Found in translation. The invisible art of translation deserves wider recognition.

This post originally appeared on New Statesman, and it is republished with permission.

I once met a French translator of Shakespeare. My immediate reaction on being introduced to him was odd: I felt a stab of envy. This French translator, I felt, could get really close to Shakespeare; I myself, being neither an actor nor a producer, could only read him.

My reaction was, of course, perverse. Most people would think that, as a native speaker of English, I can understand Shakespeare more intimately than any foreigner. Nevertheless, I had some idea of how deeply this translator might have pondered every word of the plays he was translating. I know, after all, that few Russians have pondered each word of Andrey Platonov’s stories as I have myself. And my collaborator Olga Meerson has often pointed out that a scholar or critic can choose which passages to focus on, whereas a translator has to do justice to every word of the original; he has to think about everything.

So, translating a great writer is nearly always rewarding. And I am especially fortunate in that there are several great Russian writers, especially of the Soviet period, who are still little known in the west, and whom I have had the honour of translating for the first time. Over 25 years ago I spent the best part of four months living almost as a hermit on the north coast of Cornwall in order to complete my translation of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Yesterday Life and Fate was the number one best seller on Amazon. I feel I have achieved something.

And I know that other translators feel the same way. Here, for example, are a few lines from a recent blog by the poet and translator George Szirtes:

Translation has opened the door to new territories, new people, new understandings, new travel: a different field of recognition. It has felt good to offer new life to works in a language as little spoken as Hungarian. […]. I am glad that those I have translated have sometimes found opportunities to extend their readership to England and other English-speaking territories. So territory. I too live here. I live here with them and I like being with them.

In comparison with this sense of achievement, complaints about the invisibility of translators seem trivial. Nevertheless, if translators are, as a matter of course, undervalued, then it is hard for them to earn a living. And if it is hard for them to earn a living, then much good literature will either be translated badly or not translated at all. This matters; it is a loss to all of us.

A few days ago someone sent me an article about Life and Fate from The Economist. There is no mention of my name, but I was not intending to respond. I had, only a few days before, spent a lot of time and energy drawing attention to the BBC’s failure to mention my name in a press release for their dramatisation of the novel – and I was wanting to forget about all that and get on with my work. Then I caught sight of a review, on the preceeding page, of Is that a Fish in your Ear?, a book about translation by David Bellos. I wrote the following letter to The Economist:

Your review of David Bellos’s excellent book about translation refers to “the unrecognised importance of the craft”. Your review – on the following page – of the BBC dramatisation of Life and Fate illustrates this point very well. The review is titled “Vasily Grossman’s epic novel is transformed for the radi”‘. Nowhere, however, does it mention that Grossman’s novel has already undergone transformation from one language to another. From sentences like this you might even think that the novel was originally written in English: “The grittiness of Grossman’s dialogue becomes a little bland in the well-modulated voices of the British actors.” Yours, Robert Chandler (invisible translator of Life and Fate).

I enjoyed writing this; The Economist had presented me with an opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it. Nevertheless, what I wrote does not get to grips with this question of invisibility. Most people, after all, have some idea, if only from seeing a few bilingual restaurant menus, of how badly things can get mangled in translation; most people enjoy my story of a Petersburg restaurant that offered a starter called “beef language” – a dish more commonly known as ox tongue. Why then do so many people want to pretend that translators don’t exist?

One possible answer is that we are still in the grip of the Romantic ideal of individual creativity. We don’t like to think of great, serious works of art as being co-authored. We tend to forget about the librettists but for whom many great operas would never have been written. Scriptwriters probably get still more deeply forgotten. And even a famous writer, if he moonlights as a translator, can slip into the abyss; no less a figure than Christopher Hampton was recently omitted from the credits of a Polanski film based on a play by Yasmina Reza that Hampton had himself translated. Seamus Heaney, admittedly, was praised to the skies for his version of Beowulf – but this only reinforces my point. Beowulf is anonymous, and so there was no other author competing for the public’s attention. Only when a work of art does not demand to be taken too seriously are we willing to accept the idea of co-authorship. Gilbert and Sullivan are allowed to co-exist, and so are Laurel and Hardie. The two most popular satirists of twentieth-century Russia – Ilf and Petrov – also worked closely together, and their names – for Russians – are no less inseparable.

