Translators are writers, too.

One of the perks of working in a publishing house is the ability to ask anyone a question that should be common knowledge, but isn’t, either to you or to the general public.  (These could also be called “stupid” questions, but let’s be nice here.)  I asked a question to the senior editor recently that I thought was relatively benign:

“How many of your translators have literary agents?”

Well, as it turns out…none.

Well, one does, but he’s more of a foreign rights go-between from France.

Why does this matter?  Not all authors have agents.  But many do, including all the big bestsellers.  And look closer: the contract for a book-length translation is, more often than not, paid with a certain sum per 1000 words.  In most instances, literary translators are contractors, providing work-for-hire.  Which maybe makes some semblance of sense to some people, but not for me, and not for many others.

Literary translators are authors.  They are creative minds.  Literary translation is not a process of “what does this mean?”, which is similar to summaries and reviews and college-level literature classes.  Instead, it is a process of “how can I best convey the words, the style, the meaning, the metaphors, the language, the feel of this work of art into my own language?”.  It is a creative process, albeit a transformative one.

I’m not going to belabor this point, mostly because there are others out there (*cough cough Chad Post at Three Percent**) who expound this point much more lucidly and better informed than I can.  But why is it general consensus — so much so that I shared this opinion before I seriously considered translation as a career — that translators perform a service instead of creating a piece of their own?  It’s not something commonly thought of.

Think of that today.  Think of a book you love that was only made possible by a translator: Don Quixote for Americans, Shakespeare for Germans, Proust for Russians, Tolstoy for Chinese.  Think of that, and you have my blessing and thanks.

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2 thoughts on “Translators are writers, too.

  1. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to be a literary translator. I find it hard to translate even my own work, let alone someone else’s! I’ve also often wondered about the more practical aspects – for example, in one of the Harry Potter books, the abbreviation R.A.B. is given but not explained until a later book. How did the translators of this book know which character it was? Did JKR include a little post-it note that stated, “oh by the way, this character is … so for continuity’s sake you must make sure that the letters correspond to the names you’ve given this character in your language”? It’s a mystery to me.

    • I can’t speak directly to Rowling’s style, but some living authors are more than happy to provide annotations for the trickier bits, or at least answer questions that the translator has. They’re the nice ones!

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