To dive or not to dive…

As I teeter on the brink of a whole new world – literary translation- one of the many questions that swirls in and out of my thoughts, several times a day on a tide of rising and falling confidence, is how does it all really work and should I dive in or not?


From afar, the literary world seems like an exotic island on the horizon, a faraway world that you can only enter on a wisha-wisha breeze. The little girl and children’s book lover in me wonders if I close my eyes and wish hard enough, maybe I could just fly through the magical portal and into this parallel world where passion for well-written words can overcome the dark forces of fuzzy matches and computer-aided- translation, unleashing creative potential for the sheer pleasure of telling a story. Yes that’s right, for no other reason than because there’s a story that needs to be told and a voice that needs to be heard.  After years penning commercial copy for everything from hair dryers to hotel rooms, that sounds like translation heaven.

So I have dived in and am starting to swim. Well, paddle maybe. Let’s say I decided to test the waters with Lisa’s First Steps in Literary Translation course (informative, appropriately challenging and highly recommended) which I enjoyed so much that my trickle of doubt turned into a tidal wave of enthusiasm as I embraced the metaphor and let it sweep me onwards to two book fairs (http://www.bolognachildrensbookfair.com / http://www.londonbookfair.co.uk/), a literary translation master class (http://www.lrbshop.co.uk) with award-winning translator Howard Curtis, and a volunteer role at the spectacular translation machine at the London Literature Festival. The swell of enthusiasm hasn’t broken yet, as I prepare for a translation summer school (http://www.bbk.ac.uk/european/about-us/use-your-language-use-your-english/summer-school-2013) at Birkbeck, University of London.

I think I would compare my journey so far to open water swimming rather than just treading water in the shallow end. Even though there are no lane ropes to keep me on course, I do think the wisha wisha breeze must have been blowing in my direction when an unbelievable stroke of luck put none other than Daniel Hahn, writer, editor, translator and national programme director of the British Centre of Literary Translation (http://www.bclt.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/x357-BCLT-Staff-Insert.pdf) at the same coffee bar as me in Bologna. Our chat was of inestimable value to me (perhaps a little less to Daniel who was forced to give up his lunch as I fired question after question at him!). It showed me that there are plenty of experienced sailors out there ready to help novices like me chart their route and speed us on our way and also that I needed to get out of my wishing chair and start steering the ship. It may not be the same as navigating the commercial seas I have been sailing for the past thirteen years, but I’m sure the same old seafarer saying holds:  “never go into strange places on a falling tide without a pilot”. In the UK at present, there are pilots aplenty, starting with The Emerging Translators Network (http://emergingtranslatorsnetwork.wordpress.com/), an invaluable source of advice and information,  the BCLT and its informative journal In Other Words ( http://www.bclt.org.uk/publications/in-other-words/), and the many classes, seminars, events, fairs and discussions organized at and around literary festivals, fairs or bookshops (the Edinburgh International Book Fair (https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/) is just around the corner with authors, editors and readings galore). Attending these events, joining forums and taking classes like Lisa’s, the Birkbeck summer school and equally importantly, children’s literature and reader courses run by Italian libraries (http://www.comuneortona.ch.it/sezioni/biblioteca/pagine.asp?idn=3550) is helping me to gauge the industry and also my own potential as a literary translator. After all, the first rule of any navigation plan is to know which way the currents are flowing, the state of the tide and what obstacles may lie in the deep waters ahead (three years as a naval cadet may not have been wasted after all!).

In terms of my own preparation, the message from across the translation chain is that it is vital to have a solid grounding in the literature you want to translate, you need writing experience, you need to understand the people and the publishing houses you are going to be (hopefully) approaching, you need a convincing profile and even a working relationship as a reader before being engaged as a translator. In short, you need something to bring to a literary editor’s table.  Even more importantly, you have to get out there: to get speaking to the hundreds of amazing people willing to share their experiences or advice. For a fledgling literary translator unsure of which direction to go in and struggling to stay above water, hearing not one but tens of publishers explain what kinds of books they are looking for, who from and why, has been like a literary lifeline in the translation darkness. I realize that my own journey as a translator is actually the same as a reader’s experience of translated fiction, as we both get a “glimpse into lives that are very different from anything” we have ever experienced, to borrow a definition from journalist and former bookseller Jonathon Ruppin.

From a market point of view, the consensus from all quarters of the industry seems to be that interest in translated literature is increasing, not just on the part of the public but by the industry itself, more willing and more able structurally to publish translated works through specialist independent publishers and booksellers filling a gap in the market. Translators are increasingly seen as an important part of this process, able to signal good stories to editors and get involved in the marketing of the book, as well as helping to raise the profile of their author and of translated literature. The translators in residence at London’s Free Word Centre (http://www.freewordonline.com/) are actively involved in such language-related activities “on and off the page” (Canan Marasligil, In Other Words, Spring  2013).

Sticking with the water theme (refreshing, given the unexpected heat wave in Scotland at the moment), as a budding literary translator I started out feeling a bit like Dahl’s giant peach, struggling to take off. But applying the same ingenious strategy as James,  instead of seagull power maybe I can use all the insights gained and advice received to take off on people power….and may fair winds and following seas do the rest!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *