21 More Rules for Translators: Susan Bernofsky & Hala Salah Eldin Hussein

Multiaward-winning Susan Bernofsky, widely considered to be one of the best English translators of German literature today, has translated works by Robert Walser, Hermann Hesse, and Yoko Tawada. Among other awards, she has two honours from the PEN Translation Fund (2005, 2007) as well as the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize (2006). Plus, she blogs at translationista.org.

1. Always be a writer while you are translating, and every time you forget, bring yourself back to it.

2. The most important thing about the structure of a sentence is the order in which the bits of information arrive.

3. If the original text is not well-written, you are doomed; feel free to despair.

4. If the original is well-written, make sure you understand exactly what’s good about it, i.e. what constitutes this writer’s characteristic style.  Getting the tone right is key.

5. Get up from your computer at least once every hour to stretch and walk around.  Translating in a stupor isn’t going to work out to anyone’s satisfaction.

6. The most important reference work you can own is a Roget’s International Thesaurus.  Indexed, not in dictionary form.  Yes, it does make a difference.  And no, there is no dictionary of synonyms available online that can hold a candle to a good Roget’s.

7. No, it’s not good enough yet, keep revising.

8. I can’t believe you’re asking again already.  Revise some more.

9. Read everything you translate aloud, preferably to a bookloving listener who can be trusted to furrow a brow when a phrase is off.

10. Read lots and lots of gorgeous books at all times so that your head will constantly be filled with the cadences of literary greatness.

11. Remember that no matter what hard work it is, translating is supposed to be fun; if you consistently find yourself not having fun while translating, why don’t you try something else that you might actually make some money at?

Hala Salah Eldin Hussein is Albawtaka Review editor and general manager of Albawtaka Publishing House. Albawtaka Review is an Arabic independent (non-governmental) non-profit online quarterly concerned with translating English short fiction into Arabic. Here is a brief introduction in English about the project: http://albawtaka.com/whoareweenglish.htm You can also read more about Hussein here.

Make peace with the profession.

If you have fantasies about becoming an author, translation is not the job for you. If you look with envy at “your” author, you are not cut for the job. If you think you could learn from others, so one day you will write by yourself, you will never give it all. If you are jealous of not being under the spotlight, rather the author, look for another job. You should love the very act of translation. Make your peace with it!

Render into your mother tongue.

I don’t care if you were taught in Oxford University or your mother is a half-Mexican, half-Irish citizen. If you have spent your early years in an Arab country, another English native translator will probably do a better job rendering Arabic “literary” texts into English. Don’t do it!

Have sources, have weapons.

You are not a dictionary; you will never be a dictionary. English-Arabic literary translators should be armed – all at the same time – with Almawred Dictionary, (both Arabic-English and English-Arabic), dictionary.com, Oxford Genie dictionary, OED dictionary, lexicons.ajeeb.com, and finally links to alphabetized slang dictionaries online. Don’t assume the right equivalent even if it sounded logic; dig deep into every dictionary. Dictionaries will teach you that your horizon is shamefully limited and there are tons of implications to each and every word.

Don’t act like an Oxford Genie though!

Don’t explain, don’t explicate, and don’t clarify. You are not an Oxford Genie Dictionary. If it took an English-speaking reader 7 seconds to get it, it should take the same period for an Arab to get it. Vagueness is not a sin. Vagueness — intended or unintended, out of cleverness or out of stupidity — is not for you to decipher.

Be meek at first, rule at last.

You need to have this sense of modesty — even servility — about the text. You can’t work feeling confident and strong, you will be crushed. Creep up on its lines in your first draft, check every word, suspect every meaning, and be humble to its potentials. With your initial and second drafts done, you can afford to follow your own rules, aesthetics of your own mother tongue. Don’t go too far you would lose this imaginary link between the two texts, but be sure to end up gaining power over the text. It’s YOURS now. And you have the right to bring out the very honest version of it.

Be there by not being there.

You are not there to fabricate or render a text into another that you might like more. Don’t flirt with the idea of delivering the “soul” of the text, not its exact words. Both can go together. Soul is good, soul is cool. But if you purposefully left out an adjective or an adverb, you are committing high treason. Literal is not a bad word.

When it comes to literature, love your text.

Spending a long time with a text can be a serious punishment if you are not in awe of it. If you have the urge to alter the text, add a few words here, erase this, copy and paste that in another place, you are not a fan. If you think the text could have come out better if the author tackled it in a different way, you are not in love with it. Emotionally, you should think of it as YOUR text, but in a slightly different way.

Take it as it gets ugly; take it as it gets you anywhere.

