Greatest Women in Translation: Heather Cleary

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Welcome back to our amazing Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Heather Cleary, Spanish into English literary translator nominated by Allison Markin Powell.

Heather Cleary

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1. First of all, it’s a pleasure to be talking to one of the nominees for the inaugural National Book Awards in the category of Translated Literature. Congratulations, Heather! Could you tell us a bit more about the book that rendered your nomination, Comemadre, by Roque Larraquy?

Thank you for the invitation! And for your kind congratulations. Roque and I are very excited about the NBA nomination; the longlist is full of wonderful books that your readers might enjoy checking out. Comemadre is a short novel—very dark, very funny—about our collective obsession with progress and with leaving our mark on the world; it’s about hubris, violence, and love (specifically, the violence inherent to different kinds of love). The title refers to a plant that releases carnivorous spores, which plays a key role in each section.

Comemadre is divided into two parts, the first of which takes place in 1907 in a sanatorium near Buenos Aires, Argentina. A group of doctors has decided to experiment on unwitting test subjects to determine what happens in the moments after death (I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but there are guillotines involved). When they’re not trying to swindle their patients into signing away their lives, these men are busy stabbing one another in the back professionally and romantically; a number of them are infatuated with Ménendez, the Head Nurse. Unsurprisingly, things end badly. We then flash forward a hundred years to drop in on an artist who made a name for himself with a piece involving a two-headed baby, and then teamed up with his doppelgänger to develop performance pieces that involve physical mutilation. Think Damien Hirst on acid. This second part of the novel addresses, through the lens of art, many of the ethical and philosophical questions raised in the first section through science.

This book was extraordinarily fun to translate. It’s grotesque, insightful, and perversely hilarious. It’s full of dirty puns, which I love, and presented other interesting challenges. For example, the “oracles” in the first section of the book occasionally blurt out snippets of text from the second section; finding a way to make this continuity clear without giving too much away or slipping into anachronism was a delightful puzzle.

2. After having two Japanese translator nominees, Allison Markin Powell and Ginny Takemori; a Scandinavian, Nicky Smalley; and a German translator, Jen Calleja, we are back to Latin language translators with you, who translates from Spanish. How did your connection with Spanish start?

It was peer pressure, really. I was in seventh or eighth grade, I think, and my friends were studying Spanish at school. So I joined them. But most of them stopped after a year or two, and by that time I had already fallen in love with the language. I studied it straight through high school, then spent the following summer (and a semester in college) in Spain. After that, I spent some time in Mexico, and later lived in Buenos Aires for almost two years. I kind of stumbled into literary translation in a similar way: I had been frustrated with the shape my undergraduate honors thesis was taking when Richard Sieburth, a professor in the department of Comparative Literature at NYU and a gifted translator of French and German, suggested I switch gears and try my hand at translation. I was immediately hooked, and ended up organizing my life around my desire to do more of it.

3. I noticed your name is placed in a highlighted position on the cover of Comemadre. As far as I know, not all publishers display the translator’s name on the cover, right? At least not in Brazil. So, besides being on the cover, you are highlighted! This is fantastic! Do you think this is something that has been changing lately? What role do translators play in convincing publishers to recognize the translator on the cover of translated books?

Thanks! It has been an absolute delight to work with Coffee House; it really is a press that values translation. As for how common it is here to note the translator’s name on the cover, it varies from publisher to publisher, with independent presses tending to be a bit more open to the idea than the bigger houses. There are always exceptions, though. I think there has definitely been a greater awareness about translation in recent years, and a greater appreciation of what it is that we translators actually do. For this, we have a number of vocal advocates and organizations, like the PEN Translation Committee, to thank.

4. I have already heard of the Japanese term ikigai, which is about finding your purpose in life. Now I see you translated a book called Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles, also from Spanish. Something interesting is that the authors describe the term as “the happiness of always being busy.” Now I am curious. Could you tell a bit more about this book?

Héctor García and Francesc Miralles both spent time in Japan and discovered a shared fascination with certain aspects of the culture there, above all with the value placed on staying active and engaged with friends and family in some of the longest-living communities in the country. In the book, they combine their personal experience talking with centenarians in Okinawa with research from different parts of the world into the benefits of staying active by finding a passion to pursue. From what I understand, the book has done very well.

5. The books you have already translated vary from non-fiction, fiction and poetry, in diverse topics. Do you have a favorite genre?

I wouldn’t say I have a favorite genre, necessarily, but rather that there are certain things I look for in a project. I love working on books that are linguistically complex in one way or another: one of my earliest translation projects was of the work of an avant-garde poet from Argentina named Oliverio Girondo. His later collections are full of neologisms and derive much of their meaning from the sound of the words, the way they ricochet off one another. Sergio Chejfec’s novels are marked by long, intricate sentences that require juggling nested clauses, and Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre, as I mentioned above, is full of puns and wordplay. In this last case, I also enjoyed the challenge of establishing two distinct narrative voices that evoked two very different historical moments. One of the writers I’m working with now, Fernanda Trías, is fascinating for a different reason: she writes emotionally charged narratives with absolute restraint and precision.

6. You are a founding editor of the digital, bilingual Buenos Aires Review, where I found a link to Brasília, among other worldwide cities, and other fiction writings from Brazilian authors. Could you tell us a bit more about this project?

Ah, the BAR! I’m very proud of the work we’ve done, though our production schedule has slowed down [clears throat] significantly. In late 2011, I picked up and moved to Buenos Aires, where Jennifer Croft (winner of this year’s International Man Booker Prize for Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights) was living. She and I spoke extensively about all the wonderful writers around us who were entirely unknown to readers of English; we decided that we wanted to do something about it by creating a platform that was more nimble than print publishing, and able to take more risks. She then invited the writer Maxine Swann, who also lives in Buenos Aires, to join us, and Maxine brought in Pola Oloixarac. And so the magazine was born. It was our hope that it would serve as a launching pad for writers and translators, alike; we’ve also had the privilege of publishing new work by luminaries like Ishion Hutchinson, Ada Limón, Mario Bellatin, and Carol Bensimon. We started with a focus on creating an exchange between English and Spanish, and then broadened our scope to include Portuguese, Chinese, German… the list goes on. Every text on the website appears in at least two languages. It has been a (huge) labor of love that wouldn’t have been possible without our rock star editors, Martín Felipe Castagnet (whose Bodies of Summer was published last year by Dalkey), Lucas Mertehikian, Andrea Rosenberg (see Aura Xilonen’s The Gringo Champion, among her many fabulous translations), and Belén Agustina Sánchez.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate Elisabeth Jaquette, who—in addition to being a brilliant translator from the Arabic—is also a vital part of the translation community as the Executive Director of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)… and as a member of the Cedilla & Co. translators collective, of course. Her work has been shortlisted for the TA First Translation Prize, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, and supported by PEN/Heim and several English PEN Translates Awards

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On speaking the client’s language (not the opposite)

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I changed my bank accounts – moved to another bank. There I was, at my new bank, signing the endless sheets of contract papers while the manager was explaining how they worked using banking jargon. Besides feeling extremely mad I was losing precious working hours because the manager did not have everything ready, as she said she would, I felt lost a couple of times because I did not understand the specific terms she used. And I felt embarrassed for having to ask her what they meant. When I finally understood, I started asking myself why she wouldn’t use another term, a more commonly-used one with exactly the same meaning.

I struggle to understand financial and banking operations. Whenever I have to deal with related matters, I postpone it to the last possible minute. And when I finally have to take the bulls by the horn, I feel bored and petrified I might do something wrong I may regret later. So why make my life easier and use lay terms if they can show off their banking expertise, right?

I use every single experience as a customer to learn how to deal with my own clients. If I like something, I try to adapt it to my translation business. If not, I reflect to see if I do the same with my clients and, if so, I immediately try to change it.

Do I want my client to feel the way I feel when I have to deal with things I don’t understand?

We should always keep in mind that if a client is coming to us it means they want their problem solved. It doesn’t matter how we do it and the terms we use to describe it. In order to win the client, we need to be as straightforward and clear as possible, and make them feel relieved their problem will be solved according to their needs, so they can go on and worry about other things. We should try to make their lives as easier as possible.

On this note, is it really that important that the client knows the difference between a translation and an interpreting service? Will it really change your entire life to “teach” the client that you are an interpreter, not a translator, for Pete’s sake? In Portuguese, we have different terms for translation into our mother tongue and into our B language (the latter is called versão). Do my Brazilian clients need to know this difference?

Let’s leave our ego aside for a moment and take the focus off us and make it on the client.

First and foremost, we are the language experts – the main reason we should be the ones to speak our client’s language, not the opposite. Secondly, we will be the ones to handle their (written/spoken) words – another reason we should be the ones to speak their language, not the opposite. Thirdly, don’t you just love when, as a client, the service provider truly understands you and doesn’t vomit jargons you don’t understand?

Listen to your client, instead of focusing on “educating” them or “teaching” them. Try to truly understand their needs and talk to them in a language they understand. Do your homework and research more information about them to get to know them even further and understand their language and their world. Always remember the client is king/queen.

 

Greatest Women in Translation: Nicky Harman

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Welcome back to our interview series!

This month, I had the pleasure of e-meeting and getting to know a bit more about our first Chinese translator, Nicky Harman, nominated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Nicky Harman

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1. Your latest translated book is Happy Dreams, by Jia Pingwa, one of China’s most celebrated writers. What is it about?

It’s about a pair of migrant workers from a remote village outside Xi’an in China, who come to the big city to make their fortune. Happy Liu and his fellow-villager Wufu find a semi-derelict building to live in and settle into life as trash collectors. We follow them through a series of tragi-comic adventures, but when Happy falls in love, things get more serious: the woman, a prostitute in one of Xi’an’s ‘hair and beauty salons’, is arrested by the Vice Squad and sent to a rehabilitation centre; Happy and Wufu get work on a building site to earn the money to bail her out; Wufu dies and Happy tries to take his corpse back to their village, because the folk belief is that when the body is not returned for burial in his or her home village, the soul will never rest in peace. (This is not a plot-spoiler, the scene actually opens the novel.) Despite the grimness (being a trash-collector in China really is getting down and dirty), this novel is a joy to read. What makes it for me is the character of the eponymous Happy, an unlikely hero who is, by turns, pretentious (he is always ready with an aphorism or a homily), engaging, obnoxious, honest, devious, foul-mouthed and tender (to his best friend and to his lover). Think Charlie Chaplin, Chinese-style. I’m grateful to Amazon Crossing for taking a punt on this novel because, although Jia Pingwa is one of China’s most important living writers, his novels are hard to translate (full of dialect), so have not made much impact in the West. His writing is wonderful but many of his novels are set in the remote countryside where Jia himself grew up, and are long and complex, which is a combination hard to sell to publishers who can’t read the original.

2. I guess the differences between American and British English can be compared to the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese. I only translate into my native language, Brazilian Portuguese, and don’t dare venturing into the European one. How about you? Being British, do you translate into American English? If so, do you find it difficult?

You’ve absolutely put your finger on a key issue for me as a translator. I write British English, especially if it’s slang dialogue. That’s another reason why I’m grateful to Amazon Crossing – for having faith in me, and for giving me an editor who was sensitive enough to make useful suggestions when I had no idea how to make my British-sounding slang acceptable to American readers. That said, I feel a little sad that Happy Liu could never be ‘chuffed’, but always had to be ‘delighted’, or ‘satisfied’ or something similar. I think the characters’ voices come from deep inside me, as the translator, in fact, I imagine them as coming from my belly, and it’s difficult to restrain the tendency to use certain words when they seem to fit so perfectly the ‘voice’ as one hears it. But every translation is a process of negotiation and compromise, and my feeling, from readers’ reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, is that our combined efforts paid off.

3. Your next translation, due out in May 2018 is Our Story: A Memoir of Love and Life in China, by Rao Pingru. What was special about its translation?

I signed the contract, opened my working document to start the translation…and my heart sank! This author is extremely well-educated and the book is sprinkled with quotes from classical Chinese poetry, as well as references to history, to his Confucian-style upbringing (he’s now in his 90s), and to folk customs and local food. To say nothing of his war-time career, which required me to get a grip on military terminology. But within a few pages, I was entranced – Rao Pingru has the rare gift of telling his life story as if you and he were sitting in his living room and you were the only listener there. This is the only book I’ve ever done (and I’ve translated some pretty gut-wrenching stuff) where every time I arrived at the final pages as I went through first draft, successive drafts, and edits, I got a lump in my throat. He wrote it in grief after his beloved wife died, but it is full of affection and humour. The book is gorgeous to look at too, because Rao is a painter and there are colour illustrations on every page.

4. And you have another novel translation out in May, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, by Yan Ge?

Yes, that’s a record for me, two book-length translations out in the same month! I actually finished translating The Chilli Bean Paste Clan three years ago, but the route to publication was somewhat tortuous. (Hats off to Roh-Suan Tung, of Balestier Press, who took it on, and has given it a gorgeous cover too.) It’s completely unlike any other novel I’ve translated: a family drama that manages to be both warm and funny, barbed and irreverent, and highly profane. The novel is set in a (fictional) small Sichuan town in twenty-first century China, where Gran’s impending eightieth birthday celebrations are the trigger for growing tensions between the family’s middle-aged siblings. Events take an unexpected turn on the day itself, when secrets from everyone’s past are revealed, including that of the matriarch herself. Yan Ge started writing young adult fiction in her teens and is a well-established and prize-winning author. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan [《我们家》, My Family, in Chinese] was her first excursion into adult fiction, and it is an extraordinarily clever one. The challenges here for me were to express the family bonds and animosities with sufficient subtlety, and the dialect (again!), which Yan Ge herself says is highly local to the small town in which she grew up. In both these areas, she was extremely helpful in explaining things to me. I hope the book does well, because it’s hugely enjoyable. A sort of very wicked Chinese Jane Austen-style story.

