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.

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