong.

As for English, it's far and away the biggest market in the world. It dwarfs the others. You'd better get the English translation right. But I don't see a lot of translation errors in English, and I know several of the best translations I've read were cases where the writer did not help.

Along these lines, is many of the very best translations I've read have been done after the writer died. Often long after. This tells me teh writer isn't as important in the process as we like to think.

But I simply don't see enouigh problems to make me worry about it. Good translators tend to get everything right, and often, in fact, make improvements. Bad translators screw things up, no matter how much help they get.

And here's something else I've learned. If you don't speak or read a langauge, you don't know whether they got it right or not, and poor translators often get something wrong, even after you give them a lengthy explanation. Just because they get it in English does not mean they get it down on the page right. Good translators know more than enough people to ask, if they have to ask at all, and they seldom do, even without asking me.

If a translator calls me with a question, I'm more than happy to answer it, but I find most translators do impeccable jobs, and are better off without my interference. I do my job, they do theirs, and I think it works better this way.

I do have a question about Germany, though. Does Germany aquire rights to an inordinate number of English books, or do they just like traditional westerns? Even my very first novel, a traditional western from a mid-sized publisher, a novel that did not sell very well here, was translated into German. It really surprised me.
 
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