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.