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Essays / July 23, 2018

The Art of Translation

A literary translator talks about her craft
Kelly Mark, <em>Olive Bold</em>, 2001. Letraset on archival matte board, 35.5 x 27.9 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Olga Korper Gallery. Kelly Mark, Olive Bold, 2001. Letraset on archival matte board, 35.5 x 27.9 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Olga Korper Gallery.
Kelly Mark, <em>Olive Bold</em>, 2001. Letraset on archival matte board, 35.5 x 27.9 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Olga Korper Gallery. Kelly Mark, Olive Bold, 2001. Letraset on archival matte board, 35.5 x 27.9 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Olga Korper Gallery.

I will start small: with the spices in the kitchen cupboard when I was a child. The contained assortment of little bottles and mason jars with their handwritten labels that I would rearrange, and that I took such pleasure in ordering. A deep satisfaction when a number of elements fall into place. I feel this when the words in a sentence land just right in translation.

It began under the eaves of a 17th-century Hotel-Dieu, now a translation residency. It began with a rush of a crush between library stacks at the Bibliothèque nationale in Montreal. It began on the dance floor at a party on Montrose Avenue. And it began in the south of France, after midnight, with a banjo playing at an open window.

I have translated four novels in my career, and I can romanticize each of their beginnings. What came after was messy, arduous, dizzying, sometimes devastating, but not without tinges of that first romance. There’s such intimacy to translation. Such nearness in listening that closely to the words of someone else.

I have said, as have others, that no one will read your work like a translator. No reader, critic, journalist or jury will ever spend so much time poring over the phrases you’ve chosen to lay out in just this way. To inhabit, and then be inhabited by, the words.

This residing-in and being haunted by words happens when I’m writing, too. Waves of phrases that turn themselves over and over and shift in the liminal times. As a writer, I am always looking for ways to make language new; translating from another language enriches my thinking andstretches the edges of my English. My first book of poems, Everything, now, was sparked by my translation of a poetic novel—I used translated phrases as leaping-off points for my own pieces. I lived among the words of Turkana Boy for so long, and made them even further my own by absorbing them into poems, I had to remind myself at times that there was another, first author.

Like any freelancer, literary translators have the flexibility to work from a variety of places— including planes, trains, over the nursing baby’s shoulder, and, yes, the south of France. There is the obvious flip side to this freedom—we also never get to have a true vacation. We live without a safety net—no sick days, benefits or pension plan—but the luxury of keeping my own hours is one I would not give up.

The Canada Council sets the rate for literary translation at 18 cents per word of fiction (other, non-literary contracts tend to pay somewhere between 20 and 25 cents per word) and funds translations of books by Canadian authors into English, French or an Indigenous language. An average 200-to-250-page novel pays the translator about $9,000. Nearly every colleague I asked said they’d rather not break this down into an hourly wage because it would be too depressing. I’m reminded of a breadbaking venture with three friends when I was 23: every Tuesday, we woke up at 4 a.m. and rode our bikes to the city park where we lit the fires in the brick ovens, and then, 11 hours later, crammed the borrowed Fiat full of fresh loaves and drove across the city to the farmer’s market. It was intensely satisfying work. And when we counted the money at the end of the day, we realized we were working for $1.75 per hour.

The hourly rate for translation probably works out to something closer to $20 to $50, but can vary immensely from day to day, page to page, and text to text just like writing, which belongs to a different kind of time. Sometimes a passage can take hours to research and recreate in the language of arrival. Other times the flow feels sweet and easy, and whole pages pass in very little time.

Even though we do comparatively well in Canada, with the council’s standard rate allowing us to avoid the undercutting and outbidding that goes on in some other countries (Spain and France, for example), most literary translators I know have a second job which allows them to finance their “literary habit.” They are professors, commercial translators, editors, teachers. The ones who manage to support themselves translate at least five times as many books per year as I do, with much tighter deadlines. I myself have worked as a yoga teacher, a prep cook, a research assistant, and have taken on hundreds of shorter, non-literary contracts. I’ve been helped by grants and bursaries for writers and translators, and have also chosen to live inexpensively (when I translated my first book, I paid $380 per month in rent and didn’t own anything more costly than a nice bicycle). I’ve been able to luxuriate in translation the way I have, stretching it out in a way similar to writing, because I am not relying on literary translation to support myself.

I feel like the author of the new works—kind of. I feel like the words are mine but the rhythms are hers. Or, like it’s a kind of co-creation.

The challenges vary tremendously from book to book. With an author like Maylis de Kerangal, whose novels I have translated as Birth of a Bridge and Mend the Living, my biggest challenge was to avoid flattening her singular use of language. She draws upon antiquated, technical and slang vocabularies, and frequently invents new relationships between words (walkie-talkies are crocheted (crochetés) to ears, eyes screech (crissent) over someone). If there was a choice between an unusual word and a more commonplace one (gimcrackery versus trinket, for example), it was nearly always “truer” to the original to keep the more unusual one—the jolt of the unexpected is what makes her writing so compelling.

