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Literally Speaking

Experienced literature translator Nicky Harman recently waxed lyrical with GloBooks about all things Literature Translation and tells us how she got started, revealing valuable tips for any one thinking of going into the profession.

GB: How did you get into literary translation?
NH: I studied Chinese at Leeds University but then I let it drop. Years later, I came back to it (and had to re-learn everything ! Chinese is hard to learn and easy to forget). Then I was lucky: Henry Zhao Yiheng asked if I would translate Hong Ying’s novel, published in 2002 as K – The Art of Love https://www.amazon.com/K-Art-Love-Hong-Ying/dp/0714530727. As soon as I started translating, I knew this was all I ever wanted to do. Apart from talking and blogging about translation, of course.

GB: Is being a translator from Chinese different from translating from other languages?
NH: Yes and no. Chinese, although not a ‘minority language’, is underrepresented in translation, partly because very few agents and publishers can read the original texts, so translators often spend a lot of time advocating for their favourite Chinese authors and books – talking to publishers, acting as go-between and so on. In terms of the process of translation, I think the rewards and the challenges are very much the same. We all agonise over how to find equivalents for those famously untranslatable expressions, and wonder whether we have done justice to a wonderful author’s style. The only obvious difference is that languages closer to English have more linguistic and cultural equivalence. When you translate from Chinese (and Japanese and Korean and other East Asian languages), you really are ‘re-creating’. Following the structure of a sentence closely just doesn’t work. Here’s an example from Broken Wings, a novel by Jia Pingwa about a trafficked girl.
这是一个枯瘦如柴的老头,动作迟缓,面无表情,其实他就是有表情也看不出来,半个脸全被一窝白胡子掩了。

More or less literally, this reads as:
This was a dried-up thin-like-firewood old man, movements slow, face without expression, actually [even if] he had an expression you couldn’t see it, half the face was covered by a white beard.
I translated it as:
He was a dry old stick of a man, with slow movements and an impassive expression, not that you see much of his face because it was covered with a long white beard.
But any number of variants of this sentence would have been perfectly correct. Also, Chinese often doesn’t indicate tense (past or present), number (one apple or several), or occurrence (did this event happen once or several times?). Often, it’s down to the translator to decide.

GB: what advice would you give to someone wanting to start out in literary translation?
NH: 1. Network – lots, and 2. Don’t give up the day job (yet). Take lots of advice from more experienced translators, attend summer schools, go to book launches for translated books, find out about publishers who focus on translations. Go online and search for advice. For instance, the website I work on, Paper Republic, has pages under Resources for Translators https://paper-republic.org/resources/trans/, on topics such as on how to pitch your favourite book to a publisher.

One of the wonderful things about being a literary translator in the UK is the close-knit
translation community. I am a long-standing member of the Translators Association (part of the Society of Authors) https://societyofauthors.org/Groups/Translators, and was co-Chair from 2014 to 2017. 


Any established literary translator can join (and for starting-out translators, there is the Emerging  Translators Network https://emergingtranslatorsnetwork.wordpress.com), and the TA offers invaluable contract advice.


I would add, start small. By which I mean, find and translate a short story, an essay or a poem, and get it published in an online literary magazine. You are unlikely to get paid much or at all, but there are many advantages. 


You will learn much from the experience of 1. Tracking down your author and asking for permission; 2. Doing the translation 3. Having your work edited, when you have found a lit-mag that will accept it – you can learn a huge amount from the editor. All this will get you known as a translator, and with luck the publishers will come calling.


Nicky Harman lives in the UK and translates full-time from Chinese. She focusses on fiction, literary non-fiction, and occasionally poetry, by authors such as Chen Xiwo, Han Dong, Hong Ying, Jia Pingwa, Dorothy Tse, Xinran, Xu Xiaobin, Yan Ge, Yan Geling and Zhang Ling. When not translating, she works on Paper-Republic.org, a non-profit website promoting Chinese literature in translation. She organizes translation-focused events, mentors new translators, gives regular talks and workshops on translation, and judges translation competitions. She was co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors, UK) from 2014 to 2017. She blogs on Asian Books Blog, and tweets, with Helen Wang, as China Fiction Book Club @cfbcuk.

You will learn much from the experience of 1. Tracking down your author and asking for permission; 2. Doing the translation 3. Having your work edited, when you have found a lit-mag that will accept it – you can learn a huge amount from the editor. All this will get you known as a translator, and with luck the publishers will come calling.


Nicky Harman

 

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