20* Questions: How Do I Become a Literary Translator?

Young writer — and prospective literary translator — Nada Adel Sobhi sent in 18 pointed questions about the ins and outs of literary translation, ranging from money issues to publishing philosophy. English-Arabic translator and publisher Hala Salah Eldin Hussein (Albawtaka Review) and writer/publisher Hilary Plum (Interlink Publishing) did their best to answer Nada’s questions. Many thanks to them:

1. How does a translator pick what to translate (criteria)?
2. Who picks the publisher?
3. Does the translator pick the publisher or is it the publisher who picks the translator?

Hilary Plum: Either or both. Some projects come to us directly from a translator, or come via an agent or foreign publisher but are already associated with a translator. And some projects come from an author, foreign publisher, agent, or our own digging, and are not yet definitively matched with a translator (though there’s often some kind of sample translation around), in which case we match the project with a translator on our end. And occasionally it happens that a project comes in from a translator and we are interested in the project but not in that translation, in which case we might look to buy rights to the original work but look for another translator.

Hala Salah Eldin Hussein: One should not follow clear-cut rules, only the widest possible routes of creativity. Every book is a unique case, and there is a different reason for choosing it. A translator should let his/her imagination run away with him/her. But when it comes to literature, I generally like a story to tell me something about humanity, to share with me feelings identified by all human beings, raw feelings that have not witnessed sophistication. I’m interested in works that make the invisible seen, that give voice to the voiceless – works that impart message form through aesthetic experience.

I also seem to be attracted to well-knit narratives. Sloppy sentences are shameful, they are nails under my tires. A story teller has to be extremely concise with words. Saying too much is a sin. A beautiful literary work has to have secrets, undercurrents running through the narrative. I’m fond of layers and layers of narration, one seemingly visible plot and various multiple intricate other sheets lying beneath the main plot, lurking there to be discovered.

I also believe that literature should express the voices of outcasts and alienated souls, so there is that too, but I would not say that fiction should be waving some stark social or political messages. It’s just that fiction is, I believe, a solitary endeavour, where an individual is solely struggling with himself, life or the world.

Maybe we translators should also try to keep our choices as contemporary as possible and present new talented voices. I usually publish translated stories written by young writers; age ranging between 30 and 45. I also seek to discover fresh undiscovered pieces that haven’t been brought to light before. And finally, one should never work with a text unless he/she fell in love with it. It should touch the translator’s soul. I don’t care how many prizes it won. It has to be really good.

4. Who picks the material? Is it the publisher or the translator?

HSEH: Again, I have seen cases in the Arab world of both.

HP: See above —- either can happen.

5. How does a translator know that a certain work is not being translated at that particular time?

HP: A translator will answer this better, but in my experience: she doesn’t always. Translators should always get permission from the rights holder before submitting a translation to a publisher, but as I understand it that permission can be granted non-exclusively—that is, another translator could also have permission to work on the same novel or collection of poems, and the rights holder intends just to see whose translation might spark interest first and where, etc. We’ve had it happen that we were interested in a project that came to us through a translator but then learned that someone else’s translation had just been signed elsewhere. I’m not sure how common that is, but it’s not unheard of. We’ve also had novels be sent to us in different translations, usually with some delay in between. And occasionally of course it happens that a book will end up with a different translator for the US and UK editions, that sort of thing. I will say that it’s extremely frustrating when a translator submits a project, which we spend time considering, and it turns out he has not obtained the proper permissions and/or for whatever reason rights for publication in English (or in our territory, the US) are not actually available.

HSEH: Google is one of our most intimate friends.

6. Are publishers language-specific when it comes to translators, meaning must the translator only render a work to their mother tongue? Or is it an open option? (For example, is it necessary that a person whose mother tongue is Arabic translate to Arabic ONLY or can they translate to any language of their choice?)