One of the best things about being a literary translator is gaining glimpses into multiple realms. Through literary translation, I’ve learned about the following in the past eight years: manual upkeep of wooden boats, the habits of muskrats, heart transplants, goldfinch breeding, the components of concrete used in large-scale construction, deep-sea diving equipment, the morning rituals of sparrowhawks, and the music of 1970s band Super Mama Djombo—among other things. Most of my work is done at the computer, with a browser page open to at least six tabs, where I refer to online dictionaries (two French-to-English, one French-language, and one English-language), an online thesaurus, Wiktionnaire and Wikipédia. I save questions for the author until the end, confer with francophone friends when I need to, and consult experts in specific fields. For Mend the Living, which opens with a surfing scene and follows the sinuous path of a heart transplant, my editor and I spoke to a surfer, a nurse and the head of a surgical team. For The Greats, my latest novel in translation (by Sylvain Prudhomme), I corresponded with an army corporal for help with terminology around the war of independence in Guinea Bissau. Through translation I have also discovered what is by far, for me, the best use of social media. I’ve taken to crowdsourcing answers when I’m looking for help with an expression or terminology—I can, for example, do a Google image search for a term in French and post a photo to see what anglophone friends would call it (as was the case with “shower shoes” in a hospital scene in Mend the Living).

The first draft is a ramshackle, slapdash thing that I charge through like a train. Even my typing starts to sound like wheels on tracks. I set myself a goal of 10 pages a day and work furiously fast, leaving multiple word options in the text, difficult words in French, and adding colour coding and comments for trouble spots where something needs research. I do this knowing that the second draft will take at least as long as the first, and that there will be two or three subsequent drafts before the final edits. With some nostalgia for a more tactile life, I still do my revising on paper and write out entire passages by hand when something needs untangling. I read my work aloud during the revising process to hear the shapes of the sentences I’ve written in English, just as I do when I’m writing my own pieces.

Translators are the authors of the new book, says de Kerangal. I feel like the author of the new works—kind of. I feel like the words are mine but the rhythms are hers. Or, like it’s a kind of co-creation. A work requiring two authors: one, the original who invented the shape and the narrative, and the second who made it sing in a new tongue. I recently went to a chamber music concert and heard The Nutcracker played on a piano by four hands. Everyone recognizes that melody, and yet these two pianists made it new. But I digress.

It’s important to note that it’s not just de Kerangal, or me, who says that translators are the authors of the new text. More than this being a subjective feeling, the translator is legally recognized as the author of the translation by the Copyright Act and copyright law.

Kelly Mark, <em>Boiling C</em>, 2001. Letraset on archival matte board, 35.5 x 27.9 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Olga Korper Gallery. Kelly Mark, Boiling C, 2001. Letraset on archival matte board, 35.5 x 27.9 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Olga Korper Gallery.

But we get used to mixed signals. On the one side, we have this legal recognition in Canada, and many, many authors and publishers are cognizant of the artistry of the literary translator. There are also prizes, more and more of them, to recognize the creative work of translation; the Governor General’s Award for Translation, the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Man Booker International Prize are examples (though it must be noted that most prizes in Canada focus on English and French—it’s unconscionable that there is but one prize to recognize works translated from or into Indigenous languages, and that one, the Burt Award, is only for young adult literature). The Literary Translators’ Association lobbies for recognition of translation as an art form—it is largely through their efforts that it has become standard for many publishers to credit the translator on the cover.And on the other side: there are authors who completely neglect to credit their translators when they gain accolades for a book in another language. Still many publishers (particularly French-language ones in Canada) refuse to print the translator’s name on the cover, claiming that aesthetically there’s no room, or that translations are less saleable. (I can’t help but wonder: couldn’t more publishers help raise the profile of literature in translation by celebrating it, rather than making every attempt to conceal it?) Again and again, articles and reviews and festival programs announce the English (or French, etc.) version of a book without mention of the translator (hence the emergence of the hashtag #namethetranslator), as though the book just magically appeared in the new language, like a kind of virgin birth.

Often there’s a total ignorance that translation is anything more than a technical skill. People see it as the mechanical transfer of words from one language to another and are confused as to why I don’t translate both ways. But you speak French, right? Well, yes, but there’s a sensibility in my first language, English, that can’t be matched in my second. To comprehend and to articulate are two very different skills. I can read and perfectly understand paragraphs in French, but to craft and refine them in English, I’m drawing upon skills that run deep—a lifetime lived in this language, a lifetime as a writer, attuned to the sounds and strangenesses of words. I can’t replicate this sensitivity in French. (And of all the translators I know, there are only two who translate professionally in both directions.) There’s an analogy bouncing around that says it concisely: knowing two languages does not make you a literary translator, any more than having ten fingers makes you a concert pianist. Anyone can be helped by dictionaries (and I am, every paragraph and every day), but not everyone can make a book sing in a second language.

Like writing, translating demands a great deal of creativity. A hierarchical sense of the relation between these two pursuits can be deceptive and problematic—it gives us the idea that a translation is always secondary, like a diluted version of the original. But—and this question runs wildly counter to the habitual humility of the profession—with the kind of close attention and care a translator can bring, does it not have the possibility to be at least as good, or even better? Gabriel García Márquez famously said that One Hundred Years of Solitude translated by Gregory Rabassa was superior to the Spanish original.

The translator lives within the sentences of this other author, often for months at a stretch. We walk with them, sleep with them, wake with them. We often have, as one colleague described it, “eureka moments” over the most incongruent breakfast in which the perfect phrasing comes to us. One of the truest literary pleasures I’ve known is this sense of being inhabited by words.

Translation is a deeply creative act, like writing. And yet there is one huge difference—translators never have to face that mute expanse of the blank page. The map is drawn. The path through is their own to forge, but the map is there. Surprises occur on the micro level. The satisfaction of accomplishment is poetic, aesthetic, rather than narratively inventive—the joy of finding words that convey what was written in the original and sit pleasingly side by side. Somewhat like spices in the cupboard.

This is an article from our Summer 2018 issue, “Translation.”

Jessica Moore

Jessica Moore is an author, translator and musician.