A Day At The Desk

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Today I am delighted to welcome fiction translator Adriana Capadose to the Day at the Desk feature. Adriana translates fiction from French to English, and has kindly taken time to answer questions from year 8 & 9 children at St Joseph's High School in Slough.  

Is it true that bad writing is harder to translate accurately than good writing?

Haha! Good question. Yes, if the emphasis is on accuracy, I suppose bad writing is harder to translate because you find yourself thinking, “Urgh! I just don’t want to say that”, so you reword or improve on the original. Sometimes bad writing can be quite liberating, though, because you can romp through the translation without agonising over beautiful sentences, subtle rhythms or sophisticated double meanings. I’d rather put the answer the other way around and say that good writing definitely improves the way you translate: it’s like playing tennis against someone good – it raises your game.

Do you need qualifications to be a translator?

I think you probably need qualifications to be a specialised translator for, say, medical or legal material. I certainly don’t have specific translating qualifications beyond a degree in French. I don’t think there’s some magic certificate which would land someone a job as a literary translator; it’s one of those tricky situations where you have to prove yourself to get the work, and get the work to prove yourself.

How long does it take to translate a novel?

How long is a piece of string? I usually translate 40 or 50 pages a week on the basis of about 10 pages a day. When I first start a book, it can be hard managing 10 pages a day because I’m getting used to whole “world” of the book, its narrative voice, the tone, the humour, any specialised vocabulary etc. By the end, I can romp through 20 pages before the dogs pester me for their afternoon walk! When I’ve finished translating a book, I like to leave it to “rest” for a month so that I can completely forget it, then when I do my final read-through and edits, I’m reading it as if it were an English book, born in English. So, a 250-page book would be about 6 weeks of translating, 4 weeks of resting and a week of tweaking: eleven weeks.

How much of you goes into it - do you ever correct or tweak the author’s original text?

A lot of me goes into it because I have my own ways of writing… on the other hand, if you compared translating to acting, I’d like to think I wasn’t one of those big starry actors who basically always plays themselves, but one of those subtle, versatile actors who make you think “Ooh, was that nurse the detective in the thing we watched last week?”, because they morph into each role.

If I spot inaccuracies in a text I’ll let my publishers know that I’m correcting them (one author was describing a beautiful woodland scene and had snowdrops out at the same time as honeysuckle, and that’s not possible… it’s not actually the translator’s job to worry about things like that, there are sub-editors who are brilliant at that kind of detail, but sometimes you just pick up the odd error).

How do you make choices between different possible meanings or phrasing?

This question perfectly encapsulates an aspect of translating that I love: I see the job as a combination of science and art. Science because there are some things you just have to get right and convey accurately (like the meaning), and art because you often have to use your creativity to convey things (like the choice of phrasing). If there are different possible meanings for a phrase, it’s the translator’s job to work out or find out which meaning the author intended, or whether the ambiguity itself was intended; and then the translator has to reproduce the same meaning or ambiguity in English. With phrasing, there’s rarely just one correct way of doing it. There are probably many different options, and the mood and tone of the text might encourage you to use a more blunt or poetic turn of phrase than you would usually use.

Some translations of one text are different - why?

I would expect all translations of one text to be different. This is because there’s very rarely only one correct way to translate something. Some literature festivals organise events called “Translation slams” or “Translation duels” where two translators are given the same 2-page text a couple of weeks before the event. They don’t see each other’s versions until the day and then, in front of a live audience, they have to justify and explain their choices (this might sound like a weird spectator sport, but translation is great fun and these events are often very funny as well as interesting). Last time I did a translation slam, there was only one sentence in the whole passage that we both translated in the same way – and it was only a four-word sentence!

Do you ever have to look things up in a dictionary?

Oh, my goodness, yes. I’m not a walking French vocabulary machine! All translators look things up to check they’ve understood the original material correctly; and we also use Thesauruses a lot to nail the correct synonym for something.

Do you get a native speaker to test read your translations?

No, that’s pretty much what I’m there for: to take something French and put it into English. If my work had to be cross-checked by a French person who speaks good enough English to understand the translation, I think I should be looking for a different job… I always send my translations to the original author out of courtesy, and if they read English, it’s always really helpful and interesting going through little details with them.

Do you read things before you agree to translate them?

Yes. Well, maybe not the whole book, but enough to know that I can cope with it and will enjoy it.

Do you translate poetry?

I’ve dabbled in translating poetry but haven’t done it professionally. I’d like to have a go, though, because poetry translation is a sort of art-science balance on acid! There are more things you have to get right, such as rhythm and rhyme, but you have to be more creative to achieve that.

Can you translate both ways (ie French - English/English- French)?

I can go the other way but I wouldn’t ever want to do it professionally. Translators only usually work translating into their mother tongue.

Do translators have editors?

Yes, very much so. Once I’ve sent my translation to the publisher it’s treated like any other book, going through the same processes of editing, sub-editing and proof-reading.

Is being bilingual all you need to be a good translator?

Ah, this is an important question, but it’s also sort of the wrong question because you don’t need to be bilingual to be a translator. Translating is at least as much to do with writing as it is to do with languages, perhaps more. Someone can be fantastically fluent in a foreign language and have the most enormous vocabulary, but have no skill at writing in English – so they know what the original text means but would be no good at saying it in English. If you have a solid knowledge of another language and you’re good at writing, your translation will be pleasing to read… and you can always get dictionaries, colleagues and on-line forums to help you understand passages you’re struggling with in the original. Being a translator means being a writer who has access to one or more foreign language(s).

Can a professional translator translate any text/topic/subject of their language combination?

Well, you could but it might be very hard work if you’re not familiar with the topic. I really specialise in translating fiction, and I’d be pretty confident to work on anything from a very formal classic to something whacky and experimental. I could also handle non-fiction books about subjects I like, but it would be a real struggle for me to translate a book about astro-physics, say, or economic theory. Some more specialised types of text are translated in a two-stage process: poetry is sometimes translated “literally” with notes about rhythm and rhyme, and then given to a poet to put into comparable poetry in the target language. Or take my example of a book on astro-physics: a science-savvy translator might work on the text hand-in-hand with a writer who specialises in astro-physics.

Will translators be replaced with Google Translate any time soon?

Luckily for me, no. In fact, no way. Google Translate is very useful for short straightforward material but even simple things can go wrong with it. Just consider the fact that in French possessive pronouns are the same gender as the object not the person who owns it: in English we say “his house” or “her house”. In French it’s just “sa maison” (with “sa” being feminine because the word for house is feminine). On line translators usually get this wrong and would translate “sa maison” as “her house”… and that could change the whole meaning of a story if a couple ended up at her house instead of his!

For a laugh, try using an online translator to translate a short phrase into a foreign language and then translate it back into English – the results can be quite amusing. If you put the words “Strictly come dancing” into Italian and then translate them back again, one translation engine comes up with the inexplicable “The dancehall advances vigorously” 😊

Thanks for these lovely questions.

Thank YOU Adriana for your thoughtful and fascinating answers and thank you students for some great  questions.


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Lark struggles when her family and friends for on holiday for the Autumn half term. Her mother is ill, her little sister has stopped speaking and she has fallen out with her best friend.