Finding The Author’s Voice In Literary Translation (While Silencing Yours)

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During the 56th Annual Conference organized November 4-7, 2015 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Miami, I attended a presentation by the Literary Division entitled “Finding the Author’s Voice in Literary Translation (While Silencing Yours.)” The presenter was Mercedes Guhl, administrator of ATA’s Literary Division and the mind behind Traduzco, luego escribo, a blog about reading, writing, and translating that is written entirely in Spanish.

Mercedes was born in Colombia, started translating children’s books in 1990 while completing her BA in philosophy and literature, and later received her MA in translation studies from the University of Warwick, in the UK. Recently, while talking to her husband―who is also a translator―he asked her whether all books translated by the same translator end up having the same voice.

While pondering the question, she realized that (a) No, books translated by the same translator shouldn’t “sound” the same because translators re-enact or re-create the author’s voice in the target language, and (b) Yes, translated books may seem to have the same voice sometimes if the originals sound the same because they belong to a series, fall in the same genre, or were poorly written in the first place. “Editors don’t understand that sometimes a book could be translated in different ways,” she added, indicating that her husband’s question doesn’t seem to be very unusual after all.

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Paraphrasing Umberto Eco, Mercedes said that the best-case scenario for book translators would be to read as the ideal reader, but translate with the common reader in mind. As a general concept, by reading as ideal readers, translators can learn to emulate the author’s voice, since “the original provides a grid” for the target text to be produced.

She also mentioned the contrasts between translators from an earlier age, who translated books to understand and acquire knowledge, and modern book translators, whose work is intended for publication and distribution. Because book translations nowadays serve the purpose of being a product for mass consumption, translators must exercise their writing skills in order to “have the tools and resources required to imitate, innovate, and create when necessary.”

In order to learn more about the work process other book translators follow and how similar or different it might be from her own method, she decided to carry out a study. One of the main questions she added to a questionnaire sent out to fellow book translators was whether they preferred reading the entire book before translating it, as she does herself, or if they would rather read each page as they are translating it.

Mercedes was surprised to find out that many would rather not read in advance, since she believes that some texts “should be understood as a whole” after a thorough reading, for they could contain “landmines that need to be simmered.” One of the opposing views she highlighted was by a translator who, in turn, contended that “reading as you translate yields a more vivid and spontaneous version.”

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“Do you read to understand or do you translate to understand?”

Another curiosity Mercedes had was how translators first approach a project, which she calls “the first ten pages struggle.” Because she translates mainly children and young adult books, she says “it’s easier to just turn to the teenager you have inside and go… After the first ten pages, things come together and click. You go with the flow,” she added.

As for quality standards―which is always a hot topic when it comes to book translations, given the exposure that the final material gets―she wondered what her peers considered to be a good or a poor translation.

“I’m a little fearless,” she admits. “I was trained as an editor, so I am always thinking about the poor reader. It’s like a ménage à trois, and you have to be faithful to both the author with the original and the reader with the translation.” The two questions she asks herself to assure the quality of her translations are: “Is it internally coherent?” and “Is it adequate for the market?”

Among other questions she had for her peers were:

  • Is a book a 100% mind-consuming task? In other words, do translators read or work on more than a book at a time?

  • When and how do you read? Or, do you read to understand or do you translate to understand?

  • Do you look up criticism and reviews about the book you’re translating?

  • Do you talk to editors about your translation choices?

  • Do you follow a given method, or do you just “go with the flow?” That is, do you compile glossaries and take notes while reading, or just see what happens in the first draft?

  • How do you deal with dated expressions? Do you research equivalents or just make something up in the target language to make it sound contemporary?

  • How about loaded words? Do you provide a direct translation, replace it, or coin a new term?

  • When finding the voice of an author/character who is of the opposite sex, do you usually have any problems with that?

  • How do you translate dialogues?

  • What is your view about footnotes? Do you see them as a way you can “manipulate” readers, or would you rather remain silent as a translator?

  • During the final stages of the project, do you make minor or major changes?

  • Do you always have a chance to review your translation after it’s edited, so you have the final say?