5. I think you are our first Chinese translator interviewee! 😊 Why did you choose Chinese as your working language?

There was no contest, really. I do read and speak various European languages, but so do many other excellent translators, much better than me. My degree was in modern Chinese but for many years I let it drop and did other work and lived a completely different life. Then in the late 1980s, I came back to it and re-learnt it. A Chilean translator friend of mine suggested I should try translating because, he maintained, ‘There must be lots of work out there.’ That proved a little over-optimistic and my career as a translator started slowly. But I was instantly hooked on literary translation and I still am.

6. What are the challenges of translating from Chinese into English?

One huge challenge is that you are recreating in idiomatic English a text which in grammar and syntax is just about as far from English as it could possibly be. So the operative term here is ‘recreate’. But at the same time, you have to reproduce exactly what the author is saying as well as being sensitive to how s/he is saying it and the effect s/he is trying to achieve, all the usual considerations of literary translation from any language. So your English has to be extremely good. There’s no way you can follow the source language sentence word for word, you have to make something new, but it has to be an accurate and faithful representation of the original. Of course this applies to translation from any East Asian language, like Japanese, Korean and so on, because they’re all so different from English.

Then, of course, China is a big country and there’s a lot to learn with every book you translate. I think everything I’ve mentioned above just about sums it up: dialogue must sound natural, many writers use dialect, which you have to understand and find a way to express in English, and there are cultural and historical references which are instantly recognisable to the Chinese reader, but which are opaque to many western readers without some sort of a gloss. (Do not mention the word ‘footnote’! These are anathema to most editors nowadays.) Not that I’m complaining at all. I absolutely love this work.

7. What are you most proud of having achieved in your translating career?

My work on Paper-Republic.org is one thing. After all, the work doesn’t end when the translation is finished. I’m passionate about getting readers interested in Chinese fiction and luckily, among Chinese-to-English translators, I’m not alone in that: for the last ten years, I have been part of a core of volunteers on Paper Republic, which works to facilitate both literary and publishing connections between China and the rest of the world. We run online and offline events and publications aimed at raising the profile of Chinese literature among readers, students, editors and journalists. For readers, we provide complete short stories (in our ‘Read Paper Republic’ project) and novel excerpts, as well as public events with opportunities for reading and discussion. For students, translators, and educators, we provide translation-focused educational materials, and facilitate translation-related events and training. The Paper Republic website is also home to an extensive database of Chinese literature and its translation, helping visitors gain an overview of Chinese literature, and its various translations into English. In short, in many ways we have become an effective bridge between Chinese writers and their writing on the one hand, and English-language readers on the other.

With regard to my own translations, I often get involved in promotional work, especially when the author doesn’t speak English. I write blogs, do book launches, and talk at literary festivals. I absolutely love this aspect of translating too, I mean, who would want to sit in front of the computer all day every day, going boggle-eyed over even the best-written book? Not me, I need to get out and about too.

I also feel hugely privileged that I have been able to introduce such a wide variety of Chinese authors in English, and some have become personal friends, which is an added bonus. One area that we all need to work on, however, is a greater focus on Chinese women writers. I tallied up the gender balance in my translations, and it’s about even. But in our annual rollcall of translations from Chinese on Paper Republic, there is a preponderance of male authors, reflecting, one has to assume, men’s greater visibility in the literary world both east and west. Out of the 110 winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, only 13 have been women. Only a fifth of winners of China’s prestigious Mao Dun Prize have been women, which is a bit dismal because there are so many good female writers in China.

8. What’s the best way of learning more about Chinese fiction, for people who don’t know where to start?

Well, we run the Read Paper Republic project I mentioned above specifically for readers wanting to dip a toe in the waters of Chinese fiction. We began by publishing a complete short story (or essay or poem) every Thursday for a year. We have since added a couple more series of short stories and will continue to do so on an occasional basis. They are all still online – just click on the Read Paper Republic heading or logo on our home page. Of course, we’re not the only people posting Chinese short fiction online: Asymptote Journal and Words Without Borders post excellent work from Chinese, as well as other languages. If you want something longer and meatier, well, a visit to your local bookstore should produce a good novel. Or try googling for helpful lists such as the one produced by TimeOut Beijing, TheCultureTrip and The Wall Street Journal. I recently made up a list myself, for London’s China Exchange festival.  Interestingly, some of the same books and authors turn up on all four lists, which I think indicates growing recognition and appreciation of Chinese literature among English-language readers worldwide. And of course, those lists are only the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more out there. For instance, if you like scifi, then you are in for a treat, it’s one genre where Chinese writers have made a big impact. For instance, Liu Cixin, winner of the Galaxy Award and the Hugo Award, has half-a-dozen books in translation; and a number of Hao Jingfang’s short stories and novellas are available online in English. And martial arts, a great Chinese genre which hitherto has hardly been translated, has a gem just out in English, A Hero Born, by the inimitable and much-loved Jin Yong, (MacLehose Press, translated by Anna Holmwood). Dig in and enjoy!

9. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Anna Holmwood.

Are translators traitors or heroes?

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I do not like to romanticize our profession, saying, for example, that we have superpowers or the like. We do not. Our uniqueness and importance are the same as those of any other professional. Each one has their own relevance in their own areas. We have superpowers as much as doctors or teachers have: each one with their own value in their own area. We are not better than anyone.

However, I did come across a revelation these past few weeks – something I have not actually realized before – while translating product headlines of a major online retailer.

Have you ever bought anything from online retailers with English websites? Their product headlines and descriptions are horrendous, dreadful, hideous! They are a bunch of words bundled into a sentence with no connection whatsoever. And lots of mistakes. Argh!

Unfortunately, though, this is becoming increasingly common in English, in any field: contracts, business presentations, reports, etc. We are constantly faced with poorly-written texts to translate. I am sure you can totally relate with what I am saying, right?

My aim here is not to point fingers at anyone but to discuss our roles as translators. Do we transpose this horrible English into our own target languages? Never. Or at least we shouldn’t. I know I don’t. We try our best, sometimes working miracles, to understand the disastrous source and beautifully transform it into something – if not close to perfection – great in the target. After all, this is what we do. We craft fluent translations as if they were originally written in the target language, no matter how bad the source is.

And who gets all the credit for it? Most of the times, especially in technical translation, as is my case, the author, of course. We avoid misunderstandings, noises, and bad reputation. We facilitate communication not only by simply translating from one language to the other but also by improving the quality of the source.

Isn’t that beautiful? We praise ourselves for turning something ugly into something graceful. We love turning mistakes into clear sentences that flow easily. And I even dare say translations are usually way better texts than most of the original writings out there because our job is to perfect ourselves, day after day, translation after translation. Our job is to enable communication between languages and cultures, and to do so naturally.

So is the translator really a traitor? If anything, the translator definitely is the author’s best friend, godparent, carer – a trustworthy friend they can blindly count on whenever they have linguistic needs. If you have the right professional translator by your side, that is. 😉 If you do, make sure you cherish and value them because they are a rare find. If you don’t, it would be my greatest pleasure to help. 🙂 And if you are one: kudos to you and keep up the good work!

Guest post: Translator digital nomad

Last April, during the IAPTI Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I had the pleasure of meeting Rea Gutzwiller, already a connection on Twitter, in person, and spending some fun time together. And now I have the pleasure of welcoming her on the blog.

Welcome, Rea!

Snowbuddha in Harbin, China

Image provided by the author.

Taking off from your desk

We’re freelancers, right? So have you ever considered leaving you everyday view behind and take off to a new place every so often? You think this is crazy? Unfeasible even?

I’m with you. Before you’ll be able to fully enjoy your nomadic lifestyle, you’ll need to get a few basics in place. In this article I’ll be sharing the most important secrets I wish I had known before I started, so you can start fully prepared.

I admit, I’ve always been a bit of a free spirit, but at first – even after becoming a freelancer – it did not occur to me, that one could freelance and travel. Just about when I had fallen into a routine and started to get itchy feet, I stumbled across a few digital nomad blogs and thought: Wow, great, I want to go to those places too! And after I took off for China, to improve my Chinese, I didn’t stop.

What is probably most important of all is that you make up your mind. I can understand that on a cloudy, foggy winter’s day you’d rather be at a beach in Southeast Asia, but that doesn’t account for the real thing. Mind you: You will leave your house, your neighbourhood, your friends, your family, your pets, your hairdresser, the shopkeeper at the corner store and other people you have some sort of relationship with. They and mostly you will change. You will meet new people; you will live exciting experiences and scary or downright horrible things too. To give an example, I experienced one of the strongest typhoons hitting Xiamen in 50 years. There was no more water, electricity or any other supply where I lived for two weeks. These things don’t happen where I come from and if you don’t speak the language too well, horrible things can become even scarier pretty quicky. But if you’re prepared, things are mastered more easily. Ask yourself: Do I really want to become a nomad? Or do I want to live amazing things, but 80 or 90% of the time, I am quite happy where I am? You see, if you become a nomad, this isn’t just your regular holiday enhanced. This is a new lifestyle, where tomorrow is often unknown. Do you love routines? Are you okay with last minute changes?

If you think it’s scary, you can gradually start it. Try it out! A couple of months somewhere across the globe will help you decide whether you want to continue or you’re happy to go back home, wherever that is. But once you’ve tried it, you’ll realise that being on the road is not more costly and often even less expensive than renting your permanent place and going on holidays.

Secondly, remember, you can’t bring along too many things. Usually a suitcase and a daypack is the maximum. So you’ll need a base where you can leave your stuff for a while and where your snail mail will get picked up by somebody you trust and scanned for you to deal with. Also, you’ll want to go as digital as possible. I get often asked “but what about your books?” – well, frankly, I don’t have all that many books. I use digital books on a Kindle, PDFs, and dictionaries as software…

Going digital involves a performing laptop, phone and external hard drive. Once you’re fully location-independent, you’ll want to be able to do a lot on your phone. I’ve put together a list of the basics that you’ll find helpful for a fully digital office as a small giveaway from me.

The other thing I can’t stress enough is communication with your clients. Let them know about your plans, use newsletters as a means of keeping in touch with them and always let them know ahead of time when you’ll not be available. There’s Wi-Fi at most airports, Lufthansa even offers it high above the Atlantic and German ICE trains do too. But it might not be available. Think ahead, work ahead, plan ahead.

I think one of the things I actually enjoy the most when working in a different time zone is the quiet hours when the majority of my Europe-based clients have either left for the day or are not yet in the office. That way you get a few peaceful hours of work all while they will have that last minute evening job sit in their inbox the next morning. Tell them about this advantage, they might not have realised before! Set an automatic response when you’re asleep. It will spare you from waking up to 10 missed calls and 20 e-mails from the same person as to why you’re not replying. If you’re worried they’ll turn to other providers, remember, clients are humans. They want top service. They will not run away if you’re still delivering. Be confident!

At the beginning, I’d recommend you keep your actual travelling limited. Stay at a place for a bit longer, so you get to adapt to the new lifestyle and enjoy the experience. Plan enough time. If you’re on a workation, you’ll need to put in a few desk hours every day, which limits your visiting time. Hence, you need more time to enjoy the location. For all of us stable internet is important. Mind you, often these are not the most expensive, luxury places, but quite the opposite; think backpacker hostels and small pensions. For example, quite a few five star hotels still charge for internet, while I haven’t paid for Wi-Fi in a hostel in years. Many hostels nowadays offer private rooms, so if you don’t fancy sharing with 8 snoring party-goers, that’s totally okay! Never underestimate how important sleep is, which leads me to the next point:

Apart from work and play there are three things you should not leave aside on the road: eating healthily, regular exercise and good sleep.

If you follow these few tips, you’ll be able to enjoy your time on the road and work efficiently all while discovering exotic or historically interesting places!

About the author
ProfileRea Gutzwiller translates marketing and technical texts from French, English, Spanish and Italian into German. She has grown up in Switzerland and after graduating at the ETI in Geneva and a couple of years in-house started to travel the world as a nomad translator. She has visited over 20 countries in the last 6 years, which has grown her horizon in many ways and enhanced her world view greatly. Her first article on a nomad lifestyle in a series of four has recently been featured in the first edition of connections. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How to become the world’s most translated author

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Image provided by the author

Becoming the world’s most translated author is no easy feat. Many of those in UNESCO’s Index Translationum list of the top 20 most translated authors have held a place in the list for some years. Or decades. Or, in the case of William Shakespeare, centuries. But that doesn’t mean that the list isn’t open to new entrants. Danielle Steel and Stephen King are both within the top ten, giving hope to those still writing away in the hope of making it big enough to need to engage an army of professional translators to spread their novels around the world.

The Index Translationum reveals some interesting information about those whose works have been translated more than any other authors’ in the world. Here we drill down into the detail in search of the winning formula for becoming the world’s most translated author.

Clearly, being an incredibly talented writer is the most important element behind making it onto the Index Translationum list, but analysis of the other factors reveals some interesting results. When it comes to becoming one of the world’s most translated authors, less is definitely not more. All of those on the list are (or were) prolific writers. The most recent entrants have all written dozens of novels, with Danielle Steel being known for writing up to five novels at a time.

Language is also a key factor. Of the top 20 most translated authors, English was (or still is) the language used by nine of them. French comes next, with four authors writing in French, followed by Russian and German with two authors each.

Gender is also relevant. Of the top 20 authors, only six are female. While the literary world has become far less dominated by men – in particular over the last 50 or so years – there are still many countries where women are not encouraged not to become authors (or are forbidden from doing so altogether). Given these facts, that four of the top ten most translated authors are women is actually very encouraging. Men might still have the edge, but the ‘fairer sex’ is catching up fast.

Subject matter is the final important element when it comes to the criteria for making it onto UNCESCO’s list. Six of those in the top 20 wrote books for children, while five chose murder/mystery/suspense as their genre (including the author at the very top of the list, Agatha Christie). Other genres in the top 20 were as varied as religion, romance and politics.

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Image provided by the author

Based on these fascinating insights, it’s possible to identify the key characteristics of the winning formula for becoming the world’s most translated author. If you’re a man who’s writing dozens of murder/mystery fairy tales in English, you might just be in with a chance!

About the author
louLouise Taylor is a freelance writer who writes for the Tomedes Blog.

