Translating Literature: Maintaining the Author's Voice
From the very beginning of my career as a translator, my dream was always to work primarily with novels and literature. Luckily, an opportunity to work with an Italian romance author landed quite quickly in my lap, and to this day, translating literature remains my favourite kind of project! Even after working on a number of books with this wonderful author, and other novels with different, equally-talented authors across a range of genres, I am still often faced with challenges and hurdles during the course of my translation. One of the hardest things to achieve with a literary translation project is to maintain the author's voice across language borders. How can something so eloquently-written in one language possibly retain that writing style in another? How can you balance creativity and readability without straying from the original meaning of the text?
Although I still have a long way to go in my career as a literary translator, and a lot more to learn, I've picked up a few tricks along the way that have helped me immensely. From the importance of context to tackling the tricky act of dialogue, here are my essential literary translation tips.
Try not to write in your own voice/style
The temptation, when faced with a work of prose, is to edit or translate that piece according to your own stylistic preferences. While this may still be grammatically correct, and may read well, it also means that the author's voice and personality has been tainted. When reading back over your translation, try to ask yourself whether the piece of text in front of you has the same feel as the original version. While this is sometimes difficult to gauge, it's important to take this into account. But remember that translation also requires a great deal of creativity, and each translator will interpret the original piece differently - so snippets of your voice will weave throughout the work, anyway!
Place yourself in the character's shoes
Characterisation is a huge part of any novel. Your characters need to be consistent, believable and relatable. If the book is written in the first person, this means that their descriptive passages and their streams of consciousness need to be just as consistent in their vocabulary as their dialogue! Make sure to consider the background, personality traits and interactions of each character. Do they have certain phrases that they prefer over others? Is their vocabulary quite wide, or more simple? Do they often use swear words or expletives? Make sure that these character traits in their speech or thought processes are consistent throughout the novel; I always keep a notepad handy to write any of these down, then make sure to check over them during my final read-through.
Keep character interactions natural
Dialogue is often the hardest thing to get right when translating or writing a piece of prose; if the dialogue between characters is stilted or unnatural, the book can lose credibility. To make sure that the conversations in your translations flow well, try reading the passages aloud, or imagining your character in that situation. How would they feel, and how would they express that particular emotion? Make sure to research also any slang or filler words which are relevent to the context of your novel. For example: if the story is set in Southern England, the colloquial speech will differ greatly from that of a story set in Scotland.
Punctuation is super important!
Particularly within dialogue, but, of course, throughout the rest of the novel, punctuation can make a huge difference to the readability of your translation. While there are many different ways that dialogue can be punctuated correctly, the key in your own translation is consistency. Make sure to continue punctuating the same way throughout the entire novel: if you decide to use double quotation marks instead of single, then make sure that this does not change. Likewise for place names and emphasised words; decide before you begin your translation whether the names of bars, restaurants, etc., should be italicised or capitalised. A detailed guide to punctuating dialogue within novels can be found here, on The Editor's Blog.
Never forget about the context
Maintaining the context of any novel is key to its successful translation - and is also one of the trickiest things to remember. As mentioned previously, context is particularly important when translating dialogue, as different settings in a novel will warrant different turns of phrase, or slang terms. Another essential thing to consider are details such as measurements: for example, a character's height. If the book is aimed at an Italian audience, height will be measured in centimetres and metres, whereas novels focusing on UK English-speakers will use feet and inches. The same idea applies also for weight and distance, which use stone and miles respectively, instead of kilograms and kilometres. By incorporating these details into your translation, the translated novel will be more credible, and will give readers a true feel of the setting in which the characters find themselves.
This should also be taken into consideration when deciding whether to write in UK or US English; the decision is likely to depend, of course, on the context of the novel.
Consider the genre and audience
Generally, understanding the genre of the original book will allow you to translate it in a way that appeals to its audience. With romance novels, the prose should be almost poetic, with a focus upon emotion, detail, and character relationships; however, with a crime novel or a thriller, the sentence structure is likely to be punchy, with sharp twists and suspenseful lanuage. By attempting to echo this as much as possible in your translation, your voice will ring much truer to that of the author.
Communicate with the author
If ever there's a section of the novel you don't understand, or something that you can't decide how to phrase, then don't be afraid to ask the author. Communication between authors and translators is essential to maintaining the voice and original intention of the writer, and therefore to making your own translation as accurate as possible! Maybe there are sections of the book which have drawn upon the author's own experience, and will give you a better idea of the meaning behind their word choices.
Read things back to yourself out loud
At the risk of sounding like a complete nutter, make sure you talk to yourself throughout the entire process! By reading difficult passages aloud, you will better understand whether those sentences flow naturally, or need more tweaking. This works particularly well with dialogue, also, and allows you to work out any nuances of speech, such as fillers or colloquial turns of phrase.
Hopefully this little guide will be useful to anyone looking to follow a career in literary translation, or anyone who is interested in the process! Feel free to leave any tips or tricks of your own in the comments below - I'm always looking to learn and improve.
Links to some of my translated novels can be found below.