It is also worth adding that our Romantic view of creativity leads us to undervalue craft. After the omission of my name from the BBC press release, a colleague wrote that, “Sadly, the BBC display a lordly disdain for craftsmanship of all kinds – but especially the kind of skills which make things possible, and without which their stars and attendant orbiting egos could not shine.” This, of course, is probably equally true of most other branches of the media.

A Russian colleague said to me that translators are like rubbish collectors – only noticed when they don’t do their job. But the situation may actually be slightly worse: people often seem surprisingly eager to imagine that a translator is not doing his or her job. People who would trust a writer often do not trust a translator. Today, for example, I came across a largely enthusiastic customer review of Life and Fate on Amazon. After saying he had not found the novel difficult to read, the reviewer continued, “This is probably due in no small part to the excellent translation (at least my Russian speaking friends tell me so) although certain words or phrases do jar – would a “pike-perch” actually be what we call a sturgeon?” In reply I quoted the OED’s definition of a pike-perch: “pike-perch, a percoid fish of the genus Stizostedion, with jaws like those of a pike, species of which are found in European and N. American river”. What makes a reviewer single out one word in a book of several hundred thousand words? Why did he not first look the word up in a dictionary? The frequency of such criticisms makes many translators nervous about using language that is in the least out of the ordinary. This too is a loss.

I have, almost without exception, been fortunate as regards my publishers. My editors at Harvill, Harvill Secker, NYRB Classics, Penguin and the MacLehose Press have always made me feel that they value my work, and their editorial input has always been both sensitive and enormously helpful. But I have also been extremely fortunate in another respect: my wife – who is also my closest collaborator – has been able to support me through twenty years during which I have not once earned anything approaching an average income. Were it not for this support, I would never have been able to devote so much time to such an exceptionally difficult writer as Andrey Platonov.

In the past, I used not to speak of this; I felt ashamed. I mention it now because I think it is worth calling attention to the difficulties faced by literary translators in this country. I have sometimes joked that by the age of 70 I might at last – as the writers I translate become recognised – be earning a normal income. Most people, however, cannot afford to wait this long.

Author bio

Robert Chandler’s translations from Russian include works by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolay Leskov, Andrey Platonov and Vasily Grossman  (all NYRB Classics).  He is the editor and main translator of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov. Together with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, he has co-edited The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. He has also translated selections of Sappho and Apollinaire. As well as running regular translation workshops in London and teaching on an annual literary translation summer school, he has worked as a mentor for the U.K. National Centre for Writing.  His most recent publication is Other Worlds (NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press), a fourth collection of stories and memoirs by Teffi.

Savvy Diversification Series – Don’t be scared! How to Add Ghostwriting to Your Portfolio of Services

“It was a dark and stormy night. A strange figure appeared in the window of the haunted house on the hill as a bloodcurdling scream echoed in the distance…”

Let me start with the bad news: today’s blog post is not about how to craft a spooky story to tell around the campfire. Instead, we are going to look at the other kind of ghostwriting. And there’s plenty of good news to go around.

Behind the Scenes

Put simply, ghostwriting is where one person writes a piece of copy that is published under another person’s name. It’s long been standard practice in the world of celebrity memoirs. But more managers and thought leaders are also outsourcing their writing to professionals, commissioning anything from press releases and blog posts to opinion pieces and speeches. These extremely busy executives might not have the time, the writing skills, or the inclination to put pen to paper. And that’s where ghostwriters come in.

Perks and Pitfalls

As a type of copywriting, ghostwriting is an attractive field for translators looking to diversify their business. Before we dive deeper into the skills that successful ghostwriters need to master, it’s essential to know some of the benefits and drawbacks.

Let’s get the biggest downside out of the way first: You do all the work but get none of the credit. Not only does your name not appear on the final copy, but you also generally cannot use this work in your portfolio or to build your business. Many clients will have you sign non-disclosure agreements so you cannot claim any connection to your brilliant piece of writing, either. Like translation projects, ghostwriting assignments often require quick turnaround, and time is of the essence.

On the upside, though, ghostwriting is usually better paid to compensate for the fact that you don’t get any of the glory. Ghostwriting projects help you forge close relationships with executives. If they are happy with your work, they might well refer you (discreetly) to other big names in the industry. And you will also build soft skills, such as asking good questions, listening with empathy, and understanding different viewpoints.