Greatest Women in Translation: Nicole Y. Adams

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month’s interviewee is the great Nicole Y. Adams, who was nominated by Sarah.

Welcome, Nicole!


Email: info@nyacommunications.com Website: www.nyacommunications.com

1. Your website describes you as an “award-winning German to English language professional”. Do you think that being granted an award or being a certified professional makes a great difference to the client when choosing a translator?

Being certified – absolutely. Having won an award is merely the icing on the cake. If I’m looking for a service provider, or even just a new restaurant to try out, I tend to feel reassured and be more confident that I’ll have a good experience with a business if it has won awards in the past. Although it’s certainly not the only criteria, I’ll be more likely to choose them. After all, they must be doing something right to have been awarded them!

Most of my business awards were based on votes and/or detailed feedback from my clients. It was very satisfying to learn that they were so delighted with my services, and winning the awards certainly motivated me to keep going and do even better. I’m also very proud of my nomination for the 2013 AUSIT Excellence Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Translation & Interpreting Industry’, although I didn’t win. To be recognised by peers was a truly humbling experience.

Back to certification: Although there are, of course, examples of highly successful colleagues who deliver excellent work without being certified, I believe that a professional should ideally have some accreditation or certification in the service they’re offering. In my case, I’d already translated part-time for a couple of years when I decided to become a certified translator to make it ‘official’ (which meant flying to Germany to take the state exam as an external candidate – I wanted to obtain a German qualification first, as all my clients are based in Germany and Switzerland). I wouldn’t have felt comfortable offering professional translation services without having a piece of paper showing I’m qualified to do so. In an unregulated profession such as ours, I feel that’s the least we can do to reassure clients and demonstrate professionalism.

2. You have quite a wide list of remarkable marketing and business qualifications! How important do you think it is for a translator to take courses in order to specialize in a certain area?

To be honest, I just love learning. The courses and qualifications I’ve listed on my website are only a small fraction of what I’ve completed and obtained. I also have a number of qualifications in subjects unrelated to my areas of specialisation, taken purely out of personal interest and ranging from airport operations to nutrition. ☺ In terms of my areas of specialisation, I like to know what my clients are talking about and stay on top of the latest jargon, which is why I regularly participate in relevant courses. With the range of free and low-cost online courses out there these days (just think MOOC!), there’s no excuse for anyone not to take courses to keep abreast of current developments in their specialist fields, or simply to brush up their general knowledge. A couple of years ago, I completed ‘An Introduction to Marketing’ by the Wharton School of Business via Coursera, and although it was classed as an introduction, I found it very interesting and certainly learned a new thing or two. It’s probably not ideal to complete a degree in a certain subject area and then work as a specialist translator in that area for the next 30 years without ever engaging in any further professional development in that field.

3. You are a member of incredibly 12 associations! Well, I’m guessing you are an advocate of professional associations. Why do you think it is important to be a member of professional associations? And in which grounds should a translator choose the associations they can be a member of?

Is it really that many? I must admit, I’ve never counted them! ☺ Call me crazy, but I’m actually just about to join another one that I’ve been considering for a while.

For me, there are a number of criteria for deciding to join a professional association. First of all,

it’s a given to join the translators’ association in your country of residence to meet and network with local colleagues and stay informed about the state of the industry on your home turf.

In my case, this is purely out of interest, as I don’t work in the Australian market at all.

Next, I like to be a member of translator associations in the countries of both my source and target languages. It is amazing how different these associations are, and what different advantages they offer translators (or not, as it may be). Being a member of the BDÜ, CIOL and ATA, for example, gives me insights into the different approaches to the profession in each country, which is extremely interesting. I also subscribe to the paper versions of all associations’ magazines, and I love reading them to relax at the end of a working day – although, being in Australia, I usually only get them about a month after they’re published! 😉

Thirdly, it’s a must for me to be a member of at least one association in my areas of specialisation, where I can network with (potential) clients and stay informed about what’s going on in my clients’ industries. These associations also usually offer courses or webinars with discounts for members. I particularly enjoy the courses offered by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, where the prices for members and non-members differ hugely.

Finally, there’s being listed in professional member directories. I see being listed in such directories as a pleasant side effect, but by no means the main criteria for joining an association. Yes, I am sometimes contacted by potential clients who found me in an association directory, but the frequency of these enquiries is not the main reason I’d join or leave an association.

4. You have a great deal of positive testimonials on your website, but one quality in particular called my attention: reliability. It is probably the most mentioned one. Why do you think is this such a key skill to have as a translator today?

This is a great question, and I’m glad you are asking it! I’ve always considered it a given that reliability is non-negotiable. Informing the client you’ll deliver late at the last minute or not responding to enquiries promptly are just not an option. To most professional translators, these things are a matter of course – at least that’s what I had always thought until more and more clients told me how pleased they were that I’m ‘so reliable’ as that wasn’t the experience they had had with other translators.

I still couldn’t quite believe it, until a small (two-person) agency I used to work with regularly many years ago asked me to become their preferred translator for a certain end client. I knew that their regular translator always delivered outstanding quality work, so I was more than a little surprised why he wasn’t working for the client any longer. When I enquired, they told me that although he delivered superb quality, they could never be 100% sure whether he’d deliver on time, and often they couldn’t reach him when they needed to follow up on something. So a lack of reliability was his downfall. That was a real wake-up call for me and clearly demonstrated how highly clients value reliability.

We’re not ‘just translating’. We need to offer a full package, and that includes customer service and, of course, reliability.

Clients need to know they will get a text when we say they’ll get it. They have enough on their plate and need to be able to relax without having to worry about the reliability of their translation partner. Reliability is also a sign of respect in a successful business partnership. (By the same token, I expect to be able to rely on timely payments!)

5. One of the questions you ask on your A to Z of Freelance Translation course is “Do you have what it takes right now to be self-employed?” What does it take to be self-employed? Can’t simply anyone work as a freelancer?

Well, certainly anyone can work as a freelancer, but not everyone will be successful. ☺

As most of us know, working as a self-employed freelance translator requires a certain mindset. It’s essential to be versatile, flexible, adaptable and to never stop learning. Freelance life is not predictable and we need a huge amount of self-discipline and, most of all, resourcefulness to deal with unexpected issues (from power cuts to hard disk failures to clients going bankrupt).

I’d also say it’s important to never be afraid to ask questions of peers and more experienced colleagues. Many people shy away from this, which can hold them back.

So, being able to produce great-sounding translations is wonderful (and should be a given), but by no means all that is needed to be successfully self-employed. At the start of The A to Z of Freelance Translation course, which you mention, participants take a test to ascertain whether or not they’re in the right place to commence self-employment, or whether they should consider another path.

If you don’t have the right resources and mindset, no amount of training will help you succeed – it has to come from within you.

My own freelance journey has certainly been a crazy ride, and I’m pretty sure this career path is not for everyone. When I first started out (or rather, when I happened to stumble upon translation as a professional career by chance ;-)), I was a complete novice and had to learn everything from scratch without any help, from pricing to what a CAT tool was. I needed to be very resourceful and did a lot of research, and I even joined a large London-based language services provider as a project manager for a few months to learn how things work from the other side of the table. Fast forward a few years, things were going well and I had the glorious idea of starting my own agency, with a new company name and website. But I quickly realised that outsourcing and being on the administrative side really wasn’t my thing, so the idea was swiftly shot down again. Today I only ever outsource work to a trusted couple of colleagues when my working hours are limited due to school holidays or my children being sick.

Speaking of children, when my boys were born, my husband turned stay-at-home-dad for almost four years, making me the only breadwinner. In hindsight, this created quite a lot of pressure, which many freelancers may not expect or may not enjoy. You should be prepared for this kind of financial pressure, in case your partner, for example, can’t work for a while, or your children get sick and you have to cut down your own working hours.

Next in my freelance lifecycle came what I call my experimental phase. I’d started mentoring new colleagues a few years before and thought I’d venture into coaching – and even completed a certificate in business coaching and mentoring! However, I only ever coached one client for exactly one session before realising that it’s not my cup of tea and that I wasn’t comfortable charging people for sharing my experiences in one-on-one relationships. I generally prefer to work alone and from the comfort of my home office – one reason why freelance translation suits me down to a T. So I’d say as a freelancer

it’s also key not to get sidetracked but to remain focused on what you enjoy doing.

Today, I still work solely as a freelance translator, and I couldn’t be happier. Putting together Diversification in the Language Industry – a snapshot of how colleagues have chosen to diversify and offer additional services beyond translation proper – in 2013 made me realise that I enjoy translating more than anything else, and that I personally have no desire to diversify into other areas. I’m glad I got all those distractions out of my system and can focus 100% on my clients. My final advice to fellow freelancers is:

do what feels right to you and don’t ever go down a path you’re not comfortable with because others think it’s a good idea or simply because the opportunity arises – just say no! 😉

6. You are one of the few translators who state the prices you charge on your website. Why do you prefer to do so? Do you think that makes a difference to the client?

Interesting question, Caroline. First of all, I should say that I’m quite lucky that most of my clients are either personal contacts I’ve made in-house or through networking, or direct referrals by existing customers, so most of my business comes from word-of-mouth and I don’t primarily rely on my website to attract new clients.

In general, I usually charge a flat rate per project and don’t give clients a per-word price in either quote or invoice. I also state this on my website, but give them a rough guide as to the price range they can expect (which is based on per-word ranges for information only). This is mainly because I hate wasting time, both as a consumer and as a service provider. Clients with price expectations that are wildly different from mine are kept at bay (except for the ones who fail to check the prices before getting in touch!), saving everyone a lot of time wasted on fruitless negotiations and multiple email exchanges. Serious clients obviously still ask for a custom offer, but at least they already have an idea of what to expect.

Putting my consumer hat on for a minute, I can safely say that if I want to hire a professional service provider, say, a web designer or typesetter, I always look for a pricing page on their website. Often, I’ll choose to contact a provider who displays prices (or at least a rough price guideline) over one who doesn’t, simply because it saves me the hassle of having to contact them especially to enquire about prices. Keeping it simple and providing as much information as possible works best for me! On my website, I also refer to the Australian Society of Authors’ (of which I’m a member) price guidelines, which reassures more sceptical clients that I’m not just pulling numbers out of thin air, but that there’s some justification behind them. It also reminds them that they’re hiring a certified professional who is backed by a professional association (which brings us back to your earlier question).

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next interviewee!

First of all, thanks to Sarah for nominating me, and to you Caroline, for hosting this interesting series! ☺ (And I second Sarah’s invitation to come and visit us in sunny Queensland!)

I’d like to nominate our lovely colleague Giselle Chaumien on the other side of the world in Germany. Giselle is always more than happy to share her wealth of experience with peers, both on social media and through her blog (in German), and is a great role model for new and experienced translators alike. And her office companion, Filou, is just too cute ! 😉


Wow! I loved your answers, Nicole! Even though I handed the questions last minute and you were not working as usual the last few weeks, as it seems, you managed to answer my questions in a very thorough and thoughtful manner. I really really appreciate that! 😀

I especially loved some parts so much that I took the liberty to highlight them on the text.

You can reach Nicole via email (info@nyacommunications.com) or her website.

I’ve already reached Giselle, and she has kindly and promptly accepted Nicole’s nomination. Stay tuned, because Giselle’s interview will also be amazing! 😉 I already have interesting and thought-provoking questions coming up my mind.

Guest post: Common misconceptions about translators

Welcome back to our guest series! If you are from Brazil, you must be enjoying our Carnival holiday somehow. How about relaxing and reading the contribution of today’s guest? If you’re not enjoying it in Rio or in Salvador, that is, in which case you must have more interesting things to do. I don’t blame you. Just bookmark it for later. 😉

Our guest today is Emeline Jamoul, a translator from Belgium.

Welcome, Emeline!

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Reclaiming the truth about our profession

It’s a universal truth that freelance translators are misunderstood creatures. Yes, translators have been around for thousands of years and we are probably doing one of the oldest jobs on earth, but that doesn’t mean that people are aware of our existence and purpose. If you’ve ever told someone what your job was, I’m sure you have faced a couple of answers worth their weight in gold. People always assume certain things about your career choices: either you are working as a freelancer because you are scared of the real world (hey, we have responsibilities too!) or because you happen to be bilingual.

I have been a freelance translator for 1 year and a half now, and in 18 months, the number of ridiculous comments I have heard regarding my job has done nothing but increase. Here are some of them, which I’m sure most of you must have heard too!

  1. We only translate novels
    To the eyes of common people, translators can only translate one type of material: novels. When I went to my doctor’s office last year, she asked me what I was doing now that I had graduated. When I told her I had become a freelance translator, she looked at me in awe and asked which novels I had translated. I had to disappoint her though – most translators don’t have the luxury to translate literature on a day-to-day basis even if that’s the dream of many!
  2. Translators and interpreters are the same thing
    We all cringe when we hear that someone is looking for a professional to “translate” one of their meetings. Blasphemy!
  3. “Okay but… what is your real job?”
    Because of course, working from home (in our PJs) is too good to be true. 🙂
  4. “You’ll only translate user guides.”
    One of my high school teachers told me that one. I still remember that day in class when we were all asked what we wanted to become when we were grown-ups – I was hesitating between journalist, translator or teacher. You can all imagine how naïve I must have been at the age of 13 – gullible enough to believe her when she told me that I would either translate user guides for the rest of my life or…
  5. “Work at the European Union”
    But this of course, was the job of a very select few. Okay, I’ll admit that she wasn’t too far from the truth on this one. But what about translating marketing documents? What about interpreting in hospitals? And translating international contracts? There is more to translating than user manuals and interpreting European affairs!
  6. “Working from home is really not the same as working in an office.” (to be read that with a condescending tone)
    No, in fact, it is much better. 🙂

And the list goes on and on. But what can we do about these common misconceptions about our job? If you look at the comments I have listed here, all of them stem from the same problem: ignorance about our profession. It is also our responsibilities to raise awareness about what it is really like to work as a freelance translator.

We should remind ourselves that many people are actually curious about what we do, and that it’s not so bad. Whenever I see question marks on my interlocutor’s faces, I make a point of elaborating, instead of saying “I just translate English texts into French.” I’m usually asked what and who I translate for, which clearly shows that most people don’t have any idea how and why translation is used. What better opportunity than to give a good (and accurate) first impression of our wonderful profession?

What about you, dear readers, which type of comments regarding your job have you faced so far?

Thank you for your kindly contribution to our blog, Emeline! 🙂 It’s a pleasure to host you here.

People indeed don’t quite understand what we do. They don’t understand the translation part neither the freelance part. It’s quite difficult to try to make them believe we don’t actually work on our PJs (I tried last Saturday to family – who should already be used to it – but it didn’t work). :/

About the author
portraitsmallerEmeline Jamoul is a passionate English and Spanish into French translator. She mainly specializes in marketing, business and health. A self-confessed multitasker, Emeline is addicted to social media and has a soft post for African-American literature. You can contact her through her website or on Twitter.

Guest post: Blogging for translators

Hi, dear readers! Hope your beginning of the year is as productive and full of great news as mine. So much so that I’m even struggling to find the time to blog! So sorry for not writing last week’s weekly post! 😦 Let’s keep our fingers crossed I can find the time to write this week’s.

Meanwhile, luckly, we have our lovely guests who never let us down. Aren’t I lucky to have them? 😀

Today’s guest, Else Gellinek, will talk about blogging for other translators.

Welcome, Else!

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Why blogging for other translators can be worth your while

To blog or not to blog?

For some years now, word on the street has been that blogging is a marketing and SEO must for solopreneurs. So I began blogging. At first I thought I had to blog for potential clients. Don’t get me wrong: If that’s the target audience for your blog, that’s wonderful. It just wasn’t really my conversation. I gravitated towards topics more of interest to other translators. Unfortunately, translators are often criticized for keeping to themselves on social media and blogging for each other instead of connecting with clients. I don’t see why you have to choose between the two. Neither am I convinced that blogging for our peers is a lesser option – unless you view blogging solely as a means of generating leads.

Reasons to blog for other translators

My blog – my rules

In her Pillar Box article Don’t blog, just write, Karen Tkaczyk explains why she thinks that we shouldn’t blog just because everyone else is. Indeed, if you don’t feel that you have anything to tell the world, then there really is no reason to blog. Nobody wants to read listless posts written from a dull sense of commitment. Instead, Karen says we should add to forum discussions or write for the bulletins published by translator associations, I think that’s a great idea.

But: Other people’s houses, other people’s rules. On my blog, I am the creator and initiator of content. I decide what I want to write about, how I want to write it and what I regard as valuable information. Excellent translator blogs covering many angles of our diverse profession abound. They could never all fit into existing channels and I don’t think that they have to. On the contrary, they complement the established platforms.

Easy access to information

Translators are spread all over the world. Blogs are one way of keeping up a conversation that is not confined to translator associations or other membership-only clubs. We’re always complaining about translators driving down prices or acting unethically. Establishing a public, easily accessible dialog on translation issues can provide information and thinking points for those who need it most. A simple Google search will turn up a wealth of resources provided by dedicated peers. If this information were communicated in specialized forums, mailing lists or similar channels, it would effectively be hidden from the public eye. Many blogs also feature carefully curated blogrolls and resource lists that point translators to the more specialized channels.

Keeping up the conversation with our peers

Freelancers can easily slip into isolation. Online conversation keeps us connected and in the loop. Sure, we can attend local networking events and conferences or use other forms of social media. But we can also read blogs, which are less ephemeral than Twitter conversations or mailing lists, thus transcending differences in work schedules and time zones. Tuning in at a later time won’t necessarily mean that you missed the chance to chime in.

Adding to the conversation with our peers

Blogging nourishes my introvert soul. It’s public but delivered in a fashion that feels private. For me, blogging has been the best way of tentatively testing the waters of public discussion. Some can show and share their expertise by offering training sessions or webinars, others will enrich forums and mailing lists with what they know and yet others will choose to blog.

Blogging also allows me to take my time before commenting on issues. Discussions in forums or Facebook groups flit by and dart back and forth. Writing a blog post at my own pace affords me the luxury of thinking everything through before committing my thoughts to writing and publishing them. There has been many a time when my initial take on a subject changed due to other people’s thoughts or simply after a good night’s sleep. The slower pace of blogging can protect us from the trigger-happy judgments encouraged by faster forms of communication.

Sharing your view of the world

Finding new topics to post about takes me from the sidelines of the translation community and offers me opportunities to add my voice. We all have a unique take on issues and that is reason enough to be worth listening to – whether an expert or not. Something caught your eye that no one else has noticed yet? By all means, share it with us.

Translators blog about professional development, CAT tools, social media, marketing, cultural issues, associations, good and bad experiences and their personal situations. Their blogs are lighthearted, solemn, scholarly, sarcastic and sometimes angry. Some will share their thoughts through other channels, but these channels may be unknown to me. Were it not for their blogs, I would never have heard what many translators have to say.

Finding clients

Lately, other translators have asked me whether blogging has paid off – and by that they mean financially. A number of direct clients have actually told me that my blog made a good impression when they were initially researching my services. Good stuff, right? I’ve also met a number of other translators through my blog who have referred clients to me.

I’ll add a caveat: If your blog exists primarily to get you clients, then blogging for other translators is probably less effective than targeting paying customers. Of course, for translators who offer marketing services or professional development for other translators, blogging for translators IS blogging for clients. For the rest of us, blogging won’t replace other marketing efforts.

Should you blog?

If you feel you have something to say, then go ahead and blog. It’s a low-cost, low-threshold way of letting the world know you exist. Blog the way that feels right to you and find the readers that are right for you (what Simon Berrill concluded in his post on blogging). If blogging doesn’t feel right for you, then don’t blog or stop blogging (Keep reading blogs, though!). There are other ways to join in and you can pick and choose what suits your personality and expectations. And we all benefit from a wealth of channels offering us information and inviting us to be part ofthe conversation.

Thank you, Else, for accepting my invitation and kindly taking the time to write to our blog. I totally agree with you on your opinion about blogging for translators. I’m one of those bloggers and just love doing it. Being able to help colleagues somehow is just rewarding and totally worth it.

What’s your take on the subject?

About the author
Profilbild Else GellinekElse Gellinek ist a certified German to English translator specializing in marketing and corporate communication. She is based in a smallish German town and has been providing full-time freelance translation and editing services since 2013. She holds an M.A in theoretical linguistics and was a bookdealer in her previous life.  When she isn’t translating, she blogs at Sprachrausch Blog and is active on social media. You can find her on Twitter (@Else_Gellinek ) and Google+.

Guest post: Fernando Pessoa translator

Are you ready for another lovely guest post? Today, I’ll keep a bit of a secret and will not introduce our guest. Read on and you’ll find out who she is at the end. 😉

Welcome, my dear secret guest!

