Monday, September 4, 2017

Becoming a Literary Translator

Enough people write to me asking how to become literary translators that I’ve long intended to write something resembling a how-to post. Thank goodness I was saved by Susan Bernofsky, who translates from the German into the English and wrote a post (here!) covering the basics. Best of all, her suggestions are pretty close to what I would have said had I written the post: what she outlines is a lot like what I did when I was getting started. So rather than writing about those basics, I’m going to add a few more suggestions and bits of advice, many/most of which are somehow connected to what Susan writes. I never give individual advice to translators because I think we all need to find our own paths to the profession, based on our interests and skills. What I write about here is what worked for me but of course it may not work for you. One other thing: I’ll write from the perspective of a native speaker of English who translates from Russian to English, so just substitute your own languages if that’s not your angle!

Read a Lot. This, like everything else in this post, probably sounds ridiculously, even insultingly, obvious… but reading is what helped me most as I found my way, so it’s always my first answer when people ask me about becoming a translator. Or about what to translate. Read as much as you can in Russian to learn what’s being written, what you like to read, and what you might want to translate. Журнальный зал is a great source of new literature. Read as much as you can in English—books written in English and books translated into English—for the same reasons. Read periodicals, too, for world news, literary news, stories, essays, vocabulary, and examples of differing usage of things like, say, serial commas. The hardest part for me is reading outside my genre, particularly book-length nonfiction, which I never seem to get to. Even so, varied reading has a magical way of bringing me words and even oddball spellings I need for my translations. As an example: a historical detective novel translated from the French told me that an architectural word I doubted was just the thing for my translation, too.

Know Your Taste & Know Publishers’ Tastes. I love all that reading because, well, I love to read, get a kick out of the serendipitous words tossed at me while I walk on the treadmill, and find that every book I read gives me a chance to know who’s publishing what, in Russian and in English. That last point is important because each book tells me more about preferences, both my own and publishers’; it doesn’t take too many books to find patterns. All those preferences are important because if you’re going to pitch a book to a publisher, you want to know why you like it, what you think the author does well, why you think the publisher would like it, and why the book would fit the publisher’s list. All that reading also gives a sense of global trends, context that can be very helpful when you pitch books.

Don’t Forget You’re a Writer. A lot of people outside translation don’t seem to know this but translators are writers. (We can even join the Author’s Guild, something I recommend highly.) Reading is also invaluable for observing and learning from tics and flourishes in other writers’ work… this is ridiculously helpful when you’re translating, say, a novel where there are lots of shifts in verb tense. (Can you tell I’m watching for that right now?) Back in the days when I wanted to write my own fiction, I took a few two-hour writing workshops and even attended the Stonecoast Writers’ Conference. Twice. Lots of the advice—like limiting most dialogue tags to a simple “s/he said”—has served me very well as a translator and it’s been fun to run into a couple of my writer-teachers at book events. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice, though, came to me from Richard Rhodes’s How to Write. Rhodes says that when he asked Conrad Knickerbocker, public relations manager at Hallmark, how to become a writer, Knickerbocker said, “Rhodes, you apply ass to chair.” It’s the same for translators. Standing desks are fine (I used to use one) but writing is still a lot of work.

Be a Member of the Book Community. Join the American Literary Translators Association and/or the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and attend conferences. Go to readings and signings at local bookstores, libraries, or universities. Go to book fairs and chat with publishers, agents, and other writers. Bonus reason to buy more books as you do all that: you’re supporting our industry. Keep things light as you get to know your colleagues. Getting into this business takes time so there’s no need to rush. Don’t forget your local library, either. My small local library’s collection and Maine’s interlibrary loan system have saved me on many occasions, often (I confess) just before deadlines. Libraries are also a great place for programs about countries, books, and professions like translation, so do offer to speak.

Love What You Do. I only translate books that I love in some way: I want a book to engage me emotionally (I’ve had to end a few workdays because I was sobbing over my translations), intellectually, and linguistically. If a book doesn’t do all that for you, it can still be pretty enjoyable if it teaches you a lot. Example: I didn’t feel a deep emotional connection to the article-length texts about art and artists that I translated for a museum book, but I sure did enjoy learning about the art and the artists. I think I love what I do most when I read through a draft (third? fourth? it varies…) that makes me realize my translation is coming together into a book, a real book that real people can read. Getting to that point involves months of agonizing decisions over words, cursing my own lack of knowledge of arcane subjects (this happens a lot), and long, long hours of, yes, applying ass to chair. I couldn’t put in all that time agonizing, cursing myself, and sitting on my butt if I didn’t love the work, meaning if I didn’t love the fact that all that agonizing, cursing myself, and sitting on my butt help me makes those books. I suppose that probably means I love the agony, cursing, and sitting, too, doesn’t it?

I hope that those of you reading this who hope to become literary translators find the same satisfaction of agonizing over words, cursing yourselves, and sitting on your butts for days on end as you find your own way into the profession.

Up Next. Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhak), which I’ve finished. And more Big Book reading: Shamil Idiatullin’s Brezhnev City, which I’ve resumed reading and which now seems to have caught me, too, despite its slow pace, and Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Mysterious Year.

0 comments:

Post a Comment