Literature Meta Translation

Mentor Yourself in Literary Translation!

Advanced lesson: how do you raise high the roof beam in Japanese?

I get a decent number of emails asking how to become a literary translator. I wish I could tell you the translation equivalent of the Konami code, but tragically nobody will tell me either.

If you don’t have the time or money to do one of these newfangled MAs in literary translation, or you find yourself geographically isolated from other translators or literary organizations that offer mentorships, workshops and masterclasses, I highly recommend just creating your own mentorship at home. The great thing about this is that you can be mentored by a hugely respected translator whenever and wherever you feel like it, without them ever knowing. And if they’re dead, there’s no graverobbing required.

Materials required:
– one (1) book in its original language, which is your source language
– one (1) book, exactly the same as the one above but in a completely different language, which is your target language
– one (1) notebook
– one (1) pen
– your brain

The point of this exercise is to get inside the other translator’s brain. I recommend picking one translator that you admire and working your way through a few books they’ve translated, then picking another translator and doing the same. Although translators will often use similar ways of solving problems, some have radically different working philosophies, and you really want to learn as many different ways of doing things as possible. Flexibility and close reading skills are what we’re looking to gain here.

How to do it:
– Read the first page of the book in its original language.

– Read the first page of the book in translation.

– What has changed? Why do you think the translator has made those choices? (Resist reflexively thinking about what you would do differently.) Note the texture of the language. Do the characters seem the same? Is there anything implicit in the source text that has been made explicit in the translation? Is information revealed at the same time or in the same way? How has dialogue, humor, rhythm, etc., been dealt with? (Basically, just notice everything.)

– Write down your observations.

– Turn the page(s). Repeat until you’ve finished both books.

(Advanced exercise: The same as above, only in reverse: compare a book originally written in your target language to a well-respected translation of it in your source language.)

– Apply what you’ve learned to your own work. Repeat entire exercise until you’ve reached a higher state of translation consciousness (or unconsciousness).