What is literary translation?

Encompassing the whole spectrum of literary works, from novels to theatre, literary translation is the practice for translating literary works from one language to another. This type of translation brings with it a variety of complexities due to the nuanced characteristics of the different texts and their intended aesthetic outcomes.

Early literary translations can be traced to over 2,000 years ago, with there even being excerpts dating as far back as the Rosetta Stone (196 AD) and Saint Jerome´s translation of the Bible, Vulgate (late-4th century).


Modern-day literary translation

Nowadays, literary translation is everywhere, although it often goes unnoticed (unless some ‘out-there´ news brings it to the headlines; as was the case of the famous Hold the Door from Game of Thrones). The reality is, however, that without the work of translators we wouldn´t be able to enjoy many of our literary favourites (I still need to learn Russian before being able to read Tolstói).

Many translators (my humble self included) study translation with the hope of one day, in the not-so-distance future, becoming a literary translator. After graduating, many leave with their tails between their legs after realising the uncertain conditions that come with being a literary translator. This type of translator is often confronted with unrealistic deadlines and low salaries which force them to produce the work at such a speed that the quality is compromised in the process. In turn, these working conditions prevent them from being able to fully commit to literary translation and the specific specialised needs of the field; which subsequently has a knock-on effect on the quality of translation. Although not always the case, in general, the market for translating books is by no means head and shoulders above the rest in terms of the conditions it offers translators.

As if this weren´t enough, on top of the harsh conditions that translators face (which undoubtedly have an adverse effect on the translation quality), they are also faced with an uphill battle against a mountain of linguistic problems. These may be; the need to maintain the aesthetic effect, implicit meanings, proper names with semantic meaning, etc. Quite an ordeal you might think looking from the outside.

Yet, for many translators, these challenges are often thrilling and, I would say, sometimes even addictive.

Literature has an allure about it; something that draws you in and keeps you hooked on it. Translating literary works goes beyond just translating the words: it´s about enveloping the reader in a world where words evoke feeling, where sentences conjure up imagery, where the reader loses themselves in invented realities and far-off spaces. It´s ultimately all down to this that time and time again, despite everything, we see translators pursuing their dreams of becoming literary translators.


Is a good translation of literature really that important?

Without a shadow of a doubt, yes. The translation of literary works has a great influence on their success. A bad translation can ruin a perfectly good book; since it may convey to the new audience that the author is lacking certain skills shown in the original, or simply that the story is just not very good. That said, I have found that, in some cases, a good translation can even improve the original text. But, I won´t get into the question of style and how much a translator can actually modify a text.

We should also touch on the importance of proofreading works before their publication. Nowadays, many publishing houses skip on the process of proofreading and editing to save on costs and avoid the necessary delay of the work´s release date. Consequently, these works are presented to readers full of typos. The process of editing literary works is multileveled and depends on the input of many professionals and multiple drafts containing errors. This is why the extensive revision of a text is totally necessary for the publication process of any literary work.


The literary translator profile

Literary translators are often keen readers themselves. They´re book worms. They are professionals who won´t settle for just transmitting the information a with surface-level understanding. They dive headfirst into entirely understanding the text, the author, the reader, every minor detail of the plot, and every possible ambiguity and its potential meaning. For any translator, reading and perfectly understanding a text before getting started with the translation is essential. For literary translators, it´s even more so necessary and, consequently, complicated to do so.

I could, right now (well, maybe not this second as it would take a while), do a poll using my coursemates from university, and would easily find a correlation between those who are avid readers and those who decided to study translation to become a literary translator. The correlation is undeniable. Do you know anyone who translates books but doesn´t like reading them? In my case, I don´t know any.


The hybrid translator

The literary translator, being a great aficionado of literature, most likely also creates their own work. As such, we find ourselves presented with a model hybrid of translator, writer, and reader. I, personally, would call it the perfect mix. We see, throughout the history of literature, numerous examples of writers who have also had one foot in the world of translation and vice versa. Some of the most recognised figures are; Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Haruki Murakami. However, these are just a few amongst the many who have combined and perfected working both professions at once.

We may say that the complexity of literary translation is on par with that of writing an original text. In fact, we may even consider it to be more difficult. This is due the translation process being far more than a simple transfer of words as it also brings the need to understand and recreate the notions and ideas of the original author. It doesn´t, therefore, come as any surprise that literary translations are covered by intellectual property laws being that they are creations in their own right and as such are subject to copyright protection (although said protection is varied in how much its actually enforced, but that´s for another article). All this considered, who better to do literary translations than someone who is not only an expert in the field, but also is a writer producing their own work?


Translated by Christian Copeland.


About Xerezade Ansedes López

Graduate Degree in Translation and Interpreting from Universidade de Vigo, Spain. Degree in English Language and German from Bangor University, UK. English teacher and translator and proofreader in the German and English to Spanish combinations. Published author.

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