‘Building Something Together’: Translators Discuss Their Art (2023)


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The Times convened five notable translators who bring literature from other languages into English, and asked them about the joys and challenges of the job.

‘Building Something Together’: Translators Discuss Their Art (1)

There are as many ways of translating a literary text as there are translators. The act of carrying a work from one language to another — an art as much as a craft — is anything but mechanical: Translators’ choices are informed by their sensibilities, their emotional landscape, their background.

Literary translators have, however, historically received little recognition. Readers who love books that were rendered in their words often haven’t known their names, since they were not featured on the covers. Within publishing, they were frequently underpaid and given no rights or royalties for their work.

Efforts by translators and by organizations like PEN America, which recently issued a manifesto on literary translation, have brought the field greater visibility, helping to cement the rights of translators and to raise awareness of literary translation as a creative art in its own right.

For a frank discussion of the state of translation, The Times gathered a group of recognized translators:

  • Samantha Schnee, a translator from Spanish, is the founding editor of Words Without Borders, a digital literary magazine of international literature in English.

  • Allison Markin Powell, a translator from Japanese, also represents the PEN America Translation Committee on the organization’s board of trustees.

  • Jeremy Tiang, originally from Singapore, translates from Chinese and is also a novelist and playwright.

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  • Mui Poopoksakul is a Thailand-born lawyer turned literary translator.

  • Bruna Dantas Lobato, originally from Brazil, is a literary translator from Portuguese and a writer.

This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

JULIANA BARBASSA: Over 50 years ago, at the first World of Translation Conference organized by PEN, Isaac Bashevis Singer said: “Translation must become not only an honorable profession, but an art. While I don’t like bloody revolutions, I would love to see a translators’ revolution.” He went on to say of translators that “in all of literature they have been the pariahs,” and to call on the conference to be “the beginning of a rebellion where ink instead of blood will be shed.”

What revolution was he alluding to there, and how much has been accomplished in the years since?

SAMANTHA SCHNEE: There are two ways to answer that question. One, translators' rights is something I think Singer was referring to. But I also think that the translator’s role as a conduit for literature in translation is equally important. To the first issue, I would say a lot of progress has been made in the last 50 years. It was the case that translators routinely were expected to grant copyright in perpetuity for their translations.

Famously, [Gregory] Rabassa’s translation of [Gabriel] García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was a copyright grant, which really ignores the role of the translator as a creative aspect of the work. No two translators would ever create the same translation from the same text. So I think progress has been made in areas like that.

But I think we have a lot of progress yet to go. For example, the way I see the role of a translator today is very much as a curator. Translators are much more active in the market now: Translators are acting as scouts, in many cases acting as agents. Almost always those roles go unpaid.

‘Building Something Together’: Translators Discuss Their Art (2)Credit...By Anita Staff. Via Samantha Schnee.

“No two translators would ever create the same translation from the same text.”

Samantha Schnee

I do think translators have a lot more power than certainly 50 years ago, and I would argue even 20 years ago. Translators need to keep fighting to keep those issues at the forefront.

We as an Anglophone culture are mass exporters of all sorts of culture, and we are not importing even a fraction of that. Translators play a really critical role in helping to counteract that.

BRUNA DANTAS LOBATO: In addition to wanting fair pay, wanting our art to be recognized, our names on the covers of books, I also would like to see a push away from this very academic sentiment that comes out of comp lit departments: that it’s some white person from this culture who goes into another culture and imports these artifacts.

There is this sense that it’s a transaction, and it’s one-directional. It feels like a very anthropological impulse from maybe a couple of centuries ago. I would like instead to have more of a conversation.

JEREMY TIANG: In the English-speaking world, we are enthralled with the idea of the single author. And so conversations around translations either focus entirely on the original author, rendering the translator subservient, or else talk about the translator as if the only way the translator could have agency is to go completely rogue, disregard all notions of faithfulness and assert their own version of the book at the expense of the original. The idea that translation is a collaborative process, that the author and the translator are building something together, doesn’t really get as much airtime as I would like.

‘Building Something Together’: Translators Discuss Their Art (3)Credit...Via Jeremy Tiang

“The idea that translation is a collaborative process, that the author and the translator are building something together, doesn’t really get as much airtime as I would like.”

Jeremy Tiang

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BRUNA: It’s a question of authorship, right? It’s an opportunity to hold translators accountable for the work that we do. If I don’t even know who did this, how am I going to evaluate or ask the right questions?

The other thing is that the translator as author brings so much personal baggage into the work. We can’t translate outside of ourselves. I definitely use my experiences both as a writer — my knowledge of craft — and my experiences as a reader, in everything that I translate. I also bring my emotional experiences.

It means that I won’t bring unexamined biases into the work. It means that I have an opportunity to be in genuine dialogue with the work. All of that is impossible if I am erased, my identities are erased, my experiences are erased.

ALLISON MARKIN POWELL: What a translator brings to the work of doing the translation, we also bring to the works that we’re inspired to translate. Historically that was very much a white male academic’s perspective.

I’m part of a collective called Strong Women Soft Power that promotes Japanese women writers in translation. When we formed it I started looking at the numbers — who was being translated. Despite my perception that there were a lot of Japanese women writers being translated, that was actually not the case. That led me to look at what the landscape was like in Japan. And in Japan it was a much more balanced environment between male and female writers. And that wasn’t being accurately reflected in English translation.

JEREMY: I want to mention the unevenness of the playing field, which might not be apparent to people outside of the translation world.

Someone working from, say, German could quite feasibly, if they were sufficiently established, make a living simply by waiting for publishers to come to them with German books to translate. Whereas with less represented languages or regions, the translator often has to advocate for the book or it doesn’t get translated at all. Thai literature in English translation pretty much wouldn’t exist if Mui weren’t finding these books and putting them in front of publishers.

‘Building Something Together’: Translators Discuss Their Art (4)Credit...Via Bruna Dantas Lobato

“I have an opportunity to be in genuine dialogue with the work. All of that is impossible if I am erased.”

Bruna Dantas Lobato

MUI POOPOKSAKUL: That plays into two points, like what Sam said earlier about the unpaid labor of translation. When I work on a book project, I follow it from start to finish. I read the books, I pick the books, I pitch the books, I translate the samples — initially I was never paid for samples. That is a real barrier to entry for a lot of people.

In terms of who gets to translate, I’m really excited by this movement to give more opportunities to heritage language speakers, translators from the countries of the literature that they’re translating from. This will really broaden the landscape of what becomes available in English.

JULIANA: Have you seen a shaping of what books are available in English because of this advocacy by translators?

SAMANTHA: Absolutely. If you think of publishing as an ecosystem, the translators are like the seed spreaders. We’re diversifying that ecosystem. There’s a fixed number of editors out there; they will have certain sensibilities and they will be limited by the market in the choices they can make. When you work with translators, you have whole other worlds opened up to you.

‘Building Something Together’: Translators Discuss Their Art (5)Credit...Via Mui Poopoksakul

“In terms of who gets to translate, I’m really excited by this movement to give more opportunities to heritage language speakers, translators from the countries of the literature that they’re translating from. This will really broaden the landscape.”

Mui Poopoksakul

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JEREMY: The translator is often the only person who can see both sides. The source language country might have rights agents doing good work, but they don’t know the English-language publishing world as well. The Anglophone world has well-meaning publishers who would love to do more translation, but they have no way of knowing the source language landscape. And apart from basically a few large Western European cultures which are well resourced with book scouts, in general, the translator is often the only person with a clear view of both sides.

ALLISON: If a book from a language that you work from becomes successful, do you feel like that starts to color readers’ or editors’ expectations? In Japan this has been called the [Haruki] Murakami effect. Do you have that experience?

BRUNA: I definitely have that experience a lot. I was recently advocating for a book called “The Dark Side of the Skin,” about racism and police brutality in Brazil, by Jeferson Tenório. Some of the readers evaluating it for interested editors said, “I don’t know if this is the one book about racism in Brazil that we should read. There are others that are very good.”

There’s this implication of simplicity, that if I read this one thing — I mean, how much can there really be to that culture? I’m done, you know?

JULIANA: Is there still a sense from publishers that, Oh, we have our India book for the year, we have our Japanese book for the year?

JEREMY: I’ve noticed both a kind of tokenism and a kind of herding. So I’ve had, “We have our Chinese book for the year.” But I’ve also had, during the dominance of “The Three-Body Problem,” publishers saying, “We want as much Chinese science fiction as we can get our hands on.” In both cases it’s treating books as interchangeable commodities rather than individual pieces of art that you consider on their own merits. I will say that there are more and more enlightened publishers who are able to see beyond that these days.

MUI: I haven’t had that experience, but I always fear it. After my first book, which was billed as the first Thai translation published in Britain outside of an academic press, it was like, well, are they going to want another one? I worried about that.

JULIANA: One thing I find striking is that with literature in translation, what exists in English is shaped by specific factors that are not visible to readers. Some countries, for example, fund translations from their language.

‘Building Something Together’: Translators Discuss Their Art (6)Credit...Via Allison Markin Powell

“There are a lot of interesting conversations right now about who the imagined reader is, and whether a translation should be smooth or challenging.”

Allison Markin Powell

BRUNA: Publishers have such a limited budget. I’ve been really interested in books that editors said they couldn’t buy. So they will pass on it, and then instead buy a Scandinavian book or a Korean book because it got a lot of funding and they won’t have to pay out of pocket.

MUI: The playing field is definitely not level. There is some good work being done out of Anglophone countries in terms of grants, but they’re hard to come by because you’re competing with translators and translations from every language. I’ve applied for funding from Thailand a couple of times, but I have not received funding from the Thai government.

ALLISON: Despite the fact that Japanese ranks relatively high on the number of works in translation, there is actually relatively little subsidy available. None of the books that I’ve translated, or almost none of the books have really received any subsidies.

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SAMANTHA: The funding tends to be quite Eurocentric, and that does have significant impact on what readers in English are offered. It’s pretty dramatic if you look at the countries that are really investing in cultural exportation.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great European writers who are worthy of being translated. There certainly are. But there are in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America as well.

ALLISON: Going back to the actual work of translation, there are a lot of interesting conversations right now about who the imagined reader is, and whether a translation should be smooth or challenging.

JEREMY: My imagined reader is myself. I translate books that I want to put out in the world because they aren’t there for me to read. And I also translate because of the process. Just as, you know, actors go after a part because it’s a great part for them and they want the experience of performing it.

BRUNA: I expect from the reader a minimum amount of curiosity, and also a bit of an ear. I want the reader to pay attention to the language, and to what I might bring from Portuguese into English. I hope they’ll get used to different voices and different accents, and appreciate all the value that’s in there. All the beauty and the language-play that’s in there, as opposed to wanting an experience that’s just going to reaffirm what they already know, who they already are.

SAMANTHA: My ideal reader is the author. I much prefer to work with an author who’s living, with whom I can have a dialogue. I’ve learned so much — not only about language, but also about the topics that the authors’ books are dealing with.

MUI: The reader I fear is the Thai reader, because they are more likely to be able to re-engineer my process. I teach at a university in Thailand, so I have students who read my translations side by side with the original. They are always sort of on one shoulder, being like, “Stay true, Mui, stay true.”

JULIANA: What brought you to this field?

MUI: Translation is just great fun, you know? The latest PEN translation manifesto emphasized how translation is a form of writing, and that for me is so true.

ALLISON: Translation is an extremely creative practice. It suits my aesthetic of creativity well. I don’t write my own work; I write translation. Working with an existing text in another language is just having different clay to mold with.

BRUNA: As a writer, I often felt like the best way for me to study any work was by translating it. It feels to my particular practice like those two are in dialogue.

But also as a person, the way I exist in the world — when I found myself as a Brazilian national in New England, suddenly my language wasn’t a part of my daily life. Translation was a way for me to put my Brazilian side and my American life in conversation, and to feel whole. So for me translation is very much a part of being truthful to who I am.

JEREMY: I grew up bilingual, biracial, I’m an immigrant, and translation is one of the few things that allow me the fluidity to explore all the areas of who I am, and not have to choose one identity or another.

Juliana Barbassa is the Book Review’s deputy editor for news and features.

A version of this article appears in print on , Page


of the Sunday Book Review

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What kinds of things should a translator consider when translating a work of art? ›

Essentially, a translator must first understand what the author is saying in the original language, and then must decide what words and phrases to use in the second language in order to best reflect the original ideas.

Which three skills do you consider the most important for a translator? ›

Not only does a good translator need to have excellent language and writing skills, but they should also have a strong cultural understanding of the country where the language is prevalent.

What is the concept of translation in art? ›

Essentially, translation is an art because the translator is trying to figure out what is meant in one language and then is basically painting a picture of what is meant in the other language.

Why translation is so important in art? ›

Preserving Language and Promoting Cultural Heritage

Of course, this isn't easy, and there are challenges to recreating cultural meanings in the text, but it is still crucial to be done. Translating these works into modern languages will allow them to be remembered and appreciated by new generations to come.

What is the importance of translation arts? ›

Translation of literary artistic works is not only important because the author's readers increase in number and bulk but because through translation they can indeed penetrate into a new culture and literature and this way they can exercise an important influence upon foreign literatures and cultures.

What is an example of translate in math? ›

A translation is a transformation that moves every point in a figure the same distance in the same direction. For example, this transformation moves the parallelogram to the right 5 units and up 3 units. It is written ( x , y ) → ( x + 5 , y + 3 ) .

What is the formula for translating? ›

What is the formula for translation? The formula for translation or vertical translation equation is g(x) = f(x+k) + C.

What does a translation look like in math? ›

Definition: In math, a translation moves a shape left, right, up, or down but does not turn. The translated shapes (or the image) appear to be the same size as the original shape, indicating that they are congruent. They've simply shifted in one or more directions.

What are the five principles of a translator? ›

In this article, I discuss the five translation competencies: Linguistic Competence, Textual Competence, Subject Competence, Cultural Competence, and Transfer Competence.

What is most important for a translator? ›

Here are some skills that translators use on the job:
  1. Language knowledge. The ability to speak and write fluently in at least two languages is the top skill of a translator. ...
  2. Cultural knowledge. ...
  3. Communication. ...
  4. Writing. ...
  5. Research. ...
  6. Computer-assisted translation (CAT) ...
  7. Active listening. ...
  8. Organization.
Mar 10, 2023

What is the key characteristic of a good translator? ›

The top qualities of a good translator are being able to fluently speak the languages you are translating, being able to translate between different languages fluently, having a strong understanding of the topic of what you are translating, and being able to translate without changing the meaning of what is being said.

Is translation an art or skill? ›

It is an art since it requires artistic talent to reconstruct the original text in the form of a product that is presentable to the reader who is not supposed to be familiar with the original.

Is translation an art or craft? ›

Translation can be a craft when done by machines or in a machine-like fashion, but good translation is more of an artistic process.

Who said translation is an art? ›

Okolie (2009) also sees translation as an art whose main objective is to reproduce an original text (ST) in another language in such a way that the 'reproduced text' closely identified with the original, without betraying any telltale signs of artificiality or imitation in his contribution, Bell (2008) writes that ...

What are the benefits of translation? ›

According to Technitrad, translation services provide the ability for two parties to communicate and exchange ideas from different countries. They can break down spoken word or translate documents to ensure that both parties understand each other in every format of communication.

What is the overall purpose of translation? ›

Transcription and translation are processes a cell uses to make all proteins the body needs to function from information stored in the sequence of bases in DNA.

What is the purpose of translate? ›

Translation is more than just changing the words from one language to another. Translation builds bridges between cultures. It allows you to experience cultural phenomena that would otherwise be too foreign and remote to grasp through your own cultural lens.

What does a translation do to an image? ›

Image-to-image translation is the process of transforming an image from one domain to another, where the goal is to learn the mapping between an input image and an output image.

How do you explain translation? ›

Translation is the process that takes the information passed from DNA as messenger RNA and turns it into a series of amino acids bound together with peptide bonds. It is essentially a translation from one code (nucleotide sequence) to another code (amino acid sequence).

How do translations work? ›

A translation is a type of transformation that takes each point in a figure and slides it the same distance in the same direction. This translation maps △ X Y Z \triangle{XYZ} △XYZtriangle, X, Y, Z onto the blue triangle. The result is a new figure, called the image. The image is congruent to the original figure.

How do you translate a figure? ›

In geometry, a translation is the shifting of a figure from one place to another without rotating, reflecting or changing its size. This is done by moving the vertices of the figure the prescribed number of spaces on a coordinate plane and then drawing the new figure.

What are translation words? ›

Word for word translation or literal translation is the rendering of text from one language to another one word at a time with or without conveying the sense of the original text. In translation studies, literal translation is often associated with scientific, technical, technological or legal texts.

What are the 4 translations in math? ›

There are four main types of transformations: translation, rotation, reflection and dilation. These transformations fall into two categories: rigid transformations that do not change the shape or size of the preimage and non-rigid transformations that change the size but not the shape of the preimage.

What is the translation rule in math 8th grade? ›

A translation shifts each point the same distance horizontally and the same distance vertically.

What are the 3 types of translators? ›

Generally, there are three types of translator:
  • compilers.
  • interpreters.
  • assemblers.

What are the three rules of translation? ›

In the process of translation, the translator should follow three principles, namely, skopos rule, coherence rule and fidelity rule. The translation of literary texts coincides with the idea of Skopos Theory.

What are the three basic principles of translation? ›

The principle of translation between languages, the best summary and summary is the three-character motto: "faithfulness, expressiveness, elegance." Simply put, the content of a translation work is faithful to the original text, which is called "faithfulness", and the diction is smooth and smooth, which is called " ...

What is a successful translator? ›

A good translator is someone who has a comprehensive knowledge of both source and target languages. Students should read different genres in both source and target languages including modern literature, contemporary prose, newspapers, magazines, advertisements, announcements, instructions, etc.

How can I improve my translation skills? ›

5 Ways to Improve Your Translation Skills
  1. Read! One of the most important ways to ensure that your translations are current, contextual and meaningful is to read as much of the foreign language as possible. ...
  2. Converse. ...
  3. Hone Your Specialist Knowledge. ...
  4. Translate Vice-versa. ...
  5. Use CAT Tools.
Feb 16, 2018

What are translational skills? ›

These skills play a key role in quality improvement and service transformation in the digital world, translational skills work at the interface between technology, people and context. They help in designing and implementing digital services that meet people's needs and which will be usable in their work environment.

What makes translation a creative process? ›

It often uses innovative expressions and wording in the target language to generate the same tone and meaning as the source text. In short: The creative translation definition is using translation and creativity to adapt text to a different language while maintaining the same essence of the text.

Is being a translator a skill? ›

To be a good translator you must be a very good, and not merely adequate, writer in your target language. You must have a way with words, the ability to write with flair. And you'll likely need to do that across a variety of text styles – promotional and marketing, formal/legal, casual, technical, etc.

What is creative translation also called? ›

Creative translation (sometimes referred to as transcreation) is a specialist language service for content and messages that lose their meaning through standard translation.

Is translation an art or education? ›

It's true, anyone who knows two languages ​​can translate text from one to the other without complications. But knowing a language will not make you a good translator, because translation is an art and a technique that must be learned .

