Ten Rules for Translating: Humphrey Davies and Jonathan Wright

Writers' rules are everywhere. Blah, blah, blah. What about translators?

When I first began gathering “rules for translating,” in the vein of these “rules for writing” (and these), I was expecting newspapers and magazines to elbow each other out of the way for such illuminating material. Really.

So far, no actual elbowing. But it makes little sense for them to hang out in my inbox, although what follows is just a taster: a few rules from two-time Banipal prize winner and “Independent Foreign Fiction Prize” shortlisted translator Humphrey Davies, and Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlisted Jonathan Wright, the translator of Taxi, Azazel, and Madman of Freedom Square.

Humphrey Davies.

(1) Only translate what you like.

(2) Consult the author about everything you don’t understand, and if s/he’s not alive, consult another native speaker who reads widely and intelligently.

(3) Don’t consult native speakers who don’t read widely and intelligently.

(4) Make three drafts, wait a month, and make a fourth.

(5) Don’t hesitate to make changes at any later stage whatever snide comments you may get from editors.

(6-10) Translate nothing till you have a contract for it.

Jonathan Wright

(1) On your first draft, don’t waste time wondering how to deal with a word or concept that starts coming up and appears problematic. The answer will come to you in a dream before you reach the end of the book.

(2) Don’t calculate how many hours you spent translating the last 1,000 words. It might be depressing. Think of it as a form of recreation, like doing The Times crossword, not as a form of working.

(3) Try to persuade your editors that not all writers in Arabic think that repeating a word is a criminal offence. Sometimes they do so deliberately.

(4) Don’t hesitate to enjoy those moments when you find the author has misconjugated the 3rd person feminine plural of a doubled verb, for example, or miswritten the hamza on some strange word. Tell yourself that even if you can’t write a novel, your morphology and orthography are impeccable.

(5) Also enjoy those moments when you see that a word has shifted its semantic range in the many decades since they last updated Arabic-Arabic dictionaries. See it as reassuring proof that Arabic is a normal language.

(6) Always ask the author lots of questions, even at the risk of trying their patience. But be diplomatic when the text is clearly deficient in some way.

(7) Since you’ll probably end up working with both British and American publishers, rapidly familiarize yourself with both traditions – not just spelling of course, but punctuation, relative pronouns and the parts of irregular verbs. You can’t fight City Hall, even if everyone around you in your formative years always said ‘smelt’ rather than ‘smelled’.

(8) If you’re feeling philanthropic, record words and usages that are not in the standard dictionaries, preferably with source and date, OED style. One day we will pool them in one central database and save future translators much anguish.

(9) When you have a Quranic passage to translate, be bold and do it yourself. All of the existing translations are seriously flawed stylistically, in one way or another. But Tarif Khalidi’s new translation brings a welcome freshness.

(10) When negotiating terms, remember that an English translation is at least 20 percent more ‘wordy’ than the equivalent Arabic text. Twenty percent is worth bargaining for.

Looking for more?

15 More Rules for Translation: Chip Rossetti and Michelle Hartman

20 More Rules for Translating: Arunava Sinha & Alison Anderson

16 More Rules for Translation: Elliott Colla & Richard Jacquemond


  1. agree with every single one of these; if only i were in a position to follow them …

  2. Maybe you should write your own 10 rules…

  3. they would be similar, however, the harsh reality is that most translators are not in a position to follow H. D.’s rules 1, 4, and 6-10 and J. W.’s 10. at least not all of the time … back to a translation i’m suffering through …

  4. bibi, I totally agree with you about following the rules but as long as we are considered as secretaries copying a text in another language it is extremely difficult to keep up with these rules. After worrying myself sick over this issue for more than 10 yrs now I have my own rules which match with the publisher’s: do your job, nod at the critisms and get paid to direct debit the invoices. have fun with your translation.

  5. 6-10 is so hard for me especially so many people from our language pair don’t follow it!

  6. this was great! thanks for sharing! now back to translating a document which breaks HD’s Rule # 1…sigh.

    1. Hey! Since I notice from your blog that you are of the young persuasion, have you translated Mansoura’s story for the Harvill-Secker?

  7. @ newegyptian: i feel your pain 🙂
    @ mikmik: as far as translators go, i’ve actually been superlucky. and yet i often find it impossible to not take work i’m less than thrilled about, or start working before i’ve signed a contract. (what, being paid part of the fee in advance? you mean people actually do that? ;-)) that said, i can’t see myself doing anything else … your approach sounds sensible.

  8. Thanks for these very useful tips!!

  9. Great advice, especially the rule about not worry about a particular word and that it will appear in a dream! The problem for me, trying to start out in the translation business is getting my first paid work! (though I’m not in the literary world although that would be incredible). I’ve read Humphries’ autobiography (AUC Press) and it’s really great, has lots of insights into the greatest modern Arab writers

    1. Christopher,

      First, are you young? Have you considered entering the Harvill Secker? Second…there are MANY excellent Arab authors who’d give you a shot with one of their short stories, and then I can help you submit to a quality magazine. Then, with that under your belt, you can apply for other work.

      1. I would love to know about an Arab author that would give me a shot at one of their short stories, could you e-mail me?

  10. No, Don’t translate Quran unless you’ve read the explanation of the Ayah, sometimes you think it’s something other than the truth, Muslims are very strict about Quran being written the way it is.

  11. oh, two more things:
    JW’s nr. 4 is indeed priceless …
    HD’s nr. 2: a very panicked translator friend was once told by “her” author to relax, ‘coz “i know by the questions the translator asks whether the translation will be good or not” 🙂 i experienced this, too.

  12. I’m just beginning to translate Italian verse into English and have found these rules to be hilarious and yet so true. Thanks for lightening the load…or at least the day.

    1. You’re very welcome. Hopefully more rules to come—perhaps from some Italian-Eng translators as well. Good luck on your project.

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