The conclusions she reached at the end of her study were as follows:

  1. There are no sure methods or tried paths when it comes to translating a book.

  2. Each individual profile, set of skills, and background calls for individual methods.

  3. Likewise, certain projects call for a different approach.

  4. Creativity rules, not only in the general method, but also in the way a given project is undertaken.

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RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. She also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators.

The Translator As Author

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During the 56th Annual Conference organized November 4-7, 2015 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Miami, I attended a presentation by the Literary Division entitled “The Translator as Author.” The panel was composed of Mercedes Guhl (administrator of ATA’s Literary Division), Abe Haak (translator from Arabic, French, and German) and Faiza Sultan (Arabic and Kurdish interpreter and translator.)

Abe Haak introduced the material, which focused on the theory and practice discussed in “The Translator as Author: Perspectives on Literary Translation, Proceedings of the International Conference,” an event that took place in Italy in 2009 to discuss the issue of authorship in translation.

The first topic the panel addressed was when it is acceptable for translators to delete or replace content from the book they are translating. Some examples included complementary information that supports central ideas, but become meaningless once removed from the original context: references to local history, characters, and rituals, as well as figures and statistics. In order to support the argument, a fragment of Julia Alvarez’s “How the García Girls Lost Their Accent” was mentioned, in which part of a dialog was omitted in the Spanish translation because it referred to the character’s accent, so it was turned into an explanation:

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“Stop!” Carla cried. “Please stop.”
“Eh-stop!” they mimicked her. “Plees eh-stop.”

“¡Paren!”, lloró Carla. “Por favor, ¡paren!”
Los muchachos la remendaron, burlándose de su acento hispano en inglés.

(The boys mimicked her, making fun of her Hispanic accent in English.)

Another subject addressed by the panel was when an explanation or addition is welcome or even required. The scenarios presented included when the main idea could become confusing, contradictory, or plainly nonsensical once it is out of context. That would also be the case when cultural differences or historical references make more sense once they are supported by a brief explanation. Likewise, substitutions can be introduced by a translator when a statement or example is lost in translation and there are equivalent references, situations, or circumstances that can work as replacements.

Other subjects included adaptation (when information that is central to the text cannot be translated directly or replaced by an equivalent) and suppression (whether it is okay to remove passages that are considered inappropriate, and when it becomes censorship).

Lastly, Abe talked about the degrees of intimacy, when translators go from literalness to creativity, and the degrees of departure, that is, the level of interference they can resort to when intervening in the texts they are translating:

  • Notional departure = inspired by

  • Schematics departure = based on

  • Textual departure = translated from

“The farther you go into creativity, the less money you make, it seems,” Abe joked. “General interest books; that’s where you have to exercise most of your creativity,” Mercedes suggested.

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RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. She also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators.

Beware Of The Fallible Filter And Unreliable Narrator: Enhancing Professional Trust

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During the 56th Annual Conference organized November 4-7, 2015 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Miami, I attended a presentation by the Literary Division entitled “Beware of the Fallible Filter and Unreliable Narrator: Enhancing Professional Trust,” presented by Susan Xu, the senior lecturer in the translation and interpreting program at the School of Arts and Social Sciences of SIM University, Singapore. She recently completed her PhD thesis at the National University of Singapore on a topic related to autobiographical translation, and her session was based on her findings and conclusions.

Susan explained that the “fallible filter” and “unreliable narrator” are two forms of untrustworthiness in literary narratives. In the former, the narrator invites readers to enjoy irony at the expense of the character. In the latter, the author conveys a secret ironic message to his readers via the narrator.

She also clarified the difference between the “implied author” (showing the psychological and ideological points of view of a character’s consciousness) and the “real author” (showing the visual and linguistic style of the narrator’s consciousness). “Character and narrator are not the same person. The character lived in the past; the narrator is older, evaluative, and more experienced,” she summarized, indicating that there’s also a difference between the “implied translator” (whose name is indicated in the book) and the “real translator” (a collective effort by translator, proofreader, editor, etc.)

Throughout her session, Susan quoted a political autobiography to illustrate how fallible filters are transferred and transformed in the translation process in order to help translators reflect on their own practice and enhance their professional trustworthiness. The examples she presented were drawn from an autobiography written by Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, who passed away early this year. He wrote all his memoirs in English, his native language, and the book analyzed by Susan during the session was “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey,” which was published in two separate, but similar editions: a 400-page Chinese edition by Lianhe Zaobao and a 388-page English one by The Straits Times Press.

Susan reminded us that translators run the risk of inadvertently interfering into biographies with their own voice and perspectives. These interferences can happen in the form of reorientations (weighing in on redundant or inadequate information), self-reflexiveness and self-referentiality (using the translator’s own idioms, polysemy, word play, and paratexts) and contextual overdetermination (omitting the author’s self-contradictions and erasing or creating irony.)

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In order to avoid bringing in this “other voice,” translators must analyze foreground elements present in the narrative, so they can identify the author’s distinctive linguistic pattern. In Lee’s book, these foreground elements are marked by syntactic contrast (sudden brevity) and underlexicalization (either noticeable suppression of a term or substitution of a complex expression with a single simple term.)

One of the most relevant interferences Susan identified in Lee’s book was the manner in which characters were presented. For example, the author showed a certain level of disrespect for the father figure introduced in the book and depicted his grandmother as a nagging, authoritarian person. All of these notions are implied in the author’s choice of words, but the translation into Chinese seems to have been culturally adapted to remove derogatory depictions of these two key persons and make sure that the respect traditionally shown for elders in Asian culture is upheld.

After introducing these concepts, Susan drew conclusions from her studies in autobiography translations:

  • The point of view in the interplay between the narrator, character, and readers accentuates an implied author who largely adheres to the generally perceived normative view of the autobiographer.
  • The factual, attitudinal, and ideological discrepancies present an altered persona of the implied author, who departs from the norm of the autobiographer.

  • The discrepancies are translator-unconscious in his effort to attune the narrative to the dominant ideology in the target-language culture and project a positive image of the implied author among target-language readers.

Lastly, the presenter gave us some tips on how to enhance our professional trust: “Every word choice makes a difference. Examine the foreground features in order to reflect the authorial tone. Also, adjust your point of view and align your consciousness with that of the narrator or character."

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. She also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators.

The New Normal: Cuba And The Power Of Translation

During the 56th Annual Conference organized November 4-7, 2015 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Miami, I attended a presentation entitled “The New Normal: Cuba and the Power of Translation,” presented by Esther Allen, a writer and translator who teaches at Baruch College and was selected as the Literary Division Distinguished Speaker.

A two-time recipient of National Endowment for the Arts Translation fellowships, Esther was a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She also co-founded the PEN World Voices Festivalin 2005, and guided the work of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund between 2003 and 2010. In 2006, the French government named her a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres and, in 2012, she received the Feliks Gross Award from the City University of New York Academy for the Arts and Sciences.

Esther’s ATA presentation was based on an article by the same name, which she wrote for Words Without Bordersonly two days after the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba was announced on December 17, 2014. She mentioned that many U.S. commentators foresaw an “invasion of tourists, traders, and investors.” ”The mentality is that Cuba existed in a vacuum and now it will be Americanized overnight,” Esther disagreed, explaining that the country is no stranger to globalization, as its founding father José Martí had already written about the diverse origins of Cuba extensively.

The presenter told us that Martí spent most of his adulthood in New York City, where he wrote about the United States, and his articles were published throughout Latin America at a time when Cuba was still a Spanish colony. Martí was killed by the Spanish forces in the beginning of the insurgency he had initiated, which resulted in the Spanish-American War that led the United States to occupy Cuba and establish a naval base on Guantánamo Bay. The rest, is history, as we all know.

Curiosity: José Martí identified the lack of secular children’s books. He was writing some material on the subject, but his funder from Brazil withdrew funds after they realized the material didn't have any religious content.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba: We Never Left
Written by Esther Allen for The New York Review of Books

As the translator of José Martí’s Selected Writings and currently a Biography Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, working on a book about Martí’s life, Esther analyzed how President Barack Obama mentioned the Cuban founding father in his speech. “Obama turned to address the Cuban people directly. He began with a citation from José Martí: ‘Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.’”

She wondered how Obama had arrived at that precise quote from Martí, and whether he had made a conscious decision to leave the second part out of it.