A sober PhD doctor doesn’t speak like an addict vagabond. Only a fool would make them utter the same words, have the same attitude. If an author does, there is a reason for it (Fantasy might interfere; it’s not your job to decide!) Don’t mess up with your characters. Rule is you translate a sentence in Standard English into another sentence in Standard Arabic, same goes for colloquial words. Jump freely between language tones, but follow the text. Your language can handle it. In a conservative society, guarded by a strict censorship system, don’t go for it aiming to create a “clean” text. It is certainly not your place to bowdlerize it. Slang words and profane language are there for a purpose. You are not a guard of morality.

Sleep on it.

The brain works in stages. You have to forget what you have learned or worked on in order to be able to detect its flaws. Eyes can get blind in one single setting no matter how many times you have revised your text. A text is like a meal cooked slowly, then put into the fridge, not to sprinkle stuff on it unless it’s solid. Stay away from the text for a week or so, then go back to it. Put the original aside, then play with the newly created text. Smooth the rough edges, place prepositional phrases and other structures where they would sound more Arabic or better suit whatever purpose it serves. Whenever unsure, go back to the original text to make sure you have not stranded out of context.

Please sound Arabic.

Don’t make me skim through a text echoing its original words. Names and places excluded, your text should feel as if it has been written in Arabic. I don’t want to waver between two languages, two cultures maybe. Let go of the original text and dig in the aesthetics of your mother tongue. Try to stay away from trite words, discover new sounds, find words that might sound slightly old, and give it a fresh use. (Don’t go too far; not biblical words, please.). Never take this nonsense about how cultural differences will stand in the way of translation, they NEVER do. Human experience is the same; you will eventually nail the right word, the right tone.


  1. these. are. awesome.

  2. Excellent article

  3. Thanks guys. As before, no credit to me, except that I emailed and asked.

  4. I couldn’t have said any of the above better myself…

    Although, one thing I’d like to say — have a translator role model! Mine is Israel’s Leah Goldberg.

    1. When you say “have a translator role model”, can you just go into a little detail about it? Your relationship between self/work and role model? If you’ve got the time…

  5. Yislamoh eidaykeh, ya Marcia.

    Even though they are not your own words, the work you bring to this forum is priceless and I am your ardent admirer.

  6. I want to become a translator. I want to become a translator. I want to become…

    1. Marahm!!! I’m going to force you into it one of these days. 🙂

      1. Can you be my “translator role model?”
        OK, I’m going upstairs now to my other computer to study Arabic.

  7. I completely disagree with the sentiment that you can’t translate well into a language that is not native to you: it’s all just a matter of having an editor to help you. Actually, in some ways, being a non-native speaker has marked advantages.

    1. Me too, but what do I know about it? I’m just the messenger, man.

    2. Actually, I just remembered that I once had a long conversation with a very talented Egyptian translator, who proclaimed that the best translators into Arabic are the Iranians.

      1. i translate both ways — trust me, translating from my first language into english is much much harder than the other way round, good editor or not. translating into arabic would be well-neigh impossible, but that’s just me.

        my father (who worked as an editor for a linguistics journal for many years) once said: “readers would have a much easier time if the writers tried to translate their texts into a foreign language before sending it to the publisher.” he was speaking of academic texts, but i do find his advice useful when i’m writing my own stuff. working with (in) a language that is not my own requires certain clarity and preciseness, which — so i find — helps morphing my original thought into something legible and relatable.

        i just don’t think it applies to translation. especially literary translation. but then, it all comes down to individual mastery of source and target languages. i think i’ve said it here already, but i’ll say it again: i come from a culture that believes a translator of poetry must also be a poet. as they say on facebook: it’s complicated.

        1. Bibi – I think you bring up a very good point: that it is far more important that a poetry translator have a poetic flare than to be a native speaker of the target language.

          1. Now that I’m back from the sea, let me chime in: Yes. Look at some of the best poetry translators we have: Mattawa, Antoon, Joudah, Muhawi.

  8. Well.. more broadly, a literary role model in the language you work into I suppose. Mine happened to both be a writer and a literary translator — and the more into her biography I read, learned of her habits, read her works.. the more she became a role model for me I suppose. Her nature influences how I go about doing my own work as a translator. However, a role model can entail loving a specific writer and aiming to work with their style, or be fascinated by their personality — in essence, what to you makes them great.

    PS — I concur with one of the post-posting comments on native language. Some people find they write better in their foreign language than their mother tongue…

  9. I like the coincidence in the two translators’ first rules: be a writer (Susan), but don’t expect to be recognized like one (Hala)!

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