HSEH: Every rule has got its exception, but I’ll tell you what I believe in. I do believe a translator should render into his/her mother tongue. There are those tiny nuances – not in idioms or expressions – but even in words that only a native knows by heart. You hear a word, and you know when that word originated, how frequently it’s used, will a middle-class citizen use it willingly or not, does it suggest the nineteenth century maybe or was it popular in the seventeenth? You can easily differentiate between standard language, colloquial and slang; you can even tell which slang it is, street slang or brothel slang? You are a native. If you have spent your early years in an Arab country, another English native translator will probably do a better job rendering Arabic texts into English. I must confess I want to try such a challenge one day, and I have no idea how it’s going to come out!

HP: I don’t think there should be a hard-and-fast rule on this. In general I agree with the sentiment of the great translator Gregory Rabassa, who upon being asked whether his Spanish was good enough to translate Garcia Marquez replied that he was more concerned about whether his English was good enough. (This quote is from memory; it’s what I mean even if not quite what he said.) It seems to me that good colleagues, or the author, can help a translator if she occasionally misses something in the original text, and once such issues are addressed there’s no lasting cost to the translation; on the other hand, if a translator isn’t a strong enough, confident enough writer in the language into which she is translating that is a much more serious problem. Though, of course, I also very much believe in the editorial process and that translations like all writing can improve through dialogue and editing. (Let me disagree with myself once more just to add that also, of course, translations like all writing can get worse with the wrong kind of editing.)

7. It is almost common knowledge that literary translation does not pay very well, but still many people take an interest in it, why is that?

HP: Well, I’d say, for the same reason that although writing often pays very little, people continue to do that. Writing, translating, raising children, gardening, praying—so many great human endeavors in which there’s little money to be made… I believe that all of this work, including that of the literary translator, should be well respected and afforded all dignity, but it’s true that since there isn’t always much of a market in the wider culture for literature in translation, there isn’t always much money around to pay for its creation. I suppose I’ve answered this as a person not a publisher. As publishers we deeply respect the translator’s work and aim to compensate her fittingly; one does, however, have somehow to balance all the costs of a work in translation against the modest sales figures that are usual for such works. Different publishers find different ways to deal with this situation and to soldier on and publish good books despite it.

HSEH: It is certainly a different taste than news or reports, other kinds of texts are dry, void of imagery, entanglements, and sense of humor! They don’t exactly put up much challenge. And you are usually driven by your love for the text, if it was the payment we are after, we would not have translated a word. I have worked with Albawtaka Review for almost five years till I was finally able to have some funding. It made a difference that I was able then to relax and refuse to do tons of other assignments to financially support the review, but I would have continued with the review all the same.

8. There are practically millions and millions of books, so how does a translator decide which would receive an audience or which would a publisher be interested in publishing? (That is of course if the translator is not bound by any specific text.)

HSEH: The criteria should never be what the audience would like or whether a publisher would accept or reject a book. These factors must always be minor, so heed none! A translator’s name will be stuck with a text for eternity, and this only should put fear in his/her heart lest he/she makes the wrong choice. And when following one’s literary preferences, a million books will be narrowed down to a few books to choose from.

9. Who reviews the work after it is translated and finalised?

HP: An editor. I’ll say more about that in answer to the next question. In my experience, most translators have good friends and colleagues whom they also rely on as early readers for manuscripts.

HSEH: An editor from the publisher’s end should review the final copy and have a say about whether it’s faithfully and fully translated or not.

10. What is the role of the editor in literary translation? Or how far does an editor ‘edit’ the resulting work? Do they go back to the source text?

HP: I think of the editor as the “first reader”: it’s the editor’s role to encounter and engage with the translation before the world does, to be the first reader of the translation—that is, the English alone, no knowledge of the original. I say “no knowledge of the original” because that’s pretty much always the position I’m in (which I regret), but also because I think that’s a useful role: a reader for whom the original cannot cast a shadow. I like to think of the editor as representing the reader in English, who is reading the translation not as a specialist but out of desperation, because she cannot read the original.

Editing translations should, I think, be considered above all a conversation; edits should be in the interrogative, not the imperative, mode. As an editor it’s very important to work with a translator whom you trust to resist when you may be pushing a translation in the wrong direction.

