Michele Hutchison: How to improve as a translator? (Part One)
Michele Hutchison talks to top translators Anthea Bell, Margaret Jull Costa and Paul Vincent about developing their practice and improving as a translator
One of the difficulties of being a translator, I’ve discovered, is that you’re on your own with all your insecurities. Translation is a painstaking and difficult process and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by a tricky book project, particularly a long one. Whilst translating Fortunate Slaves by Tom Lanoye these past months – a colourful, linguistically inventive Flemish novel – I’ve often felt that the task I’ve been set is impossible. And one question that has been going round and round in my mind is how do translators get better? How can I learn to vault the hurdles with style and panache? Can I improve so much that it’s no longer this painful?
Top translators don’t often admit to having got better at what they do. That would be like admitting their earlier works were of inferior quality. Nothing a translator does can be of inferior quality. We cannot damage an author’s fragile trust in us as guardians of their children, and we cannot have publishers think we might be making mistakes. There’s a taboo there. Translators are expected to be brilliant, right from the start. Authors, on the other hand, are allowed to improve, mastering literary skills as they gain experience.
Unfortunately, translators are not infallible. Amongst my friends are translators who will admit to having a few skeletons, or at least broken fingernails, in their cupboards, a blooper here or that, a glaring error, an infelicitous phrase that slipped through copyediting. And it’s very easy for a newspaper critic or a grants assessor to slam a translation. It’s easy to be negative, harder to spot improvement, certainly from the outside. What if the author you’re translating is improving? What if the editor who is editing the work is improving? The underlying framework of the original text, plus the overlying lacquer of editing means it’s unlikely that a reader would ever notice a difference.
So what about from the inside? I consulted three of the veterans of the trade. Paul Vincent, who won the Vondel Prize for his translation of Louis Paul Boon was rather gnomic, ‘The ratio of perspiration to inspiration has risen over the years, but much of that perspiration now goes into revision – which is as it should be.’ I interpret this to mean he used to spend a lot more time on the basic task of deciphering the original text and now that he has mastered that to a greater degree, he can spend more time improving his version. It doesn’t sound like it got easier though, just different.
Margaret Jull Costa who translates from Portuguese and Spanish has always been a source of inspiration to me and was very helpful on the subject. Here is what she replied: ‘I’m always aiming for perfection, while knowing perfectly well (pun intended) that perfection is for the gods. However, you have to try. When I first started out as a translator I would read through my translation – editing and correcting – maybe four times. I now do ten drafts, and that’s gradually creeping up to eleven. The longer I do this job the more aware I am of my own shortcomings and personal tics, the more self-critical. So while, like you, I’m probably bolder in the leaps I make between source language and target language, I’m also more cautious, more insecure about my own abilities, which are, after all, tested in different ways by every new translation. So learning to be a translator (a lifelong undertaking) requires an odd and necessary combination of confidence and self-doubt. If I catch myself thinking “That’ll do”, it won’t!’
So her method has changed and it does sounds like she might still be improving, but the work has got harder, not easier.
What about Anthea Bell then, a translator I worked with in my previous incarnation as editor and whose work seemed unfailingly excellent? She sent me a lengthy, fascinating reply which unfortunately I cannot reproduce in full. The gist was that the changes in her working methods over the years mainly had to do with the hardware, i.e. computers and the internet which have changed the practical nature of the work. The Translator’s Association journal will soon be featuring an article she has written on this. ‘I don’t think that part of the software that’s in my own head has changed very much, except that I always used to prefer to do a full first draft and then revise; now I tend to do it chapter by chapter as I go along. I still tend to collect up queries as I go through the whole thing and then ask the author, because many of them answer themselves in the course of a book. I’d say that I find translation itself has not necessarily become easier with time, but since I began in the profession, decades ago, the actual methods of getting a translation from the mind to the printed page (or e-book) have improved out of all recognition.’
Really then, I should count myself lucky that I’ve been born into a world with easy access to online dictionaries, Google’s Ngram Viewer which is a linguistic corpus, handy for checking historical usage, and all the other new tools of the trade. There’s even less excuse for a translation not to be perfect, and perhaps even more pressure as a result.
The three translators I spoke to all mentioned a change in their method or tools as they gained experience, so that’s something I can work on. Of course there are other ways to improve too – mentoring schemes, collaborating with other translators, extra training. When I think of my own experience as an editor of translations, other issues affecting quality come to mind, like deadlines, for one. There’s so much more to say on the subject that PEN is allowing me to continue this in ‘part two’. I’ll be back!
About the author
Michele Hutchison worked in British publishing and in Dutch publishing for many years before becoming a full-time translator and blogger. Writers she has translated include Joris Luyendijk, Rob Riemen, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and Simone van der Vlugt.