Is translation a creative job? ›

Advertising, marketing, or literary content requires a great deal of creativity. A translator has to be creative in order to provide authentic final content, as if it had been written directly in the source language, without going through any previous translation processes.

Is translation art or science? ›

another. 4. Translation is an art as it preserves the literary qualities of SL or TL.

What is a famous quote about interpreting art? ›

Art is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone will have their own interpretation. You, the artistic renderer interpreter, must decide what U think about these coniptions.

What is the quote about art as a language? ›

Art is a meta-language, with the help of which people try to communicate with one another; to impart information about themselves and assimilate the experience of others.

What is an art which translates to new art? ›

Art Nouveau (1890–1910)

Art Nouveau, which translates to “New Art,” attempted to create an entirely authentic movement free from any imitation of styles that preceded it. This movement heavily influenced applied arts, graphics, and illustration.

What are the factors that translators should consider before translating? ›

Linguistic factors exert a direct and crucial influence upon the process of translating. Each of the linguistic factors, phonological, lexical, syntactic and textual, can interfere with translation. It can safely be assumed that interlingual differences constitute a main source of translation difficulties.

What should be considered when translating? ›

Good translation entails accurately communicating meaning from one language (the source) to another language (the target). It must convey the original tone and intent of a message, while taking into account cultural and regional differences.

What are the basic requirements of a translator? ›

Interpreters and translators typically need at least a bachelor's degree to enter the occupation. They also must be proficient in at least two languages (English and one other language), as well as in the interpretation or translation service they intend to provide.

What are the five basic elements of translation techniques? ›

5 techniques of literary translation
  • Adaptation. Albir describes adaptation as a “technique whereby one cultural element is replaced by another which is typical of the receiving culture. ...
  • Linguistic Amplification. ...
  • Compensation. ...
  • Elision. ...
  • Borrowing.
Jun 10, 2015

What is the most important quality of a translator? ›

8 Traits of a Great Translator
  1. Linguistic Expertise. ...
  2. Appreciation for Other Cultures. ...
  3. Awareness of the Evolution of Language. ...
  4. Area of Specialization. ...
  5. Attention to Detail. ...
  6. Ability to Accept Criticism. ...
  7. Time Management Skills. ...
  8. Passion for Language.
Dec 6, 2019

What are the two most important factors in translation quality? ›

A professional high-quality translation incorporates several essential factors: firstly, the original text must be accurate and authentic, and ideally has been fully proof-read in the original language. Secondly, the translator must have sufficient time to maintain the accuracy of the message.

How do you ensure quality translation? ›

5 Steps To Ensure The Best Quality Translation
Jan 23, 2019

What are the roles of a translator? ›

As a translator, you'll convert written material from one or more 'source languages' into the 'target language', making sure that the translated version conveys the meaning of the original as clearly as possible. The target language is normally your mother tongue.

Can I be a translator without a degree? ›

At a minimum, professional language translators have a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) credential. Typically, employers don't require a formal degree in the language or languages you desire to translate, though some employers or clients may prefer it.

What is the difference between translator and interpreter? ›

Interpreters mediate languages orally while translators work with written material. When it comes to language skills, translators need to have solid reading comprehension, transfer, and target language production skills.

What are the 4 basic concepts of translation? ›

Outlining of some of his statements will be enough to get his point of view on trans- lation process: 1) the translation must convey the source words, 2) the translation must convey the source ideas, 3) the translation must be read like the original, 4) the translation must be read like a translation, etc.

What are translation techniques? ›

In general, we recognize two main types of translation techniques: direct translation techniques and oblique translation techniques. Direct translation techniques can be used when the elements of the text being translated are similar in both the source and target languages.

What are the four parts of translation? ›

The process of forming a polypeptide chain from mRNA codons is known as translation. It takes place in four steps namely, tRNA charging, Initiation, Elongation, and Termination.


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