Libertad es el derecho que todo hombre tiene a ser honrado y a pensar y hablar sin hipocresia
― MARTÍ, José. Tres héroes: Bolívar, San Martín, Hidalgo. “La edad de oro” (1889), part of a series that is very popular among Cuban children.

The possible sources she found were:

  1. “Freedom is the right of every man to be honored, and to think and speak without hypocrisy” ― English-speaking guide at the Monumento a José Martí, La Habana, Cuba, February 2015.

  2. “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy” ―Cuban student translation exercise cited in Enseñar inglés básico a partir de textos de José Martí (pedagogical study done in Santa Clara, Cuba, 2011.)

  3. “‘Liberty,’ Martí wrote, ‘is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.’” ― Carlos Ripoli, letter to The New York Review of Books denouncing the “Marxification of Martí,” July, 1988.

Esther went on to say that, in the late 1800s, Martí used to write for Patria, located at 120 Front Street, which is now Wall Street. “He wrote in English as a Spaniard,” she explained, “because Americans were more interested in what Europeans had to say about the United States, rather than a Latin American from a country that did not exist yet.” He also wrote a letter disapproving of a mainstream newspaper that talked about how annexing Cuba to the United States would not have been desirable.

The speaker said that Martí’s work as a journalist was paid, but not well enough, so he turned to translations. Martí translated Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, which came out about thirty years after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin and is compared to it because the former raised awareness of the plight of Mexican Americans just as the latter raised awareness of the plight of slaves in the United States. Martí then decided to self-publish and distribute the Spanish version of Ramona mainly in Mexico. Esther said that he used to call it nuestra novela (our novel), meaning that he believed the book spoke to the real struggles of Latinos, albeit within the context of the years following the Mexican-American War.

Going back to normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, Esther reminded that, in the early 20th century, Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortíz coined the term "transculturation" to describe the distinctive cultural characteristics of Cuban history. “And that history holds some significant lessons about the roles translation can play in the process of globalization,” she assured. Whether the new generation of American translators will now be able to keep in touch with Cuban culture and learn more about its literature is something yet to be seen. “Canadians visiting Cuba each year don’t have Communist cooties,” she added, hinting at how our neighbors to the north, just as much as British and Australian individuals, may be better equipped at attempting to bring literature from Cuba to English-speaking countries at the moment.

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. She also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators.

Trials And Tribulations Of Translated Literature From The Margins

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During the 56th Annual Conference organized November 4-7, 2015 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Miami, I attended a presentation by the Literary Division entitled “Trials and Tribulations of Translated Literature from the Margins.” The presenters were Vivan Steemers, associate professor of French at Western Michigan University who has published Le (néo)colonialisme littéraire, a book about sub-Saharan Francophone literature translated into English, and Faiza Sultan, Arabic and Kurdish interpreter and translator and founder of DarSafi, a publishing house that specialized in translating and publishing literary and creative works.

Vivan started the presentation by saying that, for sub-Saharan authors, the very act of writing is an act of translation because, instead of writing in their native language, they write in French―the language of their former colonizer―in order to have more exposure.

She highlighted that, despite the fact that publication of sub-Saharan authors continues to be modest, the number of sub-Saharan books translated into English has increased since the 1950s. Two of the main books to start this wave were Camara Laye’s “The African Child”―which had originally been published as “The Dark Child”―and Mongo Beti’s “Cruel City.”

According to her, this increase is especially true thanks to the African Writer Series published by Heinemann Educational Books between 1962 and 2000 and, more recently, the creation of smaller, independent publishing houses. Still, “cynical, commercial publishers” in France act as “gatekeepers of ideas,” for they aren’t as aware of these authors writing in French and may not push for their translation into English. “These writers are left at the tender mercies of the Paris literary establishment,” Vivan wrote in her book.

Next, Faiza Sultan talked about another group of authors living on the margins, more specifically those producing Arabic literature about the Kurdish people, and how few of them are translated into English.

She emphasized the fact that publishers in Iraq aren’t authorized to publish anything before getting the approval of the Iraqi government. “They called it editing, I called it censoring,” she added.

