10 Years Down the Line – Expectations and Reality of Literary Translation


Arts building UEA (photo credit: 1gl)

This time ten years ago I was working on my MA dissertation – an annotated translation of Gudrun Pausewang‘s Die Verräterin, which would be published by Andersen Press as Traitor about two years later – eight years ago yesterday, in fact. This has set me thinking about the huge changes that have happened since then. When I applied for UEA’s MA in Literary Translation, I was asked where I saw myself in ten years time, and answered that I’d like to be a successful freelance literary translator. And here I am. Freelance, yes. Literary translator, sometimes. Successful? Depends on your criteria. The work’s not exactly flooding in, but I’ve got a fair few publications under my belt now.

Empress Sissi

Empress Sissi (photo credit: josefnovak33)

My ideas of  being a translator haven’t always matched up to the reality – I struggled to get going again after maternity leave and, having thought I’d be able to fit work in around the school holidays, soon realised the importance of keeping your clients happy! I also didn’t imagine I’d spend the whole summer trying to work while our neighbours re-landscaped their entire back garden, battling constantly against the sound of an angle-grinder…  I imagined spending most of my time reading, talking about books, translating wonderful novels. And yes, I do a lot of that, but not as much as I’d like. On the other hand, I could never have predicted the sheer variety of the freelance workload – one day on modern art museums in the Rhineland, another on French photographers, the next a website about book tours via public transport, the text of a physiotherapy video (at least I got to try the exercises out and relieve the tension in my shoulders from translating them…), Klimt, the Empress Sissi, the House of the Wannsee Conference – it’s all grist to my mill and I’ve learnt so much I might never otherwise have come across.

''Buchenwald/ Birkenwald'', 1903

Klimt: ”Buchenwald/ Birkenwald”, 1903 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve also been musing on working practices. For my dissertation I had access to the university computer system, library and regular discussions with an academic advisor who helped me some way towards freeing my style from a rigid literalism. Later, once I had a publishing contract for Traitor, I was working at a rickety computer desk with my dictionary in my lap, dial-up internet (remember that?) and little feedback from anyone but my very patient husband. I could still use the university library to find bigger dictionaries, and more technical ones, but now I’m staggered by how few resources I used.

Now, if the broadband goes on the blink and I have to resort to a paper dictionary it’s a major irritation – it interrupts the flow, makes me have to keep turning round. Now, I have all the wonders of the internet at my disposal – translation discussion forums, online dictionaries and glossaries, blogs, email groups. I can research practically any subject under the sun without moving from my desk (what Google must make of my search history beggars belief!). Of course, some of these things have to be taken with a pinch of salt – we’ve all seen unhelpful or inaccurate machine translations, and some of the dictionary entries are little better. But they’re there, which is wonderful. And for the Nea Fox books, my last major literary adventure, I had the luxury of a very helpful author, willing and able to discuss what she’d meant by a word or phrase yet letting me get on with the actual job of translation. Thank you, Amelia Ellis!

So, here I am, ten years down the line. Life as a literary translator may not be exactly the way I imagined it, but I know it’s where I want to be.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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3 Responses to 10 Years Down the Line – Expectations and Reality of Literary Translation

  1. Thanks for your great post. I have been working as a translator EN>FR for over 20 years, and would love trying my hand at literary translation. Any idea where or how to start? Thanks!

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