Books Life as a freelance translator


In which some people enjoy spending a sunny afternoon arguing about punctuation.

At the end of May I went to Ros Schwartz’ translation workshop at Crimefest in Bristol, which was brilliant. I decided I might as well go for the whole day rather than just the workshop in the afternoon so went to 2 morning panels, one on what happens when people’s books get filmed (having to rewrite the whole thing around Caroline Quentin being pregnant, apparently) and one on “forgotten authors” (including John Buchan, who isn’t that forgotten from where I am standing, but I daresay experiences vary).

And in the afternoon about 20 people met for a literary translation workshop. Ros Schwartz got us into groups to retranslate the first page of Dominique Manotti’s Affairs of State, which I will now have to buy so I can find out how it ended, or indeed what happened on page 2. It was very well organised for specialist and non-specialist participants, with copies of the  French and a word-for-word English draft to work on, and groups assigned so that each one had at least one French speaker and one professional translator. My group had a range of French-English and German-English translators, generalists as well as people specialising in chemistry, finance and marketing/copywriting, me, and a man who had read Stieg Larsson and been so impressed he wanted to know how translators did it. He was a great asset because he kept asking basic questions and made us think about things we were doing automatically, but I think he left a bit bemused, partly because he now thinks translators take 2 hours to translate half a page.

Everyone got very argumentative and excited, as you do when you spend your life doing something all on your own and suddenly get unleashed to talk about all the tiny, fascinating details of it, and we barely agreed on anything. The technical translators kept wanting to turn it all into proper sentences with verbs in (me: “It’s got commas, it’s OK to have commas!”), someone wanted to remove chunks altogether, and I seem to specialise in scanning the whole thing first and spotting all the problems (“What the hell are we going to do with the reference to the Abbé Dubois, oh good she’s provided Google…”) and having firm opinions on punctuation (poor person writing it down, looking at me doubtfully “Are you happy about the colon?” Me: “I am never going to be happy about that colon”). It was good stuff.

The group work was followed by a whole group discussion and a look at the published version. It was a really fun afternoon with lots of food for thought and inspiration. I miss working with a partner and reciprocal proofreading by e-mail isn’t quite the same as getting your heads together and arguing it out on the spot. It also convinced me, not that I need much convinicing, that the creative side is where I want to be and although I do a lot of it, I should aim to skew things that way even more.