Much of the editing process for a translation is the same as for a text written in English, except that you should let a translation resist you more, is I think how I’d put it. That is, editors should try to let it be unfamiliar, and be warier of how they suggest changes. If I were editing a text written in English, for instance, I might happily wage my passionate war on the word “suddenly,” but that’s usually not appropriate in a translation (this is a small example to stand in for all the larger ones). Editors should, for instance, try not to fight an “excess” of metaphors just because English likes to use metaphors sparingly. We shouldn’t push too hard toward the minimalism that contemporary fiction in English favors. Etc.

One thing that’s exciting about working on translations is that one can work with and not against the text’s so-called flaws. “A novel is a long work in prose with something wrong with it,” as the poet’s dictum goes (this one is new to me and I love it). As an editor of any text it isn’t necessarily or even remotely one’s job to “fix” everything. But in translations especially often it wouldn’t be right; the thing is to incorporate or realize those flaws in this new text in the best way—acknowledging that “best” is sort of a stupid word here.

But given all that, it’s also true that there’s an editorial process and apparatus in US publishing that don’t exist in every publishing culture. One author, on receiving an email of queries, said “This is my twenty-somethingth [I can’t remember the number] book but the first one anyone’s ever edited.” (She was not annoyed, but delighted.) That is, sometimes the original text was very minimally edited, and there’s an opportunity to do some more substantive editing for the translation. This depends a lot on what sort of mandate one feels one has (or the translator does), and/or whether the author can be reached. Sometimes cuts can be suggested, whether to sentences or paragraphs or whole passages. Where I’ve worked we tend not to do things on this large a scale, though I understand they may happen elsewhere. But sometimes there are simple realism issues that have to be tended to—a character has left the scene but on the next page suddenly resumes speaking, that sort of thing. Some authors are very happy to have the opportunity to edit their work before it’s translated; others aren’t interested. Personally, I tend to keep this sort of thing to a minimum, though sometimes I am tempted by certain kinds of small cuts. The folks where I’ve worked are also for better or worse rarely “offended,” so the sort of editing to mitigate controversial language or content that I sometimes hear hints of elsewhere tend not to occur to me as an editor, and I would feel quite wary of such suggestions myself.

I’ve gone on for a while already, but in general what I’m thinking about as an editor: syntax and overall sentence rhythm; clarity; diction and shifts in diction; precision in word choice; re-examining the construction of images or metaphors, questioning or tightening them as needed; thinking about how idioms are used or not used; considering how best to clarify references; consulting with the translator about certain translation choices, such as how names or phrases or certain jokes have been handled. More on this below.

HSEH: They certainly go back to the text, if they didn’t, they are proofreaders, not editors. All in all, any changes in the text should be discussed with the translator, or according to the contract between the translator and the publisher. For me, I demand that no changes are done in the text without my prior consent. A good editor will have the advantage of looking at the text from afar, of enjoying that space helping him/her to be sometimes a better judge of vocabulary uses and able to solve engagements and clear vague points in a smoother way. His/her eye is absolutely indispensable.

11. What about re-translating works? That is, if someone wants to translate a text that has been translated before.

HSEH: I guess it depends on how good the first copy came out. Re-translations are certainly desired in case the first copy was poorly handled.

HP: There’s often a good case to be made for such re-translations, particularly for classic works, or for works that one can argue exist in English only in a flawed or outdated translation. But if it’s not what one could call (acknowledging the unfairness of this term) a classic work and/or if the previous translation is still in print or widely available, or didn’t generate that much interest in English the first time around, a re-translation may be a hard sell to a publisher.

12. How are costs determined (rough estimates)? Also, how are costs determined when there is a short time limit?

HP: There are some ideas/estimations of rates per-1,000-words, as translators will answer. That’s for prose, obviously; poetry is another matter. I would say that the cost depends on the factors particular to each project. To answer the second question: certainly one should expect to pay more if one wants a translation done very quickly; however, I think literary translation is not the sort of work that’s done best when rushed.

HSEH: I have no idea about the short time limit. I make long-term plans, and I don’t allow myself to be squeezed. In Egypt, I charge 35 piasters per word.