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Fernando Pessoa: Portuguese writer, poet, literary critic and… freelance commercial translator

When Caroline asked me to write something for her blog, I was happy but also a bit undecided. What could I write for her blog? I needed something that would resonate with her readers. Definitely not the kind of things I blog about… J It had to be good, serious, interesting and relevant to the blog of a talented young lady translating to Brazilian Portuguese.  And then it struck me. It had to be about a writer that has always intrigued me: Fernando Pessoa. Considering that the 30th of November marks 79 years from his death and we are in November now, I told Caroline I would write about Pessoa.

Fernando Pessoa, one of the world’s most significant literary figures, a writer, poet and critic, was born in South Africa on the 13th of June, 1888 and died on the 30th of November, 1935.

Do you know him?

I am sure you do.

But do you know he was also a translator?

Okay, many writers translate. It’s in the nature of translation. Translators write. Translation is the par excellent conduit to writing.

But, as I did some googling around to see any interesting facts about Pessoa, I stepped on an article about a slogan… yes, a slogan, he wrote for Coca-Cola!

And at that moment I was sure this was the topic I would write for Caroline.

So, let’s take a gander at some facts about him as a person and a writer that I think could resonate with most translators and, of course, writers.

  1. Pessoa was trilingual. He spoke Portuguese, English and French. According to Wikipedia he translated from English and French.
  2. He was raised in South Africa and moved to Lisbon, Portugal when he was 17.
  3. While attending the Durban Commercial School, he started writing short stories in English, some under the name of David Merrick, many of which he left unfinished.
  4. Pessoa used pen names from an early age. He later called them heteronyms instead of pseudonyms. Besides his own name, he made up round about 72 more!
  5. In a letter to a schoolfellow Pessoa complained of “spiritual and material encumbrances of most especial adverseness.”
  6. Pessoa was a loner and he was fearlessly communicating this through his writing. I have been considering Pessoa to be an extreme pessimist but it depends on how you want to look at it and on whether you are a pessimist or an optimist yourself. This is one of the things that strike you evident in his writings and his choice to create characters and heteronyms.
  7. The same schoolfellow writes that Pessoa “took no part in athletic sports of any kind and I think his spare time was spent on reading. We generally considered that he worked far too much and that he would ruin his health by so doing.”
  8. A turn of events forced him to drop his studies and following his return to Lisbon at the age of 17, he complemented his British education with Portuguese culture, as an autodidact.
  9. In 1909, he set up his own publishing house, the «Empreza Ibis», with money he inherited from his grandmother. His business closed down one year later.
  10. Along with other artists and poets, he created the literary magazine Orpheu. He also founded the «Art Journal» Athena (1924–25).
  11. Pessoa worked as a freelance commercial translator but he was also a writer and a literary critic, contributing to journals and magazines.
  12. He never left Lisbon since the day he moved there. He wrote a poem “Lisbon Revisited” (1923 and 1926), by his heteronym Álvaro de Campos.
  13. After his family left Pretoria to come to Portugal, Pessoa found himself moving from one rented place to another because of financial troubles and the troubles of the young Portuguese republic.
  14. Bernardo Soares, one of his heteronyms supposedly lived in a world that Pessoa knew quite well due to his long career as freelance correspondence translator. From 1907 until his death in 1935, Pessoa actually worked in twenty one firms located in Lisbon’s downtown, sometimes in two or three of them simultaneously.
  15. “The Book of Disquiet” (Livro do Desassossego: Composto por Bernardo Soares, ajudante de guarda-livros na cidade de Lisboa) is perhaps the most famous book by Pessoa and a best-seller. It was published 47 years after Pessoa’s death. Pessoa was 47 years old when he died. His book was signed under Pessoa’s semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares and it includes a preface by Fernando Pessoa. “The book of Disquiet” is a fragmentary lifetime project and according to Pessoa a “factless autobiography”. Pessoa never edited his book.
  16. According to an article from The New York Times from 2008 Pessoa “remains one of the trickiest and most voluminous legacies among the great writers of the modern era.”
  17. The vast majority of Pessoa’s papers belong to the National Library. The remainder, some 2,700, to the heirs.
  18. Eduardo Lourenço, Portuguese literary critic, said that Pessoa “had a way of being that is distinctly Portuguese… It has to do with everything and nothing — that we Portuguese can have everything, but still feel we have nothing.”
  19. According to Lourenço, Pessoa is “the most tragic of the Portuguese poets…the pleasure of unhappiness is particularly Portuguese.”
  20. His surname in Portuguese means both “person” and “people”.
  21. Pessoa wrote a slogan for Coca-Cola (true!) which had a bad fate. When Coca-Cola decided to launch in Portugal, they asked a company who had exclusive rights to import products from the USA. It so happened that future poet and writer Fernando Pessoa worked in that firm as a translator. The slogan he wrote was “Primeiro estranha-se, depois entranha-se” which would translate to First it amazes you, then it gets into your veins. Pessoa’s slogan was not welcome and had a similar fate to Coca-Cola who eventually didn’t launch in Portugal during that time. This “slogan” story was never revealed until 1992 when a heir of the Portuguese firm where Pessoa worked talked about it during an interview. Pessoa actually risked to be fired because of his slogan (according to this article – in Italian). 

His introversion, solitude, narcissism and inclination to avoid all action and the futility of this world should not be taken heavily. The “Book of Disquiet” is so personal that people who find themselves feel even remotely like Soares might sulk into a psychological state that reverberates that way of thinking.

For this reason, I highly recommend to read this article here. It’s about a writer who gives a very beautiful account on his life through his experience as a reader of this book.

Whatever one might say about this book, I prefer to see beyond it and towards the man who wrote it. A translator, poet and writer, someone who was raised in South Africa but who spent most of his life in Lisbon, an introvert (I’d keep that), a mysterious personality (is Soares really Pessoa?) and Portugal’s most famous modernist poet.

Pessoa’s writings are a reflection of the human soul in its most bare nature. Pessoa is true. He is not lying. Even if he spoke through the voice of the 75 or so characters he invented.

To conclude this rather long post, here are some of his quotes that I find powerful.

No intelligent idea can gain general acceptance unless some stupidity is mixed in with it.

There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.

I’ve always rejected being understood. To be understood is to prostitute oneself. I prefer to be taken seriously for what I’m not, remaining humanly unknown, with naturalness and all due respect.

We never love anyone. What we love is the idea we have of someone. It’s our own concept—our own selves—that we love.

In order to understand, I destroyed myself.

At this point, and after reading the last quote which brings to mind that translators are always trying to “understand” things and often stay up all night translating nonstop, I wonder to what extent did Pessoa’s career as a translator influenced his writing… I fear it kind of did but it’s time to call it a night. See?

Thank you, Caroline.

P.S.: To write this post I used Wikipedia, this article here from the New York Times and this one here from Il Post in Italian.

Thank you, Magda, for kindly accepting my invitation and for taking the time to research and write such an interesting post!

Did you know Fernando Pessoa was also a translator? Would you like to add anything to Magda’s words?

About the author
F5Dv6eTrMagda Phili lives in Italy and works as a freelance translator. She loves writing, creating slogans, coffee, the mountains and the Greek islands. She can be found at her blog and on Twitter.