These days, it’s becoming more and more common for translators to specialise in a given field. It’s a sound strategy: after all, the better you understand a particular subject, the easier it will be to comprehend relevant source texts and render them fluently in your native language. It’s a way of ensuring that your translations are as natural and authentic as they can be – and from a business perspective, it’s a great way to stand out from the crowd in this competitive industry.
In this article, we’re going to look at one specialist subject in particular – literary translation. It’s an often-overlooked specialisation, but in truth it’s up there with the most demanding specialist fields, like legal, medical or highly technical translations. Unlike these fields, however, literary translation is rooted in the arts instead of the sciences. It calls for a very different mindset, and a very different set of skills and experience. So what exactly does it take to become a professional literary translator?
If you’re thinking of specialising in this field, the first thing to do is to consider the skills that are required. Among other things, you will need a truly flawless command of your native language. That might sound like a skill common to all translators, but if anything, literary translations require you to go above and beyond even the level demanded by many other fields. It’s not enough just to know every stylistic and grammatical rule in the book – you also need to know when those rules can be broken, and how, and why. You need to understand the effect that every word, even every piece of punctuation, will have on the reader – and you need to use all of these tricks to faithfully translate the text you’ve been given.
Doing so requires another skill: the ability to mimic an author’s voice, imagining how they would have written their book or poem or essay if their native language were your own. This can prove quite tricky, since some authors seem to delight in using tricks that their own language can support, but that others cannot. Different languages have different rules about where to place the verb in a sentence, for example – but if the source text you’re translating uses that verb to deliver a shocking or comic revelation at the end of a sentence, you had better hope that your target language can support the same kind of grammatical structure. Otherwise, you’re going to need some truly creative thinking.
To get inside the author’s head in this way – or possibly even just to spot these kinds of tricks in the first place – you might need to specialise in a subject even more specific than just ‘literary translation’. You might find you’re best at recreating rhyme and rhythm patterns in another language, and so specialise in poetry. You might decide that you’re most capable of reproducing an academic voice, and therefore translate critical essays. Some translators may only ever translate a single author’s work, although it can be hard to make a living out of one writer alone unless they are both particularly prolific and very popular outside of their home country.
Specialisation can also come in more forms than just genre. Translating a literary text will often require you to understand the broader context of the piece you’re translating: things like the time period in which it was written, the background themes of the text, and even any other works that might have consciously or unconsciously influenced the author. If you’re already a bookworm – and you probably should be, in this career! – then this kind of general knowledge might not be too hard to pick up if you’re translating something that’s been written recently. Any older texts, on the other hand – perhaps retranslations of classic authors, or opportunities to discover an older writer who was overlooked in their prime – will require you to be as much of a historian and a sociologist as a linguist.
To achieve all of this, then, you’ll need to be capable of in-depth research and wider reading, and you’ll need to be able to apply everything you’ve learned to the translations you produce. Sometimes, third party sources will be all you have available to you: it’s always nice to be able to ask the author what they were trying to say, but sometimes that’s not possible. To give just one example, an author is not likely to be very communicative if, say, they’ve been dead for the last few hundred years.
These are some of the key skills you’ll need in order to break into literary translation – but what about past experience? Anyone can send off a CV listing literary translation among their skills, but the people who get the actual jobs will be the ones who can prove that they know what they’re doing. What sort of past performance might an author, agency or public institution be looking for in a literary translator?
Experience as a writer yourself can potentially help, of course. By this we mean writing your own content, although general translation practice is handy as well. If a very specialist literary text needs translating, then past experience writing something in the same genre could be a real boost to your chances of getting the job – but on the other hand, you will need to make sure that you don’t let your own voice dominate over the original author’s.
Academic study of some sort of literary subject can also be very helpful: anything that teaches you the core concepts and techniques of literary criticism will naturally stand you in good stead for a future career in the field. Many language degrees at universities include a significant literary component, of course, giving you invaluable hands-on experience deconstructing a text in a foreign language. For this reason, many literary translators come from a background in academia, and so there’s definitely something to be said for studying beyond a bachelor’s-degree level.
That’s the long and short of what you need – but aside from all the skills and experience expected of a literary translator, there’s one other key component: the right attitude. Literary translation is something of a niche market, and it can be an exceptionally hard career to break into. For some people, however, it’s not just a career – it’s a calling. If that’s you, then you don’t need us to tell you to keep trying and never give up. If you have the talent, the experience and the determination to succeed, you’re sure to find a way into this unique – and uniquely exciting – branch of the translation industry.