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Labour + Industry

A Day in the Life: A Literary Translator

‘Sometimes it can look like spending six hours searching for 10 words.’

andrea bennett 27 Dec

andrea bennett is managing editor of The Tyee.

What does it take to be able to translate well? And how do translations inform the way we understand a text? If a book wins a translation prize, does that mean the jury has read both the source texts and the target texts?

These were just some of the questions I had for Katia Grubisic, a writer, editor and literary translator who speaks four languages: English, French, Croatian and Spanish.

Grubisic is the author of the poetry collection What if red ran out, and has translated 13 books, with another five on the way. She’s been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for translation twice, and won the League of Canadian Poets Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.

I caught up with Grubisic from her home in Montreal to talk about the work of being a translator — the ephemeral stuff, and the economic realities, too. The resulting interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: When did you start working as a professional translator?

Katia Grubisic: In 2002, I was doing a French degree at the University of New Brunswick. And I was happily co-opted by Ross Leckie, who was the poetry professor there at the time, into doing an English degree also. I had always helped my father translate some of his work, or English it, the way the kids of immigrants tend to. My father is a linguist by profession, but English is like his 12th or 13th language, so I was often tasked with those corrections.

When I was in undergrad, I saw a poster in the French department asking for a translator for the New Brunswick hog marketing board, of all things. They were paying $100 a month for the whole newsletter to be translated into French. And I thought, sure. It probably worked out to about zero cents a word, but that was my first professional translating gig. And I was vegetarian at the time!

How long did you end up translating that newsletter?

I did it for a whole year and a half or two years as I was finishing my degree. It's funny because it actually launched me into having some specialization in agricultural translation, so when I came to Montreal, I ended up translating for L'Union des producteurs agricoles [the Union of Agricultural Producers] and their English equivalent, Quebec Farmers’ Association, because I had this random background in agriculture and pig farming.

When did you move to Montreal?

I moved here in 2003.

What kinds of translation do you do now as part of your career? What languages do you translate from and what are you translating into?

I primarily translate from French into English. I occasionally still translate into French for a few clients I've had for years. After we had our first or second kid, I forget now, there was this really fallow period financially where I was taking whatever work I could. I was doing documentaries from Peruvian Spanish into French, stuff that doesn't come as easily to me necessarily. My best quality work is from French and English for sure.

Is English your first language?

English was my third language, but through a number of circumstances — life, growing up in Ontario — I spoke French first with my mother, who’s Swiss, and Croatian with my father, and then learned English watching Sesame Street when I was five or so. But English has become my dominant language professionally even though I speak to our kids in French, and my domestic and affective language is definitely French.

What shape does a normal day of translation take for you? Are you working sort of eight hours straight in a Word doc?

My days seldom look like each other at all. If I have a book on the go or if I have a big contract, that will be what I start with. But I very rarely do only one thing in a day, because I don't have the continuous mental capacity to do a good job on any one text for more than a few hours.

My day might include sending a few emails, doing some bookkeeping, and translating 2,000 or 3,000 words for a draft. Or sometimes it can look like spending six hours searching for 10 words. It really depends on the task at hand.

What kinds of tools do you use for your work? And how have those tools changed over the 20 years you’ve been translating?

I still have paper books. For a long time, I had really specialized dictionaries, like the French/English dictionary for forestry terms, that kind of thing. But so much of that is actually available online now that it's not as necessary as it used to be. But I still default to my Oxford spelling dictionary, to my Chicago Manual, to my various dictionaries.

I use my share of AI tools for very basic or repetitive texts, and then obviously edit them and make sure that there's no mistranslated alarms for mermaids where the program misread sirens, that kind of stuff. One thing I have used for a long time, though, and which has evolved enormously in the past 15 to 20 years, is voice recognition software. In literary translation, for some authors specifically, I find that… it's like some authors fit you better. You can get into their voice and it feels comfortable and you can inhabit their voice really cleanly. For some books, I tend to read the French and just speak the translation into English, and the voice recognition software makes a decent starting draft of that. I find it really interesting in terms of getting into the voice of a writer, and not have it sound too cerebral or page-bound.

How do you approach literary translation differently than non-literary translation?

The tenor of the care and respect is different because of the existence of the author. Not that there's no author for texts by not-for-profits, not that commercial clients aren’t important, but things like voice are much more complex to parse in literary translation because it’s so nuanced and it changes based on the part of the book or the character, whereas non-literary translation is much more task-oriented. You're trying to fulfil a function and make sure it's good in a number of ways, for example that it’s readable and not mechanical.