13. Are costs in any way dependent on the source or target language? (That is, would translating English to Chinese cost more than English to Arabic?)

HP: Sure. Some languages/countries have generous translation grants available, which can allow both the translator and publisher more income, and can even outright enable publishers to bring out works they couldn’t afford to otherwise. Also, some languages have better markets in English (e.g., Scandinavian crime fiction), so translators might reasonably be expected to be paid more, and publishers might anticipate better sales figures, than for other kinds of projects. There’s also the situation that for “bigger” languages there may be more established markets in English as well as more translators who work in that language, and for “smaller” languages there are often fewer translators, many of whom may be in high demand, so that reality may come into play in various ways.

14. Knowing that it depends on the book, language and other criteria, one wonders how much time does a translator need to render a literary work, of around 200 pages on average?

HP: It would really depend on the work itself—its style, its complexity. And on whether the translator is being paid enough that she can work solely on the project; or, as in most cases, she also works as a teacher, writer, scholar, etc. in addition to translating.

HSEH: I spend one full day, and I mean full, from early morning till midnight working with three A4 pages in Albawtaka Review! If I’m lucky, and it actually depends on the text itself, sometimes, it’s four pages, but never more. It generally depends on the text and how every translator proceeds.

15. Can a writer translate their own work? If yes, how does that work? And if not, why is it not preferable?

HSEH: I can’t see why not. You can hear all types of clichés about this issue. The integrity of the translator is the only thing determining how he/she will handle the job. It’s the translator’s task not to assume what the author might have wished to say and let the text itself reveal its secrets to him; and the author, in his/her new job, should never consider altering his/her already written text. Translating a text is much like approaching an entity or a fully-formed creature, and a text is not to be altered or re-imagined. If an author would like to make a change to his/her text, he/she will have to get it re-published along with this change before a translator could do any kind of changes. That’s why I was appalled to hear this story about a translator re-writing a text, then the author’s re-rewriting the whole text again according to the translator’s vision! I seriously can’t say which is worse.

HP: I have on a couple occasions tried to persuade writers to translate some of their own work, and usually been told that she (the author) would find it excruciating, and sometimes also that she thinks her English isn’t actually up for it (with which I then argue that perhaps working with the right co-translator would do the trick). The questions are (I’d say): whether someone really feels comfortable enough in English; and, more importantly, whether she can bear to relive the writing of her novel, this time in even slower motion. Ultimately most writers do not translate their own work, even those who are solidly multilingual; author co-translations are a bit more common. I’m often interested in the idea, at least in the abstract, but the fact that so few people ever do it probably means something. You know: I am also a writer and I can’t think that I would ever want to translate my own novel either.

16. Unlike other forms of translation, literary translation is very rich and open to interpretation, so what are some criteria for saying that this is a good translation, this one not-so-much, and that is terrible?

HP: As the question notes, there are plenty of arguments to be had about good translations — people contesting certain stylistic choices or aspects of the translator’s interpretation. As for less than good translations — well, I think the simplest answer is that a really bad translation is bad writing and reads like bad writing (if it walks like a duck, etc.). Of course sometimes there are elements that seem “bad” but which one should learn to accept and be enriched by (let the text resist you, as above). But most of the time we’re talking about problems that are much more straightforward: clunky, imprecise, even cringe-inducing writing. Some thoughts on translation troubles, which relate to the thoughts on editing translations above:

—The easiest way to spot troubles with a translation: read it aloud. Problematic translations will feel dizzying, almost impossible to read aloud, full of muddled sentences and clauses that stick out every which way, tripping up everything around them, and a vocabulary that can seem from moment to moment to have little to do with itself. And on a finer level, reading aloud can point to small possible improvements to a good translation, can help the writing find its rhythm and maintain it over pages.

