Everything that You Need to Know about Finding the Right Literary Translator

Compared to other types of professional translation services, literary translation is one of the most challenging forms of language translation. If you need creative work from books to poems that need to get translated, then naturally, you will need a literary translator.

This article will help you understand why literary translation is the right professional translation services you need and why you can’t hire any other professional translator with different specializations.

Everything that You Need to Know about Finding the Right Literary Translator

Finding your Literary Translator

You can easily ask for literary translators from professional translation agencies. As their name suggests, they provide various professional translation services. They even render niche professional translation services such as legal translation, healthcare translation, and yes, literary translation. 

They typically have a global network of translators. If you need someone that can translate Chinese to English, they can find the right literary translator for you. You can check online for the best platforms for finding freelance translators and the best professional translation agencies. 

Another place you can scout is literary translation associations such as the American Literary Translators Association. They’re modern-day guilds where members are given the resources and community to elevate their skills further. They even host literary translation contests from time to time to provide lucky literary translators a chance to prove their skills and gain more recognition. 

But quite often, you can find several translators who list themselves on professional translation agencies and associations. This is a common practice for freelance translators for them to widen their online presence and prospect for landing more projects.

In the next section, you’ll understand why you specifically need a literary translator and not just any other professional translator that you can entrust your literary work. 

Literary Translation and How is it Different from other Professional Translation Services?

Literary translators, handle all kinds of creative works from books, short stories, poems, etc. and translate them within the requested language pair (Ex. English to Chinese, Chinese to English). A few can even translate dead languages such as Latin as a lot of creative historical documents are literary works.

They need to have stellar language skills in their language pair specialization, but that’s true for all professional translators regardless of their specialty.

Everything that You Need to Know about Finding the Right Literary Translator

But literary translation is unique. Unlike technical translation, which is relatively easier and has a standardized glossary, literary translation operates on much looser rules and guidelines.

Each creative work is unique and specific to the original author. So when you’re asking for literary translation services, you are requesting for a highly precise form of professional translation services that can be handled from a specific and narrow talent pool. 

Literary Translators Have Exceptional Language Skills

Everything that You Need to Know about Finding the Right Literary Translator

As a non-negotiable prerequisite, they need to have exceptional language skills and lengthy exposure in the literary scene. Literary translators don’t aim for word-for-word accuracy.

Doing so often results in highly inaccurate translations for the word and its context. Instead, they strive for correctness under the scope of capturing the author’s intention for the work and its essence. 

However, their output also depends on their perception of the work as well as their experience. That’s why you can never find two literary translators making the same output. In the end, it’s their interpretation. 

Literary Translators are Capable of Translating Highly Nuanced Creative Expressions

Everything that You Need to Know about Finding the Right Literary Translator

Literary translation is exceptionally complex for requested language pair shares little to no linguistic history. For example, Spanish to French translations will be easier than English to Chinese translations. 

They’ll be using creative expressions endemic to the culture they’re coming from. These include humor, metaphors, rampant cultural and social references, idioms, slang, etc. They’re tough to translate since, in many cases, they only make sense in the original language. 

One way for literary translators to get around this is to find an appropriate substitution from the target language. It doesn’t have to be contextually accurate. But it’s up to the original author and translator on what they can both agree upon in finding the right substitution. 

Literary Translators are Faithful to the Author’s Writing Style and the Work’s Musicality

Everything that You Need to Know about Finding the Right Literary Translator

This is by far the most challenging aspect of literary translation. Word-for-word accuracy is no guarantee of mimicking the original work’s essence along with its musicality, specifically its rhythm, cadence, and emotional quality. A large number of words can make it difficult, but even short poems have their challenges. 

Musicality is very much a fundamental essence of poems, and they’re explicitly adjusted for each language. Naturally, it complicates the translation process when two words have different linguistic mechanics. For example, Chinese poems are challenging to translate to English, but not impossible with the right literary Chinese translator. 

Literary Translators Know Who the Author’s Audience 

One last thing that a literary translator cannot ignore is the audience. This is true for all forms of translation. But literary translators need to find the most suitable linguistic and creative angle that can both resonate well with the audience and stay truthful to work’s essence. 

There are many literary translators out there in the market. But even if they check out, how can you know that they’re the right person for you?

You can vet listed literary translators by looking at their portfolio and asking for more details from their past clients. This is the right way of knowing how they treat past clients and how faithful their outputs are to their original work. 

Literary Translation goes Back Thousands of Years

Everything that You Need to Know about Finding the Right Literary Translator

The translation goes back as early as written human history. Translators were born out of the innate human desire to communicate across borders and cultures to facilitate ideas and trade goods.

When we think of literary translation, we often think of modern books, poems, etc. But, literary translation is one of the oldest forms of translation. 

The most recognizable example of literary translation is the Bible. It was first translated from Biblical Hebrew to a form of Ancient Greek.

It was then translated to Latin and subsequently to typical German by Martin Luther. His endeavor did ‘shake up’ European history that resulted in the Catholic-Protestant Partition, the 30 Years War, and change the face of European geopolitics to what we’re familiar with today, 

So yes, the literary translation did have its violent political past within that context. But now, literary translation has found its use in the publishing industry.

Translating your books can’t be done without a literary translator for authors that are looking to gain an international readership. Imagine how different our current literary landscape would be if the top-selling international authors such as J.K Rowling didn’t translate their books. 

Prepare for a Serious Partnership with your Literary Translator

The delicate process that goes into literary translation means working with a literary translator won’t be a usual client-to-service partnership. In other words, you can’t simply leave them be after handing them your work. Since their goal is to replicate your work’s essence and its musicality, both of you need to continually communicate back and forth in finding the most suitable translation. 

There will be times where both of you won’t disagree, and that’s perfectly natural. You’re not finding the one with the best literary translation prowess but the one that you can agree with and one that can also respect you as the original author. Put, you’re not looking for the best translator, but the right translator that you can trust. Mind you that you also have to credit your translator on the translated work since it counts as their work. 

Should You Go for the Cheapest Literary Translator? — Final Takeaway

Everything that You Need to Know about Finding the Right Literary Translator

Now that you know how extremely complex literary translation is, you might be wondering if it’s wise to cut corners price-wise. Sad to say that a lot of people think they can get stellar outputs through Google Translate or any other free online translator. That’s not to say that machine translation and AI translation software isn’t used when rendering professional translation services.

They’re often used to augment the productivity of their human translators, rather than to replace them entirely. Human translators make corrections that machines often make in contextually sensitive texts.

But for literary translation, there isn’t any capable AI translation software that can sincerely match an author’s creative approach. It is important to understand the pitfalls of Google Translate when trying to translate a novel. 

In this case, you want the best professional translation services to translate your work faithfully and accurately. By connecting with a literary translator from either a professional translation agency or a literary translation association, one thing’s for sure is that you need a human with a beating heart that can sense your personality, your work’s musicality, and faithfully recreate for a wider audience.

About the Author

Ofer Tirosh is CEO of Tomedes, a translation agency that has since 2007 served 50,000 businesses, translating in more than 1000 language pairs, relying on thousands of superb in-house and freelance translators, and offering diverse niche translation services such as literary translation, legal translation, and medical translation services. 

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