Write Like a Chameleon

Beyond crafting outstanding prose, good ghostwriters master two main skills: They fully understand the topic they are writing about and can nail the client’s voice. Specialized translators with subject-matter expertise are ideally positioned to work as ghostwriters. If you spend your days translating about contract law, you probably know enough about recent landmark rulings to write an opinion piece for a legal expert. If logistics is your niche, you could likely knock out a blog post about the latest trends for a shipping company’s CEO in no time.

Capturing the client’s voice is a different cup of tea, though. To be a good ghostwriter, you have to have empathy, put yourself in the client’s metaphorical shoes and walk around in them for a while. Just like a chameleon changes color to blend in, you need to take on the client’s persona and perspective. The bottom line is that whatever you are writing, it must sound like something that could have come from their mouth or keyboard.

Get (and Craft) the Message

Executives who use ghostwriters are busy people. Nonetheless, it is important to arrange a phone or video call to learn their voice. Email just doesn’t cut it. Ahead of the meeting, you should have received information about the brief: what will you be writing, what is the topic, how long should the piece be, and when is the deadline?

The call is the time to listen and ask questions. If possible, ask to record the meeting. If that’s not an option, make sure that you take copious notes and sum up what they have said before the call ends to make sure you have understood properly. Be curious and dig deep to learn more about their opinions and outlooks. Ask if there are any words or phrases that the client does not want you to use.

After the call, you can identify themes and consider how to structure the piece. And then it’s time to write. Think about the wording the client might use. Would they use longer or shorter sentences? Would they inject humor or keep things prim and proper? If it’s a speech or narrative piece, you should also read the copy aloud to see if it ‘sounds’ like the client. Once you have submitted your work, it is not unusual for the client to change things here and there. That is part of the process of creating copy that the client can literally put their name to.

Next Steps

If this sounds fun, you might be wondering how to land your first project. As with translation, it’s all about building your brand. An excellent way to begin is to author well-written articles in your specialist field (for the above examples, perhaps an essay on the impact of a ruling on contractual law or a blog post on the top 10 logistics trends in 2021). Nowadays, anybody can showcase their writing on LinkedIn and platforms like Medium, but you should also consider pitching to magazines in your area of specialization.

Don’t forget the importance of word of mouth, either: add the phrase ‘ghostwriter’ to your social media profiles and consider creating a separate page on your website dedicated to ghostwriting.

If this sounds interesting, try and take one small step today. I’m sure it won’t come back to haunt you later.

Author bio

Abigail Dahlberg is a German-English translator and writer specializing in environmental issues, primarily recycling and waste management. She has completed a number of ghostwriting projects (but she can’t tell you who for!). After completing an MA in Translation in 2001, she worked as a staff translator in Germany before relocating to Kansas City and launching a freelance business in 2005.

Over the past 15 years, she has helped dozens of direct clients in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland communicate with an English-speaking audience via her business, Greener Words. You can reach Abigail by emailing her at hello@greenerwords.com or visiting http://www.greenerwords.com.

Switching from science to translation?

Reblogged with permission

I often receive emails from aspiring translators who are switching from a career in the fields of science or healthcare and are seeking advice from someone with the same language combination who made a similar change, albeit several decades ago. This blog post is an expanded version of my response, in the hope that it will save me writing similar emails in the future, while reaching a potentially larger group of career switchers.

Here’s a five-point summary of translators’ core skills, so you can identify areas that you need to work on. Translators have:

  1. Excellent source-language understanding
  2. Sharp target-language writing skills
  3. In-depth subject knowledge
  4. A good command of the translation process
  5. Business know-how

1. Source language

Since you’re interested in becoming a translator, I imagine your source language is already good. The best way to improve is through immersion. Living for extended periods in your source-language country will give you a native-like understanding of your source texts. If moving countries is impossible, you can easily access foreign language resources online, through language courses, videos, podcasts, films, blogs, etc. Reading – fiction and non-fiction in your specialty – will improve your source language at every level. And remember, there’s always room for improvement.

2. Target language

You might think that your native target-language writing is good by definition. Unfortunately, scientists and healthcare professionals aren’t renowned for their writing skills. You may need to brush up on your grammar, refresh your punctuation and writing style, learn to write clearly or improve your technical writing.

