Literary Translation


1. Choose a text you love. Choose a text to translate that you want to convey in another language for a reason other than “figuring out what it means” or “unlocking its secrets.” If you don’t feel strongly about a text, don’t translate it.

2. Do your homework. If there are cultural references in the source text that you don’t understand, by all means look them up. Listen to that symphony, view that painting, see that film. Read the essay by the writer to whom your author alludes. At the very least, skim it or read a good synopsis.

3. Read more than you translate. Voracious readers make good writers and this is true of translators as well. Read in Spanish, read in English, read other translations and pay attention to writing. Knowing what is being written by the author whose work you are translating but also by other writers will deepen your understanding of the text you are working with. Knowing the literary scene of the language into which you translate as well as from which you are translating is extremely important. Read everything you can, whether it seems immediately relevant or not.

4. Let it cool! This is not new advice, but it bears repeating: Walk away from your translation and come back to it later with fresh eyes. You’ll find yourself able to evaluate your own work more dispassionately, and you’ll come up with better, more original solutions.

5. Respect the text. As much as today we vaunt our lack of invisibility as translators, translation is not the same as creative writing or composing poetry. Translation is creation but it is also interpreting someone else’s creation. This doesn’t mean that we must adhere to an exaggerated notion of the authenticity of the original or that we are not producing our own creative works– we are. Think about translation in ethical terms.

6. Take pains with your title. It’s the first thing publishers –- and potential readers -– will see. Literal translation here can be especially treacherous. Be creative. Try to avoid using a title that already exists, as this may create confusion for those people seeking to buy your book or read reviews of it.

7. Accept imperfections. No one can produce a perfect translation. The nature of translation means that it is a process of making choices and compromises. As translators we must try to produce the best version of a text that we can that we feel does the work we want it to do. There will be words, passages, lines that do not work perfectly. There will be others that are brilliant and inspired. Embrace translation as a process and do not get bogged down by perfectionism.

8. If there is an association of translators in your area, join it. In Spain, ASETRAD (Spanish Association of Translators, Proofreaders and Interpreters). It is an excellent way to to meet other writers and become acquainted with their work.

9. It’s not necessarily a terrible idea to translate an entire work “on spec” in the hope landing a contract, but before you do, try submitting one chapter or discrete section of your novel-length translation to a literary journal specializing in literature in translation before attempting to tackle the entire book. Your work will reach many readers, especially if it appears in an e-journal, and among them may be your new publisher!

10. Be aware that these “rules” are made to be broken. What works for me may be anathema to you, and vice-versa. In fact I’ve violated many of the rules other people have posted and more than a couple of my own. Trust your own good judgment and common sense. No one needs to tell you that this profession gets very little recognition and pays next to nothing. Presumably you’re doing it because you love it and can’t ever recall life BLT (before literary translation). What could be more fulfilling than that?