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Literary Translation

Clifford E. Landers

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To purchase Literary Translation

Title: Literary Translation
Author: Clifford E. Landers
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 214 pages
Availability: Literary Translation - US
Literary Translation - UK
Literary Translation - Canada
  • A Practical Guide

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Our Assessment:

B : decent overview, addressing many of the significant issues

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Literary Translation is described as A Practical Guide, with Clifford E. Landers offering everything from an introduction of the 'so-you-want-to-be-a-literary-translator' sort to addressing a variety of language issues that translators are likely to encounter to submission, contract, and tax advice. It makes for a very mixed bag, and while there are certainly points of likely interest and use to professional translators, ironically the book might actually be most useful for readers of translations, helping make them aware of many of the problems that arise when translating any text.
       Landers adopts a very light, occasionally almost glib tone. He has strong opinions about certain aspects of translating, i.e. that regarding certain things there is only one right way to go about it, and while he is often correct (at least to our minds) he does not adequately note that not everyone agrees -- so, for example, that a translator read the source text in its entirety before beginning a translation (this would seem like a no-brainer, but is, in fact, not practised universally -- quite a few translators are on record as preferring to tackle a text as it comes, at least for the first go-round).
       Because this is also, in part, a vocational guide, Landers devotes considerable space to the professional aspect of literary translating, noting how poorly paid it is and that: "if you're in literary translation for the money, you picked the wrong field" -- an irritating oversimplification that ignores the fact that some people simply feel that, given their talents, background, and the possible alternatives, translation is, in fact, the best way for them to earn money (much as it's ridiculous to tell people who are, say, waiting tables that, if they're in it for the money they've picked the wrong field ...). Landers also feels obliged to expound on the economics, making a hash of that as well:

No exception to the law of supply and demand, literary translation is under-paid because so many are willing to do it for sheer pleasure.
       Or there's the suggestion that:
If you're fortunate enough to be a native speaker of English who also knows Bulgarian, say, or Bengali, it's safe to assume you don't have too many competitors in the literary translation field.
       Competitors ? First off, Bengali is obviously a poor choice, since the 'competition' in India (where most of the literary translation from Bengali into English occurs) is obviously pretty high. More significantly: try convincing any American publisher to publish a book originally written in Bulgarian or Bengali ..... The number that appear is in the very low single digits annually. Admittedly, you have a better chance with stories and excerpts (which Landers pushes strongly as the way to break into the business) -- and with the 'exotics' poetry is obviously a major avenue; prose-man Landers, however, almost entirely avoids discussion of the translation of poetry (which does, admittedly, bring with it many other problems).
       The 'business' of translation is truly bizarre, but 'supply and demand' is only the tip of the iceberg. If it were in any way an industry where the concern was with putting out the best product, not just a product, there would be competitive bids for translations; as is, most deals are struck based on reputation and, at best, a brief sample translation; only in a very few cases do publishers get sample translations from several translators and actually do something like try to select the best person for the job. Publishers' indifference to actual quality extends much further, too: it's still far too common practise to translate second-hand -- Márai Sándor's Embers was translated from the German translation of the Hungarian original, and every year translations from 'obscure' languages continue to arrive second-hand. Even when the big bucks roll in, as with Stanislaw Lem's classic Solaris, the publishers can't be bothered to commission a new translation that is directly from the original Polish (the available one is from the French translation). (Second-hand translation is something that Landers does not address at all, a curious omission, given how widespread the practise still is.)
       The equation for who gets commissioned to translate what is considerably more complicated (and arbitrary) than supply v. demand. Publishers do seek out translators with a track record or professional reputations, rather than just farm it out to the cheapest available translator (readily found, one assumes, in the pile of those in it for the "sheer pleasure" of translating ...); unfortunately, quality control tends to be hit and miss (or rather: largely ignored), with even reputable and well-known translators delivering (and publishers, who have invested the money and are loathe to invest more, publishing) terrible translations ..... But insofar as this is how the system works, Landers' fundamental advice -- get hold of the rights of something you think is suitable for you, and try to establish a reputation -- is appropriate enough.
       It gets more interesting when Landers focusses on the texts themselves, describing many of the issues that arise. A translator from the Portuguese, most of his examples are from his own work or other European languages, which does skew the problem-set slightly (linguistic issues from, say, Far East Asian languages or Arabic and Hebrew make for quite a few other complications), but still gives a good overview of many of the things that one has to think about. While of obvious interest to translator-wannabes, it is also of interest to readers of translated fiction, giving them a better idea of what went into the texts they read -- and how they might differ from the originals.
       Among the more controversial issues is meddling with the text itself, where Landers writes of: "a higher mandate, that of what the writer meant to say" -- which is all well and good but threatens far more easily than he acknowledges to send things off the rails with the translator's presumption. (His example in this case is of where, in a (presumably) Brazilian book, there are characters from a neighbouring country and: "the 'Spanish' they were quoted as using was rife with errors" and he took it upon himself to correct that, though he doesn't even make clear whether he rendered the 'Spanish' into English, or merely corrected the Spanish.)
       While he does cite one example of an author meddling with a translation (a book that was eventually not published), the author-translator relationship is one that certainly deserves closer attention. Perhaps because he seems to have had very positive experiences the more antagonistic relationship is not addressed; in a day and age when so many foreign authors have at least (what they believe to be) a working knowledge of English it seems likely that this will crop up far more frequently, as it has in the case of Marilyn Booth's translation of Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh, or the UK edition of Peter Høeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, both of which involved authorial interference that led to the translators distancing themselves from the published book. (He also does not discuss co-translation, where more than one translator is involved, which presumably also brings a host of new problems with it.)
       While some concerns seem somewhat silly -- does being: "called upon to translate words that aren't found in a family newspapers" really cause ethical dilemmas ? -- Landers does admirably cover a vey large number of the issues that can crop up in translation. At times it feels like he's spreading himself a bit thin, but he also has a fairly engaging style, so that one can readily put up with his thoughts on, say, grammar checkers in word-processing programmes (as you can guess: a dud and irritant when it comes to literary translation). Most of the fundamental advice is sound, though as far as the contractual basics he would have done well to emphasise the pitfalls of translation-for-hire -- i.e. where translators do not retain any of the rights. Still, as a reminder of all the things to think of when engaging in translation, from how to deal with puns to the possibility of other translation-related sources of income, Landers at least touches on most of them.
       A good and very readable introductory guide, Literary Translation is a bit all over the place but certainly worthwhile both for translators and readers of foreign fiction.

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Literary Translation: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Clifford E. Landers teaches Political Science at New Jersey Ciy University, and has translated numerous works from the Portuguese.

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© 2008 the complete review

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