Michele Hutchison: The complications of editing translations
Michele Hutchison discusses the challenges of editing literary translations with professionals on both sides of this most delicate of processes.
In response to one of my previous blogs, translator Brian Doyle asked whether translators are expected to be editors too. To complicate matters, I asked him about his own recent experiences of editing and this is what he said:
'My most recent experience of working with editors was for a crime novel – Peter Aspe's From Bruges With Love. The editing was meticulous and the editors gracious. The translation went through a couple of edits before going to a copyeditor. While I'm sure all – or most – publishers use professional editors, and I'm sure translators need them as much as authors do, my experience has been that the translator is generally left out of the process. How weird would it be if an author submitted his or her manuscript and it appeared in print without further consultation.'
His main bugbear seems to be that publishers don’t always consult translators about changes made to the text. Being edited is also fraught with lots of other issues that make translators feel nervous. Will the editor compare the translation with the original? Will the copyediting shift the text towards a certain notion of proper English without taking into account that the translator may be replicating idiosyncrasies in the original? Is the translator expected to have delivered a perfect text? Should the translator try to improve on the original or not?
I talked to four editors about editing translations, starting with Bill Swainson from Bloomsbury UK, whom I’d recently had the pleasure of working with on a translation from French – Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been (May 2015). I usually work from Dutch so it was a new experience to have an editor who could actually read the source text and compare my translation to it. In a way it made the whole process much less scary; I had both back-up and a reliable critic.
Bill told me he and his colleagues go to great lengths to match the translators to the texts and then identify potential issues in the translation. In the book I translated, this was all about finding the right tone for a 21st-century French book with 18th-century irony à la Diderot. He feels he has a duty to both author and translator to get as good an English version as possible. It would be unfair to the translator not to edit, since like anyone they need a second reader. But he also points out that translators are the closest readers a text will ever have.
This is what he said about how much a translator should edit:
‘I hope a translator will be as faithful as they can to the original while drawing the English commissioning editor’s attention to inaccuracies and anomalies in the text. The editor can then check with the author or make suggestions. Some publishers outsource editing to the translator but I don’t believe in that. It should be a collaboration between editor and translator to make the best possible text. The editor acts as a sounding board in service to the author, I hope they appreciate it!’
I asked him whether he had encountered problems with books that needed more editing than they’d had in their original language.
‘The text is a given until it disproves itself. It might be better with more vigorous editing but that’s not always possible in some countries. Working with translations is a lifetime of common sense, really. You need to combine respect for the text with a robust interrogation of it.’
The next person I spoke to was Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe Australia, which also has a branch in the UK. He published Tommy Wieringa’s These Are The Names in February 2015 and described Sam Garrett’s translation of the novel as ‘terrific, he seems like a writer himself’. His experience of publishing translations hasn’t always been straightforward.
‘My experience has been that European and South American houses often edit far less – both structurally and technically – than US, UK or Australian ones do. (I don’t know if this is because authors are treated as more sacrosanct, or if there’s simply not the same strong editing culture there.) At the level of copyediting, I often come across what I regard as a remarkable tolerance for run-on commas, overly long and complex sentences, and very long paragraphs in the original work. As a result of all this, if the translator doesn’t try to improve on the original, we have to. To come across a translator who has technical mastery in both languages, and good writing and editing instincts, is like stubbing your toe on a gold nugget.’
I asked whether translations required more or less editing than untranslated books:
‘I find that we often have to edit more than we do for a book written in English. This is because of what I said above – we’re like archaeologists, having to sift through two levels of artefacts.’
Meanwhile, I’d also been emailing with an American editor, Sulay Hernandez, who I’d been in touch with in her previous incarnation at The Other Press. These days she’s a freelance editor editing English-language authors, but also translations from Spanish. She says she enjoys working on English translations from any language and can't overstate the importance that world literature has had in her life.
‘I have never expected a translator to edit or improve on the original text in their translation. I think translators have more than enough to deal with working under what seem like increasingly tight production deadlines. That said, having done some translation work myself (Spanish to English), it’s almost impossible not to notice ideas that aren’t clearly expressed by the original author. I can imagine that translators often try to fix certain conceptual missteps or glaring plot holes while they are translating since they can communicate with the author in their own language. There are words and expressions that can’t actually be “translated” into English and a translator then has to recreate the author’s intent. In this sense, a translator is often doing much more than just the mechanics of translating.’
I asked her what kind of editing she did.
‘As a developmental editor, my focus is on the overall purpose and readability of the work. I hone in on plot and characterisation inconsistencies and make suggestions that tighten the narrative threads. In general, I come to a translated manuscript with the same mindset and prepared to do the same amount of developmental work as I do with a manuscript originally written in English. Still, I have found that translated manuscripts often require less “developmental work”, precisely because translators have a more intimate and direct connection with the author. Similarly, even when a translator doesn’t address conceptual issues with an author first, I have received manuscripts that included a “for my eyes only” side-note detailing points of contention with the work that the translator strongly felt I should consider. For me, this is a translator going above and beyond their job description; much appreciated, but certainly not expected or necessary.’
Last but not least, I talked to Stuart Williams of Harvill Secker and Bodley Head. Did he think translators should try to improve or edit the work?
‘I think the best translators do edit and improve. Within reason, with the author’s original intentions in mind, and probably with their explicit approval. It’s got to be a collaboration: unilateral rewriting is doomed.’
I also asked him how editing he expected to do on a translation.
‘How much work I’d do on the page, and what type, depends entirely on the translation. Often I don’t read the original language but I’d trust a translator to tell me if my suggestions swerve too far from the original. All I think about is the best possible rendering of the voice on the page in English. If the voice isn’t there to start with the translation has failed; you can’t inject life where there is none. And if it’s already close to perfect then bringing it that last five per cent of the way can be the hardest, most detailed part – but also the most rewarding.’
So perhaps we translators shouldn’t be so wary of editors? They don’t seem to expect the impossible from us and are perfectly prepared to collaborate. We all want the same thing – the best possible text. Perhaps the best translators are the ones who are best at collaborating and communicating with their editors and authors, not necessarily the ones who have learned to edit themselves.
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.