How to find a good translator



Please allow me to boast a bit:

For some months now, I have been translating Canadian author Ben Ho’s A Warm Sea: Dreaming of Sailing & Making It Happen: Tales of our cruising life in the Mediterranean. It is a tough but worthy project, so it was with some trepidation when I handed over the first part of the Chinese translation to Ben for approval. Well, yesterday I received his response:

“Excellent translation! You’re obviously a talented writer.”

I am sure there are many writers out there who are much more talented than me, in both the English and Chinese worlds. However, Ben is spot-on on the essentials of good translation – you have to be good with writing if you want to be a good translator. Particularly when you want to translate anything literary, which is considerably different from “normal” translation jobs such as legal contracts, scientific patents, policy pamphlets and tourist brochures. An experienced translator in these areas is not necessarily capable of translating fiction and non-fiction writings.

As English-language authors worldwide began to explore foreign markets in recent years, there is an increasing demand for good literary translators. Indeed, the renowned Joanne Penn has provided plenty of good advice on how to enter the German, Spanish and Italian markets via “royalty split deals” with translators. A recent article by Nick Thacker, titled “How to Have Your Book Translated for Free”, also explores possible channels through which potential translators can be found and their quality examined, in this case Spanish.

Joanne and I both agree that authors need to exercise caution when choosing a translator to render their writing into another language. However, as an experienced translator myself, I disagree with Nick’s view that you can properly evaluate the quality of a whole book’s translation simply by examining the first 10 pages. This is because good translation requires strong discipline and a steady control of style throughout the whole process, much the same as writing does.

A good translator not only conveys the meaning of an author’s words, but also represents his/her ORIGINAL VOICE. By crawling through one sentence at a time, throughout the whole book, the translator gets to know the author INTIMATELY, almost like TWO PEOPLE SHARING THE SAME SOUL. This takes much time and effort, and even more dedication than the author needs with his/her own work, because to translate is essentially to contribute to someone else’s success. And this is why good translation is expensive – you cannot pay peanuts and expect to share your soul with a monkey, can you?

So, as an author, how do you find a good translator? My suggestion is to ask your candidates to provide a portfolio, particularly in the area of literary translation. This applies to both fiction and non-fiction. After that, ask for a sample translation of about 500 words and arrange to have them cross-examine each other’s work. From their feedback you should be able to see how serious they are about each other’s quality and their own code of ethics as professional translators.

For example, I recently had an opportunity to test out some of my fellow translators. Among the seven of them, one had the cheek to use Google Translate on my 500 words and was immediately rejected. (I had to exercise extreme self-restraint to not curse at it.) Another translator clearly showed a lack of understanding of common English phrases and was politely dismissed. Three major mistakes in a translation of merely 500 words are enough to put people off.

Then it came down to the style. Because each translator is unique in his/her choice of words, the major yardstick one uses to measure the quality of a translation is whether it faithfully corresponds to the original text, whether it is fluent, and whether it reads gracefully. Based on the feedback from your potential translators on the “FAITHFULNESS, FLUENCY and GRACEFULNESS” of each other’s work, you should be able to tell which one is your ideal “literary soul mate”. A professional translator would provide practical and detailed comments with plenty of constructive criticism – a rather natural response because each translator is unique, much the same as each writer would manage a subject or theme in a distinct way. Simply saying “excellent translation” is not enough. You need to ensure your VOICE is adequately preserved in the translation. (And, yes, even my “brilliant” translation requires improvement to meet Ben’s standards as an author.)

And, by now you would ask, how much does all this cost? Nothing, really. Because all you need to do is to select up to five candidates, let them do a 500-word sample translation, and arrange to have them cross-examine each other’s work – a task with which any professional translator who is serious about literary translation will be happy to oblige. Only after you have chosen your ideal translator will you be required to pay them. And I repeat: DON’T PAY THEM PEANUTS. You can negotiate a lower rate by promising more work opportunities in the future, but once you have made the promise you should absolutely stick to it.

A good idea is to pay your chosen translator the first third of the agreed translation fee after signing the contract. (Yes, you need to sign a contract to specify the rights and responsibilities of both parties.) Then, the second third of the fee should be paid halfway through the project. The final third is to be paid after the whole translation is completed and to your satisfaction. Encourage your translator to ask questions about your writing, and to tell you what he/she thinks of it, particularly in terms of typos and grammatical mistakes. After all, all good translators treat their work as their baby – it is the author’s “soul”, and therefore their “soul” as well, that they are looking after. Please keep in mind that your translator should be your partner in writing – they crawl through each sentence of yours with as much time and energy as you have spent on it, and sometimes even more. If you respect your own writing, then you should definitely respect your translator.

Finally, once you have found a good translator, stick to them and stand by them. A translated book requires as much revision as what was needed when it was first written, and sometimes even more. All professional translators are able to do this, but an amateur one cannot. This is why you CAN evaluate the skills of a translator by asking him/her to do a 500-word sample translation, but you CANNOT judge the quality of a whole translated book simply by reading the first 10 pages. I am sorry, Nick, but you should exercise much more caution than you already did – and you should never try to have your book translated for free.


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