Likewise, Iraqi readers don’t have access to some books coming from different parts of the world, which are banned for political, cultural, social, and moral reasons―and those who smuggle books face government persecution, even execution. Due to this censorship, Faiza explains it’s much easier for expats to get published and, consequently, most of the works written about the Kurdish people are in Arabic and Persian.

Faiza then talked about her own initiative to establish a small publisher to bridge the gap between East and West and tell untold stories about her people. The title she introduced to the audience was Salam Ibrahim’s In the Depths of Hell, the touching story of a man who survived chemical warfare in Iraq.

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RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. She also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators.

Jost Zetzsche: "We Are Doing A Great Job In Telling Poor Stories About Ourselves As Translators"

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During the 55th Annual Conference organized November 5-8, 2014 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Chicago, I attended a session entitled Why We Need to be Good Storytellers, presented by Jost Zetzsche, tech-savvy English-to-German translator, editor of The Toolbox Journal, and co-author of Found in Translation (read review here).

Jost started out by highlighting the power of translators and translations in worldwide communications, mentioning two fascinating examples:

  • the Inuit people needed to create a word for Internet, considering their lack of technology use, and came up with ikiaqqivik, which means “traveling through layers”
  • the Chinese had to create a special character for “God” that would be a gender-neutral and match their all-encompassing philosophical interpretations

The speaker then moved on to point the finger at the translation community: “We are doing a great job in telling poor stories about ourselves as translators,” he pondered. “Disagreements are fine, and there are great reasons to have disagreements, but we don't do it in public. We're not helping each other when being so critical.”

He was referring to discussion forums and social media posts in general, in which translators seem to be always complaining and being negative about everything related to our industry―from prices to competition and especially technology.

Jost then highlighted a couple of headlines that support his idea that we must tell better stories about ourselves as professionals, and as the translation community as a whole. “Success demands that we harness the power of telling a killer story,” he read from Psychology Today. “Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves,” he read another headline.

"We need to present ourselves well and be aware of who we are. 
We identify ourselves with St. Jerome, who wasn't really
tech-savvy when he translated the Bible."

  For more positive stories about translation, check out "  Found in Translation  ," Jost co-wrote with interpreter Nataly Kelly

For more positive stories about translation, check out "Found in Translation," Jost co-wrote with interpreter Nataly Kelly

He moved on to talk about how the media is covering stories related to translation. For example, he mentioned the first Skype translator demo and emphasized that it was kind of a fiasco. “But the press loved it, so the story was positive,” he stated. “The press was really interested in translation; maybe not just the type of translation that we want to talk about.” As a contrast, he indicated that for 350+ articles found online about the Skype translator demo, there were only 13 articles on the International Translation Day. “The latter is not an attractive story,” he concluded.

We are right now in the process of a supernova”

The speaker reminded those who attended his session how there wasn't much of a translation industry before the 1980s. Back then, there were mostly individuals offering their services, but then translation technology came along and things really changed.


Here's the time line Jost presented to the audience:

  • 1980s ― Translations (Documents, paper) > 10 languages
  • 1990s ― Localization (Software, digital) > 25 languages
  • 2000s ― Globalization (Simship, static web) > 40 languages
  • 2010s ― Integration (Integration in enterprise systems, dynamic web) 6 < > 60 languages
  • 2020s ― Convergence (Embedded in every app, on every screen, personalized) 150 < > 150 languages

“We, individual translators or small business owners, can't offer what large corporations have to offer, because we're using different technology,” he explained. “But the demand for boutique-style specialist translation businesses could grow. We're no longer an industry; we're a supernova!”

Where do we tell stories?

In the last part of his session, Jost listed a few ways translators can tell better stories about themselves and our collective activities.

  • Professional websites and blogs
  • Social media posts: “You can create a good on-line persona with 100 tweets; but it only takes 1 tweet to kill that persona!”
  • Other forms of electronic outreach: podcasts, YouTube channels, Tumbler, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.
  • Industry-specific engagements: conferences such as the ATA's
  • Not-for-profit engagements: Translators Without Borders's take on how translators have helped spread news about ebola
  • Talks: sharing your knowledge with peers or educating potential clients
  • Publications articles, books, etc.
  • Any kind of communication with potential clients

Jost's Recommended reading on positive stories that shed a light on the translation industry:

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RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. She also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators.