Michele Hutchison: How to improve as a translator? (Part Two)
Michele Hutchison continues her enquiry into the best ways of developing and improving as a translator. This week, she talks to David Colmer and reflects on her own practice
In my previous World Bookshelf blog, in light of the very difficult translation I’ve been tearing my hair out over for the past six months, I talked to three very experienced translators about the ways they had improved over the years. I learned that improving often seems to be about refining your methods as a translator. It means finding ways to tackle the revisions process more efficiently, locating better resources and reference sites. Time has a role to play too. Prize-winning translator David Colmer offered some sound wisdom for this week’s blog about the improvement that comes from long-term exposure to the language you are translating:
‘Some translators are quite daring, maybe even cavalier, in their willingness to translate from languages they don’t know that well, but after translating between five and ten million words of Dutch and living in the Netherlands for twenty years, I’m still learning, and one thing I’ve definitely learnt is that my translations are much better when I understand the original.
If you learn a language as an adult and translate from it for a long time, you amass a body of work in which your comprehension has grown. Looking back on it there are bound to be embarrassing blunders, but they might not always be evident to the reader as you’ve probably smoothed over a lot of misunderstandings because of your drive to make something of it in English. As your comprehension deepens, what you make of it in English comes closer to what it should be, what the author made of it in the original.’
I must say, as my own experience grew, I stopped asking my Dutch husband for advice on the original – he was too unreliable. Now I am a member of a translators’ forum on Yahoo (‘boekvertalers’) with more than 500 members, most of them translating into Dutch. It is the perfect place to post a query about something I’m not sure I’ve fully understood or would like to explore further. I cannot guess what associations certain words might evoke in native speakers and I don’t always spot intertextuality when the references are cultural. I’ve lived here for a decade but it’s still not long enough. I don’t know how translators cope when they aren’t socially and culturally immersed in the language they translate from, when they live back home, say.
Some of these colleagues were also happy to explain how they’d improved over the years. Here is what they said:
- ‘I unlearned regionalisms and became more critical of my own language use’
- ‘I took on co-translation projects’
- ‘I internalised corrections by copyeditors’
- ‘I improved my time management’
- ‘I learned when to let go of the original and when to stick to it’
- ‘I realised the importance of having an affinity to the text you’re translating’
- ‘I learned not to let go of an open-minded approach and fall into set ways.’
I have been doing some things right, though, I think. I’ve been attending translation courses and workshops for the past seven years; I’ve been mentored by an experienced translator and continue to consult him on various issues, the poor fellow. I’ve worked with other translators – I co-translated three graphic novels with Laura Watkinson and was able to pick up some tricks from her. We sat down at the kitchen table and translated aloud, shouting out suggestions as we went and taking turns to type. It was great fun to boot.
After a short exchange last year in which Jonathan Reeder looked through my translation of Craving by Esther Gerritsen, and I read the first few chapters of Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda, I’m in the process of a longer exchange. I am going through David McKay’s beautiful translation of the AKO-prize-winning War and Turpentine by Belgian Stefan Hertmans (due out from Harvill Secker and Knopf next year), while he has struggled through my Fortunate Slaves, offering indispensable feedback and advice. A fresh pair of eyes can work wonders, that’s why editors are so crucial. And I realised I did another thing right – I negotiated a long enough deadline to allow for this exchange and the months I would need to put into the revisions process. I have learned that producing the first draft of a translation is often the easy part; the hard part is making it work in English, while remaining accurate.
Striving for the unattainable – a flawless translation – is a matter of perfectionism, ambition and conscience. You get paid no more than you would have done if you’d handed in an earlier draft and had the editors tidy it up. I know people who are much more perfectionistic than I am, but I am conscientious, and I have an unholy terror of assessors and critics. As I wrote last time, it’s easy enough to pick holes in a translation. Still, I’m hopeful I can improve in the future and I’m hoping that I have improved already. But I’m not that hopeful that the very difficult translations will get significantly easier.
Just as I’m about to put this piece to bed, another translator friend, Brian Doyle, responds to my previous blogpost on Facebook. ‘Are translators expected to be editors too?’ he asks. Do we improve because we have learned to edit? You’ll be hearing from me again on that one, it’s time I talked to some editors…
About the translator
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.