22 More Rules for Translators: Translating Children’s Books and Translating into ‘Small’ Languages

Fatima Sharafeddine is an award-winning children’s book writer—her YA novel, Faten, won first prize at the 2010 Beirut Book Fair. She has written and published more than 45 books, and translated several others from English and French into Arabic.

1- The translator must also be a writer.

2- Read the text several times before you decide to translate it.

3- Meet the author if possible. Try to find out more about the setting/context in which the story
was created (social/political/etc.).

4- In the first draft of your translation, let your mind follow your pen.

5- If stuck on a meaning and feel it’s on the tip of your tongue but…, take a short break. When you come back, you will find the exact word you’re looking for (it happens to me very frequently).

6- Read your translation aloud. It should flow smoothly to the ear.

7- It is very difficult to translate a bad text. Refuse to do it because as a writer you will not be able to help editing the text while translating it, which should not happen normally.

8- Let it rest for a couple of weeks then look at it again.

9- Keep editing the translated text till the last minute.

10- Preserve names of characters, do not domesticate the text.

11- Preserve its original soul. Find the equivalent meaning in the target language.

12- Be ethical while creating your text.


Barbara Skubic received the Young Translator Award of 2006 for
her translation of Palace Walk, and that created additional interest in
contemporary Arabic literature. The public and the media also responded
enthusiastically to Skubic’s translation of  The Yacoubian Building, especially since Dr. Alaa Al
Aswany visited Ljubljana for a book presentation in March 2008. She’s also translated poems by Iman Mersal and short stories by Mansoura Ez Eldin, Mohamed Zefzaf, Tayib Salih and others. Some days, she translates to and from the English.

I’ve been following the “rules for translators” series and, I must say, it made me feel a bit less alone. You know, in the “oh, it’s not just me, then” kind of way.

Still, I translate to and from Slovenian (or Slovene, if you prefer), a language with just about 2 million speakers (no, we do not all know each other, but thanks for asking!), and certain rules simply don’t apply. Or apply differently.

1. Literary translation is exciting.

2. That said, while literary translation is certainly a vocation, it is also just a job: you will occasionally have to translate texts you’re less than thrilled with, work in less than ideal circumstances, and be expected to accept ridiculously low fees for your work. This does not mean that you have to work
for people you hate, be paid peanuts, and translate things you find, say, ethically questionable. Use common sense, be vocal when you’re treated unfairly, and do consistently good work and the adverse conditions mentioned above will diminish … probably after a decade.

3. If you’re lucky enough (as I have been throughout my career) to have good editors, copy editors, language editors, proofreaders – systems differ – learn from them. Let me just say that again: learn from them. Ask questions. Watch how they work. Praise them lavishly. You may occasionally be tempted to throw yourself at their feet and kiss the ground they walk on, but I have found that cooking for them makes them feel just as special. Remember: good editors are your friends. And when your market is small, this may be even more important.

4. Law and (money) order: take time to learn about copyright and intellectual property in your country (or country you’re translating for). When you translate for a market where print runs are low and re-prints are uncommon, reading small print in your contract may seem like an unnecessary
chore, but I can’t emphasise this enough: know your rights. You never know: maybe the Turkish novel you translated will become a hit television series and the subtitles will be taken directly from your translation. That can be a plane ticket to Istanbul worth of royalties right there if you’ve taken care with your contract. See? If you’re working on a piece the author and you want to make available to all, for free, license it under creative commons (http://creativecommons.org/)

5. Speaking of money: Come from it or marry well. Full disclosure: I have done neither and am managing just fine. I’m not managing by merely translating fiction, though. A hefty chunk of my income comes from translating academic texts and contracts. What helps me is knowing that I’m not alone: http://www.ceatl.eu/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/surveyuk.pdf

6. Don’t overlook the importance of peers. Check who else translates the same language combinations. You may be the only person translating from or to a particular language. Find people in similar situation, you’ll be glad you have. Being a working translator with an unusual language combination can be a very lonely career indeed.

7. If you are a native speaker of a smallish language, you’ll have to be multi-lingual. There’s no way around it. For example, there is no Arabic-Slovenian/Slovenian-Arabic dictionary. Ok, so my other second language is English, which should fix this problem, but boy, am I glad that I speak French as well. Not to mention Bosnian (and Croatian and Serbian).

8. I have never translated works of an author who spoke Slovenian (although one author had a Slovenian spouse, which was really helpful!)– but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t work with them. If
you have access to the author, by all means use it. Authors are generally a nice bunch, and genuinely excited that their work will be available in a language they can’t speak. Don’t overuse it, though, although it’s tempting. Solve whatever you can alone, with the help of your editor(s), and colleagues. As an Argentinean author said to a friend, who was really nervous about the translation she’d
done: “Don’t worry, I know from the questions the translator asks if the translation will be good or not.”

9. Which reminds me: Your editor may or may not speak the language from which you’re translating. See number 2. This means more responsibility for you – you must do a good job. Don’t fret, though, there’s no such thing as a perfect translation, and everybody makes mistakes. It’s just that nobody will notice yours … in time. (Barbara shivers and remembers how she once begged her editor to call the printer and stop the machines to fix a spelling mistake in a place name. She did. They did. Crisis averted.)

