Translation Tip #1: Talk to more than one translator

Summary: you have options, and your selection of translator matters.

Literary translators don’t exactly grow on trees. However, at least in my main combination, Finnish to English, there are now options. As a result of a number of factors, most importantly perhaps the work of FILI Finnish Literature Exchange, there are now perhaps a half-dozen translators working at least part-time doing Finnish literary translation into English. If we think more broadly, including non-fiction as well as fiction, the number climbs to ten or fifteen.

However, this is a new enough development that many translation clients are still unaware of their options, or in the worst case scenario, don’t believe the selection of a translator really matters.

Literary translation is a creative process similar to the writing of an original work. There are differences of course, since the starting point is an existing work rather than the writer’s imagination, but in terms of the editorial and publication process, life is much easier if we just think of the translator as a co-author who is rewriting the original work. The translated work is a new creation. So, if we’re thinking of the translator as a co-author, it’s pretty obvious that it matters who the translator is. You wouldn’t hire just anyone to be your co-author. For that matter, you wouldn’t even hire just anyone to be your editor or proofreader.

Which brings me to one of the scourges of the translation world: the phrase “native speaker”. There are approximately 375 million native speakers of English in the world. How many of them are competent to edit a work of fiction by a major author? How many of them can even write a professional document? Not many. As a former college instructor, I can attest that being a “native speaker” doesn’t count for much when it comes to the ability to write well. Even within the translation industry (not just literary translation–all translation) there are plenty of native English speakers who I wouldn’t let touch a document I really cared about. Everybody makes mistakes, and no one is the God of Perfect Grammar, but that doesn’t mean anyone should settle for substandard work. Everyone needs an editor and a proofreader, but the editor shouldn’t have to rewrite the whole dang thing.

So how do you choose a translator? The same way you choose anyone else you need to work for you: interview, ask for references, and look at their prior work (actually look at it, don’t just accept that because it was published it must be good). If you’re offering a major project, like a book translation, ask for short sample translations (just 2 or 3 pages) from two or three translators. Longer samples than that you have to pay for, but a few pages isn’t a big investment for the translator.

But wait, you say, I’m not an English language professional myself; I’m not even a native speaker. How can I tell which translator is better for my project?

A non-native who regularly reads English language literature will be able to discern major problems with a translator’s work; however, if you’re serious about your translation project, you need more help.

Next up: Translation Tip #2: Hire a professional English proofreader.

The Oven / Uuni

The Oven by Antti Hyry

Winner of the 2009 Finlandia Prize for Literature.

A man builds a brick oven and ponders life. Events come and go, the bricks rise and remain. “He started to remember a model, an oven in the Hökkä’s cabin. It was nearly a meter high on the interior, of arching bricks, with an outlet for the flames in the back corner. The vents came forward at the top and then down the sides and then turned at the bottom toward the back wall and then from the back to meet in the middle of the oven and the current rose at the centre of the top of the oven, coming forward into the chimney that led from the brow of the oven
up to the roof.”

Summer comes. Although the oven is finished, the building continues. It’s about life, its continuation, permanence and transience. About the grasp of life that comes from doing.

Award-winning author Antti Hyry, one of our most esteemed writers, published his breakthrough novel, He Started from the Highway, in 1958. His 1999 The Granary was a nominee for the Finlandia Prize.

The Oven is Hyry’s tenth novel.

Antti Hyry’s texts have been published in thirteen languages, by Hinstorff
(Germany) and Bonniers (Sweden), among others.

(From the Otava Rights Guide)

From FILI:

In Hyry’s novel, the reader’s interest is not directed to a plot or character portraits. There are no dramatic turning points in this description of the construction of a baking oven. On the surface, Hyry’s writing is reminiscent of the kinds of modernists who build their texts on simple perceptions of the world of objects in order to emphasize incompleteness in their sketches of the world. Instead, the person in Hyry’s book is taking concrete steps to establish a home in the world. His tasks gain their significance from the meaningful places of life in its entirety. This portrait of everyday life thus opens out into a cosmos where the central character is living the life he was meant to live.

Sample Extract of The Oven/Uuni in English (PDF)