18 More ‘Rules’ for Translation: From Spanish-English Translators Andrea Labinger and Lisa Carter

Andrea G. Labinger is Professor of Spanish Emerita at the University of La Verne. She has published numerous translations of Latin American prose fiction. Her most recent publications include a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s The Confidantes (Gaon Books, 2009) and Ana María Shua’s Death as a Side Effect (University of Nebraska 2010)Press). Forthcoming translations are Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (Nebraksa); Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis); and Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press). She can also be found at  www.trans-latino-trans-lation.com.

I think of literary translation as a halfway house between scholarly research and original creative writing. Some of the governing principles of both these activities apply:

1. Do your homework. If there are cultural references in the source text that you don’t understand, by all means look them up. Listen to that symphony, view that painting, see that film. Read the essay by the writer to whom your author alludes. At the very least, skim it or read a good synopsis.

2. One picture is worth . . . plenty of words. Ask your (living, of course) author for a sketch or a photo of what she’s described. It may be available online. Otherwise, have her fax it to you, if necessary. I’ve done this, and it really makes a difference.

3. If you’re working on a re-translation, try to avoid looking at your predecessor’s work until you’ve finished the first draft of your own. Influences are fine, but this is your translation, after all. And if you’re asked to “spruce up” someone else’s translation, refuse. You wouldn’t want anybody to do that to yours.

4. Let it cool! This is not new advice, but it bears repeating: Walk away from your translation and come back to it later with fresh eyes. You’ll find yourself able to evaluate your own work more dispassionately, and you’ll come up with better, more original solutions.

5. For Spanish translators or others whose source language has many regional variations: Find good regional dictionaries, including lexicons of slang. In my arsenal, for example, are: El diccionario etimológico del lunfardo (Argentine slang) by Oscar Conde, Francisco J. Santamaría’s Diccionario de mejicanismos [sic] and a number of country-specific online dictionaries.

6. Take pains with your title. It’s the first thing publishers –- and potential readers -– will see. Literal translation here can be especially treacherous. Be creative. Try to avoid using a title that already exists, as this may create confusion for those people seeking to buy your book or read reviews of it.

7. Join professional organizations. In addition to ALTA, to which all US literary translators should belong, becoming a member of PEN is an excellent way to to meet other writers and become acquainted with their work.

8. If there is a local association of literary translators in your area, join it. If not, consider forming one. We have recently developed our own home-grown group here in Southern California (SCALTA) that meets monthly in members’ homes and provides us with a venue for reading, enjoying, and critiquing one another’s translation projects.

9. It’s not necessarily a terrible idea to translate an entire work “on spec” in the hope landing a contract, but before you do, try submitting one chapter or discrete section of your novel-length translation to a literary journal specializing in literature in translation before attempting to tackle the entire book. Your work will reach many readers, especially if it appears in an e-journal, and among them may be your new publisher!

10. Be aware that these “rules” are made to be broken. What works for me may be anathema to you, and vice-versa. In fact I’ve violated many of the rules other people have posted and more than a couple of my own. Trust your own good judgment and common sense. No one needs to tell you that this profession gets very little recognition and pays next to nothing. Presumably you’re doing it because you love it and can’t ever recall life BLT (before literary translation). What could be more fulfilling than that?


Lisa Carter is a Spanish-to-English literary translator with five novels and one book of non-fiction to her credit. Her current project is a work of women’s fiction slated for publication with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2013. You can find Lisa on her professional website at www.intralingo.com, where she blogs about literary translation, and at www.milliverstravel.com, where she is a staff writer and the location independent specialist. You can also follow her on Twitter at @intralingo.

8 Rules for Aspiring (and Established) Literary Translators

1. Love the work

You are about to spend an inordinate amount of time with any literary translation, so make sure you love it. You can love the text itself, the style, the author, the opportunity the project presents, the editor, the publisher, any number of things. Just remember that initial attraction to the work as the weeks and months pass, when the challenge becomes daunting, when you doubt yourself or your ability. Remember to love the work.

2. Trust yourself

What seems like an infinite number of decisions has to be made when translating a work of literature. Is this word better than that one? Will I use foreign words in the text at all? Does this concept require explanation? How will I approach this aspect of style? You can and will weigh out a myriad of options. Consult with the author and editor, of course. But in the end the decision is yours. You are the translator. This is your work. You must trust your reasons and ultimate choices.

3. Negotiate your worth

Literary translation may not make you rich — but then again it may. Always keep in mind that it only ever has a chance if you are willing to negotiate your worth. When first starting out, sure, it may pay less than other types of translation. As you build your portfolio, though, the higher your rate can climb. Being paid your due involves educating your clients — authors, editors, agents, publishers — about the skill and time this work takes, the talent and creativity you bring to every work. Once they know this, they will better understand the fair rate you charge and be more willing to agree to it.

4. Revise with abandon

Once you’ve finished a work and set it aside for a good long while — two weeks, a month — revise the text with wild abandon. Read the work through the eyes of a writer and a reader, not a translator, refining any vocabulary or phrasing that sounds awkward. Read it out loud and rewrite anywhere your tongue trips. Make sure the author is visible throughout, but the final text needs to be yours.

5. Embrace edits

Editors are your not your enemies. Quite the contrary, they can be your dearest friends. They should be. A few choice edits can bring your translation to a new level. Step back from the work you’ve submitted.

Look at the edits with a critical, not territorial, eye. You don’t not have to accept every one, but if you do refuse, know why.

6. Pursue projects

It can take years and a serious portfolio before literary translation comes to you, and even then nothing is assured. Reaching out, pursuing works and authors is a must. The time from initial contact to publication can be long; use those downtimes to line up the next project.

7. Cultivate good relationships

Honest, open relationships are as essential in this business as they are in any other. Form new connections with colleagues, authors, editors, agents and publishers wherever you can, in the way that suits your personality best. Authentic communication with the people in your sphere can lead to referrals and opportunities you might not otherwise find.

8. Promote your work

In all likelihood, a publisher will promote a work and its author, but rarely the translator. Don’t let your efforts, talent and accomplishments go unnoticed. Build your platform and promote your success as far and wide as you feel comfortable doing. Literary translation is about bringing works to new audiences; be proud of your role in that. Make it known.