10. Read the advice from all other translators that have been and will be published here. It’s good advice. It’s excellent advice.


  1. I strongly disagree with Fatima’s rule 7: engaging in serious editing is a fundamental feature of Arabic-English translation and should be embraced as such.

    1. Hm, maybe you should write a “commentary on rules for translators…”

      1. “الحاشية اليانكية على نصائح آراب ليت الترجمية”

  2. Though I am not a translator, I am a reader and a writer. I agree with Yankee Translator’s comment, but this comment seems to apply to all Arabic-English translations. Rule #7 applies to “bad texts,” whatever that means. Poorly written work might actually be made excellent in translation, provided that the story is worthy of the effort.

  3. I am ‘iffy’ about Fatima’s rule 10 regarding not domesticating the text…. that has to be the trickiest part of translating a non-European culture into English — for the most part, yes, don’t don a darn thing to change the Arabness of a text, however, as a side note to that — footnotes may be not so bad an idea. Coming from a part of Canada where… needless to say, the concept of Arab inself is foreign let alone foreigners, if I left a literary text (or particularily a poem) unlocalized and alien, then it becomes uncomfortable for my audience to read and they leave the work to collect dust… untouched. This applies to child readers just the same me thinks!

    Re: Barbara —

    A note on being polylingual/multilingual — just watch out that one doesn’t spread themselves too thin and end up having a working knowledge rather than intimate knowledge of the languages they translate… only reason I say this is that if one’s aptiude or ability to express themselves is poor, then subtitlies and the ability to read a text at an academic analytic level, as art, ends up just not existing or being done poorly — thus leading to mistranslation, a loss of the soul of the text. This isn’t true for everyone mind you, Leah Goldberg… an Israeli literary translator, translated from 6 languages into Hebrew, her third language.

  4. Thank you Marcia. Great efforts to get those authors to submit to you materials 😉

    1. Well, you really have to pester some of them. 🙂

  5. I’m not sure we’re all on the same page with what “editing” in Fatima’s rule 7 means. The way I understand it, it means editing as done to the original text in the original language. Of course, you must edit the translated draft so it conforms to the standards of the target language (while preserving the particularities of the author’s style in the first language), but you cannot in any way change, or “improve” the text itself without author’s approval. (See Fatima’s rule nr. 12: Be ethical.) Fatima, what say you?
    In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t bother translating a bad text: if the story is worth it, it’s probably been written better by someone else. Find it. Or, if you’re so inclined, write one yourself (careful with copyright!). Both options are infinitely more rewarding.

    As for multilingualism: my “rule” referred more to using other languages as an aid, not to being able to translate from many. However, it is actually not uncommon for European translators to translate from more that one language: let’s say someone translates from Italian and and Spanish, and then gets trained to translate from the Portuguese as well. It really depends on the person, some can do it, some can’t. A lot of people can.

    And here I add my rule nr. 11: Don’t be such a rules girl! (This should also reveal my age ;-))

    1. I agree with Fatima’s rule 7.

      You have a bad text in hand, and, because you love language, you will start fiddling with it. Soon, it will become your book–not the author’s. What’s wrong with that? Well, maybe you just should’ve used that time to write your own book.

      1. I thought you would.

      2. Rule 7 is based on the assumption that the Arabic texts you are working with are close in form to English texts in terms of flow and structure. I think this assumption is very valid when engaging in German-English translation for instance, and it is probably mostly valid for most works in Arabic consciously based on the format of the Western novel. If you work with texts in other genres (op-eds, religious literature) however, this becomes completely infeasible, and serious editing is not only desirable, but a sine qua non of a good translation.

        The question of course is how much editing we are each thinking of. Of course I am not advocating a blank check on editing, and even in cases where serious editing is needed, the translator still needs to strive very hard to strike a balance between a flowing translation and the original text. However, harking back to an earlier post where charges were leveled against Humphrey Davies for making his English text more engaging than the original Arabic – my thoughts are, if the charges are true, then Davies should be roundly commended!

        1. Yes, well, I imagine I know the text to which you’re referring (re: Davies) and also it’s possible I have some notion of one of the texts to which Fatima might be referring.

          Livening up prose is one thing, I suppose, but one is on a slippery slope at all times, and when does it become a betrayal of the artist’s vision, or how much latitude does the translator…want?

        2. I was working on the assumption that the original text is poorly written. I believe Fatima’s rule nr. 7 is exactly the same as Susan Bernofsky rule nr. 3: “If the original text is not well-written, you are doomed; feel free to despair.”
          So I think the kind of editing Fatima is opposing is the editing that should have been done in the original language, by the editor in collaboration with the author. As a translator, you cannot do that without author’s consent. It’s unethical. (It’s also stupid, and could possibly be illegal, but never mind that.) It’s not the same as fixing a typo, or livening up the text by changing a verb or two.

          Also note that I said “original language” — the practices don’t suddenly change if a language combination is different. Why do you think “editing” would be a no-no when translating, I don’t know, Karl Marx, but a sine qua non when translating Mohamed Abdou?

          1. I’m with Skubic, and yes, I likened it to Bernofsky’s “feel free to despair.”

Comments are closed.