Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!
Our last interviewee, Anna Holmwood, nominated Rosalind Harvey.
1. You translate from Spanish into English and have translated literature from different Hispanic countries. How are they different among each other, including in terms of translation?
The various Spanishes around the world are pretty different from each other, and between Latin American countries the difference can be even greater than between Latin American and Iberian Spanish. Not only in terms of pronunciation, which varies wildly, but also vocabulary and grammar. I fell head over heels with Spanish as an undergraduate student on my year abroad in Peru, and the Spanish spoken there is usually described as one of the clearest and easiest for beginners (luckily for me!); while I was there I spoke very little English, even began dreaming in Spanish, and I’ve also spent time in Ecuador, Argentina and Colombia so, for me, the rhythms and cadences of Latin American Spanish are still the ones I respond most strongly to. In terms of translation, I always feel more drawn to Latin American writers because I feel closer to the culture and way of speaking, although I have translated two Spanish authors so far. In the end though, as long as I respond personally to a text and am able to have access to the author when translating (this is why I haven’t to date worked on any dead authors!), it doesn’t really matter to me where the text is from.
2. You created, along with theater group Coney, a real-world translation game called Wordkeys. Can you tell us about it?
In 2011 I was the first translator in residence at the Free Word Centre in London, and my remit was to demystify literary translation by developing a programme of public events around the practice. I programmed a few talks and more conventional activities, but I knew from the start that I wanted to do something that would take people out into the street and talking to strangers, because this is where real-world translation happens, and it is something that all of us engage in every day, very often without realizing it. I approached Coney because they had done work for an organization my then-boyfriend was involved with, Guerilla Science, which puts on fun, wacky events about science for the general public. Coney’s members all have theatre backgrounds and they’ve developed what you might call ‘real-world’ games for adults, people who have forgotten to or no longer have the chance to play in their lives, and playfulness is such an important aspect of literary translation, as well as performance, so it was a perfect fit. The game works like this: there are two teams who uncover clues hidden around an outside space, clues written in a foreign language which they have to translate, and then at the end there’s a shared activity the teams have to perform together. It’s easier to explain by watching a video!
3. In this interview you gave to Free Word, you said that “[a]s translators, we can stand up for ourselves more,” and gave a few examples of what we can do, such as “try and demand the recommended rates.” What recommended rates do you refer to? In Brazil, our union, Sintra, has a table of recommended rates for different translation services, but I’m not aware of any other.
‘Recommended’ is actually not quite the right word. In the UK we are lucky to have the Translators Association, a subgroup of the Society of Authors, and every year its committee meets to discuss what (due to legal reasons) we have to call the ‘observed rate’. Currently this is £95 per thousand words for prose, and £1.10 per line of poetry with a minimum of £35 per poem. A different approach is often taken with illustrated children’s books or graphic novels, but the general gist is that this is roughly the amount that certain UK publishers have been observed to pay to translators. This doesn’t mean that it’s the recommended rate, nor that it is an amount that all publishers will pay (unfortunately!), but is meant to be a minimum, and indeed English PEN will only fund books in translation where the publisher has agreed that they will pay the translator this minimum. We also need to take into account that this rate, aside from being a per-word figure, will often include any time taken to look over edits, any time taken to promote the book. Ultimately, I think it’s important that we recognize that our work is work, that it takes time and effort, and that, unless you are a student (in which case, working for free can be a useful way to gain experience), you should be properly remunerated for it.
4. You teach Modern Spanish Language; Language, Text and Identity; and Translation: Methods and Practice at University of Warwick. What are some important advice you give to your students who are about to enter the translation market?
Read voraciously, figure out what you like to read and who in the UK is publishing that kind of work, put yourself in situations where you will be around other translators to share knowledge, follow closely what is happening in the literary arena in the country whose language you will be working from (ie keeping abreast of literary prizes and finding out who your favourite authors’ favourite authors are), try to gain at least a basic understanding of how the publishing industry works… and don’t give up the day job!
5. You are chair and co-founder of the Emerging Translators Network, an email-based peer-to-peer support group for early-career literary translators working into English (primarily). Could you tell us more about it?
The ETN was founded by myself, Anna Holmwood (your previous interviewee) and Jamie Lee Searle, who translates from German, in 2011, when we half-jokingly described ourselves as ‘the forgotten child stars of literary translation’ – we had all had one book out, which had received a nice amount of attention, and we weren’t sure what to do next to ride the momentum. The world of an early-career literary translator still felt a little disjointed back then: people with one less book than us under their belt were unable to join the Translators Association (you can only join once you have a contract) and so to connect themselves to other working translators; we would all occasionally bump into each other by chance at a a book fair or a launch, but it wasn’t very organized or formal. We wanted to create a friendly space for people at that stage of their career to come together and share experience, advice and good practice, and so we set up a Google Group and started adding members. It quickly grew into this brilliant online community of practitioners talking about a whole range of issues: really practical, nuts-and-bolts things as well as esoteric discussions of semi-colon use. We held a sell-out conference in 2014, and now have over 1,000 members, and I think it’s safe to say that it has changed the landscape of literary translation in that it’s made it easier for what has traditionally been a very disparate group of shy professionals into a group with far more visibility, a louder voice, and an idea of what our shared goals are. I’m very proud of what we achieved, and I’d like to say thank you to all of our members for making the community as wonderful as it is!
6. How do you juggle translation work with teaching?
The short answer is, I don’t! (weeps gently). No, but seriously: it’s not easy, but without the day job I wouldn’t be able to survive, and I think it’s really important to talk about that, about the money side of things. Before I got into teaching I worked for around 10 years as a freelance translator alongside various other things (bookselling, being a university receptionist, private Spanish tutoring, and working in a Chinese furniture shop), and for most of that time I struggled financially. I was building up my career, but I was cash poor and time poor! Now I’m cash-comfortable but time-destitute, and my goal for the near future is to develop a balance so that I can translate one book a year in the holidays, when teaching stops and I have time to focus, and I think that will keep me satisfied – along with shoehorning as much literature into my translation classes as I can get away with. What’s also nice now is that I can use my own translations in lessons, something the students often find valuable as a book is such a tangible thing compare to an obscure academic paper, and it means they’re able to see the link between what they’re studying and a way they might use their skills in the future. It’s always fun to get them to critique my own translations to start a discussion about how no translation (or original!) is ever perfect and it’s such a subjective process, which is particularly valuable in an age when education can be far too focused on right or wrong answers and ease of measurability and results.
7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.
I’d like to nominate Jen Calleja, who is a translator from the German, editor, poet, current translator in residence at the British Library, a member of the band Sauna Youth, and an ambassador for the Good night out …. – partly because I admire the way she brings feminism/activism into her work, but mainly, if I’m honest, it’s because I want to know how the hell she finds time to do all the creative things she does with such aplomb!