3. Subject knowledge

Most translators agree that specialisation is the key to success. As a subject-matter expert, you’re ideally positioned at the start of your translation career. Your past experience will help you produce robust translations and reassure clients that their project is in the right hands. But bear in mind you will be applying your specialist knowledge to specific areas, such as clinical trials, patents, medical devices, regulatory affairs or research articles. Each genre has its own style, format and terminology and you’ll need to specialise further to adapt your knowledge to these genres. Learning about and working with corpora is a good way to solve linguistic problems in your specialty.

The AMA Manual of Style is a gold mine for medical writing and the online platform Cosnautas is the go-to place for Spanish medical abbreviations and tricky terminology.

4. Translation: theory and practice

If you have little translation experience, then an MA translation programme will give you a solid foundation. Nikki Graham’s blog reviews many master’s degree programmes in Europe. Other onsite and remote options include general courses at translation schools, such as Translator Training and WLS, and more specialised courses, such as those offered by Estudio Sampere and AulaSIC. If self-learning appeals more, then read up on general (In Other Words, The Translator’s Invisibility) and specialised translation techniques (Scientific and Technical Translation Explained, Scientific and Technical Translation, Medical Translation Step by Step).

Getting feedback on your translations is important for everyone at every stage of their career. If you decide to dive in now with little or no translation theory, feedback will be a lifesaver. Be sure to check out the networking tips below.

Computer skills are essential. You’ll need to be a competent MS Word user, know how to search for information on the internet and be familiar with specific software – CAT tools – for translators.

5. Business know-how

Business acumen is a soft skill to work on alongside the core competences mentioned above. From writing your CV and marketing yourself, to keeping track of your projects and invoicing, running your own business is no small feat.

The eight-week ITI SUFT (Setting Up as a Freelance Translator) course offers advice and hands-on practice for small groups of students, with ample opportunity for discussion and learning from your peers. One of the modules deals specifically with the thorny issue of overcoming the no-experience barrier and getting your first job. (Disclosure: I’m a tutor on this course.)

Take advantage of experienced practitioners’ books on the business side of translation. Recommended reading includes The Business Guide for Translators, The Prosperous Translator and 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know.

Last but not least: networking

The above points barely skim the surface of what you need to know about the world of freelance translation. Networking gives you a key to delving deeper. It opens the door to on-going contact with peers who can guide you through the first months and years of your new career. Here’s a list of networking ideas:

  • Get active on social media. Join conversations on Twitter and Facebook groups. Meeting and communicating with other translators virtually makes it much easier to connect at real-life events. On Twitter, check out #xl8 , #medxl8 and @translationtalk. On Facebook, join Standing Up, Traducción médica aplicada or Translators for Health.
  • Join a translation association and get involved. Associations offer training, forums for general discussion and terminology, member directories and specialised resources. Visit their websites to see what they offer: Asetrad, Institute of Translation and Interpreting, ITI Medical and Pharmaceutical Network, ITI Spanish Network, Mediterranean Editors and Translators, Tremédica.
  • Sign up for in-person translation training events. If you’re already active in social media groups and translation associations, meeting people for real will be the next step in learning and working with your colleagues. Referrals play a key role in a freelancer’s portfolio.
  • Go to industry events. As an expert yourself, you’ll be able to talk to potential direct clients on equal terms. And you’ll keep up with the latest changes in your field.
  • Try co-working with colleagues.
  • Attend social networking events in person. Going out for a meal or a walk is a great way of getting to know your colleagues.
  • Work with a mentor. Many translator associations organise mentoring schemes. Direct contact with an experienced colleague who gives you guidance and feedback on your work is invaluable.
  • Find a revision buddy. If you take networking seriously, you’ll be more likely to come across a colleague who can revise your work and have the confidence to approach them. New translators with strong linguistic training will be delighted to get subject-knowledge input from you, and you, in turn, will benefit from their translation expertise.

The translation sector benefits hugely from subject experts like you. I hope some of the above ideas will help you on your way to becoming a great translator. Good luck!

Suggestions?
If you’ve already switched from science to translation and think I’ve missed any important resources or points, please mention them below. My perspective is limited to my personal experience, so there are big gaps, especially in US courses and associations, and other language combinations.

Acknowledgements
With thanks to Helen Oclee-Brown and Tomás Cano Binder for their contributions to the recommended reading lists.
Image attribution: Alex Kondratiev on Unsplash