I'm working right now on Martine Delvaux’s Le boys club, this kind of compendium of the patriarchal culture that excludes any kind of input by women or non-binary folks, any kind of feminist impulse. It won the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal a couple years ago. She has a very specific voice. She's very militant. She doesn’t mince words. And yet it's an academic book in many ways. It strives to be expository, but it's fuck-you exposition. That's an interesting challenge, because yes, it has to be in her voice, but the content has to be faithful to actual texts and films she’s citing, or instances in politics. It takes a lot of research. She’s translated bits of political speeches, parts of films. I have to look to the source texts and back-translate to find the originals. It’s detective work.

Do you ever try to say no to a literary translation because it doesn't end up feeling like the right fit for your style and skills?

More often than skills and style, it’s identity that is the reason many translators might refuse a book, to have the field be as open as possible for a range of identities and experiences. A number of people are left out of mainstream everything, including mainstream literary translation, and there's no reason to take up space that could be more eloquently or accessibly occupied by someone else.

With literary translation, style or preference can also be a bit delicate. Sometimes you don't know until you're into it if it's going to be a fit or not. By which point… you do your best!

On a different tack: on Facebook, you often share your favourite typos from the day. For those of us into bilingual wordplay, could you share a few of your all-time favourites?

My favourite one was “love-vaisselle.” Instead of “lave,” “love-vaisselle.” Which — everyone loves their dishwasher, right? That was just perfect. A lot of them are kind of random or ridiculous. But that was definitely a winner.

I would love my dishwasher if it worked. We did try to fix it. It's a sort of joke in our house, that it’s a vintage kitchen sculpture.

What are the trickiest parts of your job as a translator?

There was a really good essay by Carmen Maria Machado about boundaries: it's about the MFA boundary specifically, but about the boundaries generally between the career side of writing and the writing side of writing, and the challenge of how to do the stuff that matters and still make a living, have an agent, pay for life, get paid? Without being either too careerist or broke all the time, basically.

That's often a hard line, because of course I do it because I love it. But literary translation is underpaid right now, as are most or all creative fields. The Canada Council rates for literary translation, which are often all publishers can afford to pay, haven't increased in about 13 years. The Quebec writers’ union has recently obtained recognition for writers and literary translators through the Status of the Artist Act, which many of us are hoping will improve working conditions. It's hard sometimes to feel like you're advocating for the rights of everybody in the field, and specifically the financial recognition — that we should value the artistic output the same way we value buying a litre of milk — and also to be able to value the ephemeral, affective connection of the work, which is ultimately more important. Posterity, the soul, the reason we make art. I find those two things are tough to juggle. It's a hard time for artists and for advocates, I think, right now. A lot of artists are left fending for themselves.

On the flip side, what moments in your job bring the most joy?

Publication day, when a book comes out, is always great. That's on the career side of things for sure. And prizes, when you get nominated. When people say that they've read a book and it means something to them. All that kind of stuff is rewarding, as an ambitious human.

But I think the most fun is when you come up with a phrase or even a word — like there's a new logical problem that you can't solve, and then you get it. For example, in the book A Cemetery for Bees, by Alina Dumitrescu, there was a play on words about language being mothballed in the French, and I came up with “mothopoesis” in English. It’s a nerdy, silly detail, yet it was such a delight to have cogitated over that, and busted my head, and let it sit, and come back to it and play with it. I love those kind of moments when, for whatever reason, the angel speaks to you and you get the thing that you're waiting for.

There’s something I've always been curious about when it comes to prizes for works in translation. How are those prizes judged? Are the judges reading the source text and the translation and then making a judgment about the translation? Or are they reading a translation and coming to conclusions and opinions about the strength and quality of the translation, just having read that one text?

They read both. Some prizes, like the Quebec Writers’ Federation prize, for example, the honoraria for the translation judges, if I'm not mistaken, are actually higher because they're reading double the books. You have to in order to pick your way around that old saw of faithful or beautiful.

How do you feel about the recognition that translators receive on book covers? And in reviews of popular books?

There has been a bit of noise about this recently: there was a piece in the Guardian last year by Jenny Croft, who's a well-known American translator, about why translators should be named on book covers; there was even a Jeopardy question about it! But then, a couple of weeks after her piece appeared, the very same paper published a review of a translation that didn’t even name the translator.

I'm definitely in favour of recognition. I think that as a creative act, translation needs to be recognized. In the literary community, the recognition of the creative contribution is definitely present. On the business end, there can be a weird reticence on the part of certain publishers not to acknowledge that a book is translated — almost as if the book had somehow magically just materialized in the target language. It's a really strange and outdated perception about the necessary invisibility of a translator, which I don't think serves anybody. There's a missing subjectivity that is disingenuous, I think.

Happy holidays, readers. Our comment threads will be closed from Friday, Dec. 23 until Tuesday, Jan. 3 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. See you in 2023!  [Tyee]

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