—To state the obvious: English is a big, greedy, heterogeneous, globalized language. One sign of a translation that isn’t quite at ease yet, or that has been doing too much thesaurus work, is a lack of attentiveness to the heterogeneity of English. One must be aware of the differences between not only contemporary dialects and slangs, etc., but within English’s sprawling vocabulary. Of course there’s a difference in formality between saying he got used to versus he had become accustomed to; that’s easy enough to see. But on a quieter level, of course it’s also so different to say bright vs. glowing vs. radiant vs. luminous. A translation’s choices should be in conversation with one another. When the translation’s vocabulary is internally diverse, swift-moving and surprising, it should be purposefully so, and not because synonyms are getting substituted in hither and thither, or because the translator has worked so hard to construct an image that she has almost stopped noting the actual words used, and how they relate to those in the next sentence, and the next. In my opinion, the easiest way to help spot any such flailing around is the same as above: read aloud. Reading aloud helps you to hear the conversations between words across sentences.

—At their worst, translations can get lost in a sort of metaphoric insanity. The translation will construct x image or y metaphor, but in paying no attention to the metaphors implicit within its own vocabulary (verbs especially!); it will be in a subtle but real ways impossible to read. True metaphoric insanity is only seen in truly bad translations, but small instances of it can slip in to any kind of writing, translation or no, in which the metaphors implicit within different words in a phrase are unintentionally too distant from or in conflict with one another, and in making the leap between them the reader must strain herself, or just plummets into the abyss.

HSEH: Actually, judgment is not that open to interpretation, people misuse the idea of loose translation. They brag about how their translations are not literal while they are actually skipping adverbs and distorting meanings. I have no respect for playing with texts for no specific reason, and I’m not tolerant with loose interpretations, because they are — when it comes to the linguistic nature of texts — mere illusions. You write a word, and it has millions of significances and it reflects millions of shades, but it is still one word. A word can mean another word in a different language, it might mean another word, but it can’t mean a third word. Language is rich, but let’s not think of it as everyone’s game.

17. How do translators learn about writers in various parts of the world? For instance, we’re in Egypt but we’re NOT ALWAYS aware of other Arabic literature, such as that published by Iraqis, Qataris, Lebanese and so on. How can a translator become aware of the diversity of writers, their works and what is worth the effort of translation and what is not?

HSEH: If you are translating short fiction from English into Arabic for example, like I am, you should be a close follower of some prestigious anthologies published in North America, like The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The O. Henry Awards, and The Best Stories from the South, Best New Voices. You can also subscribe to all newsletters of all awards and literary institutes, and you will be regularly informed of new updates. I would recommend being a good reader of prestigious reviews scanning the cultural scene, like The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Timothy McSweeney’s, Granta, Kwani, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story, StoryQuarterly, and Prospect Magazine. You can do your homework and read reviews instead of attending gatherings, which are only, in my opinion, the door-to-door selling of our profession.

18. Is the writer of a particular book in anyway consulted about the translation? For instance, The Map of Love was translated by non-other than Ahdaf Soeuif’s mother, Fatma Moussa, so clearly the writer had a choice regarding who was to translate her work. How often does that happen?

HSEH: An author is usually approached by a translator or a publisher to obtain his/her permission to translate his/her text, and of course, they do have a say in the matter, and they have every right to. They usually check the translator’s career and his/her past experience, maybe ask around, then make a decision. An assessor from the publisher’s end should be appointed to evaluate the final copy of the translated book.

HP: I’d say it happens very often. Sometimes the author isn’t involved, but if the author had strong feelings about wanting a particular translator, I think there would always be at least an opportunity to express that. (Though of course that does not always mean that ultimately that translator will work on the project.) Also, in general, where I’ve worked we like to have authors involved to some degree in the translation, and if the author is interested and reads English, usually they are given an opportunity to see the translation and offer their thoughts and line notes, which the translator and editor then consider.


Hala Salah Eddin Hussein is the editor of Albawtaka Review 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 HSEH here and here, and her “rules for translation” are here.

Hilary Plum is an editor with Interlink Publishing and co-founder, with Pam Thompson, of Interlink’s imprint Clockroot Books. She also serves as a consulting editor with the Kenyon Review. Her novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets is forthcoming in the US from FC2. 


*The “20 questions” of the title is metaphorical.