‘Translation in Practice’: A Review

Literary translator Maia Tabet writes of discovering a small, free inspiration for translators.

By Maia Tabet

I have just discovered and finished reading a wonderful little volume entitled Translation in Practice, available in electronic format free of charge here: www.dalkeyarchive.com. It is a handbook of ‘best practices’ published by the British Center for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. In about 70 or so fluidly written pages, this well-crafted publication is, I think, destined to become a classic and a translator’s best friend.

The handbook was written to answer basic practical questions: What is the role of the editor? Will he or she know the language I translate from? Who has the last word on what stands?  It is divided into six well-written and clear chapters, each dealing with a major aspect of the process including: how/why a translator is chosen; contracts; the roles of the protagonists in a translation – the author, the translator, the editor, the copy-editor, etc; some specific challenges/problems and their solutions such as dialects, strong language, colloquialisms, humor, and “difficult” languages; the editing process; and, finally, the translator’s role, post-editing.

This is not an academic tome about translation theory, linguistics, or the power relations inherent to textual discourse but a treasure-trove of practical advice.Peppered with insights from experienced translators as well as editors, it is a resource book that lays out in simple terms the nuances, questions, issues, challenges, dangers and problems that face anyone attempting the exhilarating but also often profoundly difficult task of recreating a work of beauty in a completely different language and cultural context. While it focuses on translation INTO English, almost all the points made would be valid for other languages.

There were many passages that had me underlining, annotating, and commenting, more “aha” moments than I could count. It wasn’t so much that there was anything “new” or that I didn’t know – just so many statements which resonated with me as someone who has wrestled with and enjoyed the work of literary translation for a long time. One such passage is a good summary of the process and one which I will quote often, I think, when struggling to explain what I do to people whose lives are not especially related to literature, writing, translation or academia. “Literary translation involves making endless choices, weighing up whether to privilege meaning over music, rhythm over rules of grammar, spirit rather than letter of text, in order to give a translation its distinctive voice, while conveying the many layers of the original in a way that preserves the author’s intentions” [emphasis, mine].

I also loved a bon mot from the master-poet, Mahmoud Darwish who is quoted without further attribution in a discussion of the translator’s role: “The translator is not (…) the painter of the light part of the meaning, but the watcher of the shadow, and what it suggests. (From the preface to a French volume of his collected poetry, entitled La terre nous est étroite, after the Arabic poem of the same name, taDiqu bina al-arD – my emphasis).

Translation in Practice was inspired by a handbook produced by the Norwegian Translators’ Association, and it came about as a result of a collaborative effort between the British Council, The Society of Authors, and London’s Arts Council, among others. In their introduction to the booklet, Dalkley Archive Press, which published the handbook, says the following:

Though translation is a vital part of any vibrant literary culture, no practical guide to the process of translating foreign works into English and preparing them for publication has yet been made available to prospective translators, editors, or readers. In February 2008, editors and translators from the USA and UK came together at the British Council in London to discuss “best practices” for translation of literary works into English. This volume comprises the results of that meeting, a collection of summaries, suggestions, and instructions from the leading literary translators and publishers. It is intended as an introduction, the first in an ongoing series of documents to be published by Dalkey Archive Press that will address the challenges faced by translators, publishers, reviewers, and readers of literary translations.

Contributors include: Ros Schwartz, (translator, Chair of the European Council of Literary Translators Associations); Euan Cameron (translator); Rebecca Carter (editor, Random House); Christina Thomas (freelance editor, publisher of Editing Matters); Martin Riker (associate director, Dalkey Archive Press); and numerous other translators, editors, and publishers.

Maia Tabet was born and raised in Beirut. She has worked as a journalist, editor and freelance translator. Her translation of Elias Khoury’s White Masks (2010) was commended by the judges of the 2011 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.