This is how I work: the not-so-secret life of a literary translator

Before trying to refine how I go about fitting 35+ hours of translating into my week, I thought I should take a closer look at what exactly translating entails for me. For a start, there are two types: the fun stuff (literary translation) and the stuff that pays the bills (other freelance translation). With a May deadline for Radisson looming, the key is going to be to fit as much literary translation into my working week as possible, while leaving room for the odd rush freelance job that I don’t really want to say no to.

So how is all this literary translation going to take up my time (aside from a lot of hours spent sitting behind a keyboard)?

Now that the contract has been signed, a lot of the spadework has been done. I’ve already read (and fallen in love with) the book. I read the book as any reader would, without a thought to how I would translate this or that. In fact, I can’t think of a single sentence I’ve considered might cause me one or two problems further down the line. I read the book on the sofa, in bed before I fell asleep, with a cup of coffee… The reading process was intended to be fun: I certainly didn’t read it at my desk, making note after note. (And the process was definitely helped by the fact that I was absolutely dying to find out what happened next!)

From the earliest translations I did in high school, I developed the bad habit of getting stuck in, without reading the text all the way through. This never caused me a problem and even when I moved on to more complicated texts later on in my career, the worst that would happen is that occasionally an obscure reference would become clear toward the end of the document and I would scroll back up, enlightened, to correct what I had originally put.

Only an especially brave literary translator would ever take this option, I think, although I’m sure they could come up with advantages for doing so. I’m also fairly sure I once read of two translators who worked in tandem: she would read the book in advance, warning him of potential pitfalls, and he would translate it, tackling everything afresh.

Then comes the easy part. I get stuck in, translating anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 words a day. I aim for a polished translation, the first time round. I don’t do a rough draft or anything first. Of course, not everything comes to me the first time round, so I highlight anything I’m not 100% happy with in yellow. This includes words and phrases of my own, which I sometimes run by friends to check they’re sufficiently Canadian. All in all, I’m a fast worker and translating a few thousand words a day leaves plenty of time for reading emails and Facebook and the like during lulls in inspiration.

Every time I leave the translation and come back to it, I read it through from the start, in English only, not against the French, before going on. This way, the English changes quite a lot and goes through several drafts before it is ever compared to the French. At the end of each chapter, I check the whole thing carefully against the original, reading the French and then what I put in English. Once this has been done , unless I have a specific question later on, I don’t check the translation against the French again.

Every chapter that is finished is put away and saved and the process begins again: rereading what I’ve translated of the chapter I’m working on before I continue translating. I go on like this until the whole thing is complete and then I read through it all again in English (usually with the help of a few generous friends) on the hunt for typos. The publisher then checks it, finds the odd typo, makes the odd change, and we finally have a translation that’s ready to print (hopefully without typos!).