On Editing Translations
A Conversation with Susie Gordon
I’m very happy to have Alluvium editor Susie Gordon back for another conversation at A Polite Lie this month, where we will once again cover a wide range of topics.
Hi Susie, it’s nice to have you back to discuss translation here at A Polite Lie. I know we said last month that we’d like to set aside a conversation about translating poetry, and I still intend to do that, but I have another question that I want to ask you first. It regards your work as a journal editor, which is somewhat different from your regular work editing translated books and finalising them for publication. The thing I am wondering is, do you often get translations from languages you don’t speak/read, and how do you determine whether the translation is worthy to appear in your journal, if you cannot read the original for yourself? What is it that makes a translation suitable for publication in a literary journal?
Hi Shelly! Thanks for having me back. That's a very interesting question, and it's something I pondered in the early days of Alluvium. I take a broadly two-pronged approach. Firstly, when I receive a submission that is a translation from a language I'm not familiar with, I assess the text as I would any other that lands in my editor inbox. If it is prose, I ask does it flow? Does it have a certain atmosphere? Does it engage me? Are the characters convincing, and does the dialogue work? If it's a poem, I consider whether it functions as a piece of verse. If the text has some or all of these qualities, I am likely to accept it. I also look out for translations from languages I consider as underrepresented in the English-language publication field. For example, a couple of years ago, I accepted a short story from an Indian writer, translated from Urdu. He happened to mention in his correspondence that he also translates from his other native language, Saraiki. I asked him if he would like to submit some of these translations, and he agreed. I was very pleased to publish them at Alluvium, and I hope their publication encouraged readers to look further into the Saraiki language and its rich literature.
That’s great! One of the things I love about reading a well-edited literary journal is that you can encounter things you didn’t even know you were looking for, and it is often exhilarating. Finding works in underrepresented languages is exactly that sort of thing.
You mentioned that you roughly take the same approach to evaluating a translation as you do any other literary work. Is there anything special about selecting a work in translation that makes it different from making a decision about a translated piece? I suppose the obvious one is, do you have concern yourself with accuracy, and how would you address that? Or is that something you just have to trust that the translator got right? Or, for instance, if something sticks out as a little awkward, do you think about whether it is a special quirk of the original language or simply a bit of awkward text? What do you do in that sort of case?
When I accept a piece of work written in English for publication at Alluvium, I like it to be more of a "finished product" (although I do work with writers to tweak a piece, often across several rounds of editing, if I believe that it has potential). When I accept a translation, I'm more likely to spend longer with the translator, mostly to iron out any parts that feel awkward. If it's a translation from a language I am familiar with, I will ask for the original word or phrase, and we will work together on a better alternative. Plus, there are considerations such as seeking permission from the writer of the original text if we want to publish it along with the translation. That takes time too, so I always recommend that translators have permissions in hand as they're submitting. I very much enjoy working this way, and the translators I've worked with in this manner also seem to get something out of it. The relationship between a translator and editor is quite an interesting one. On longer-term projects outside of my work with Alluvium, I have forged some very successful and satisfying working relationships with translators, often spanning several books. When I'm assigned a project editing the work of certain translators, I know that the job will be a smooth one in terms of our communication and respect for each other's decisions. From your point of view as a translator, does it help to work with an editor you're familiar with, or do you prefer a "clean slate " for every project?
This probably has a lot to do with personality, but I generally like working with editors I already know. That’s partly because I am quite shy (though most people don’t realise that about me) and usually take a bit of time to feel confident in new working environments or relationships. It’s also because I tend to form bonds of trust with the editors I work with – which I think is not just a personality thing but is more or less universally true when working with a professional editor. There is a reason you often read on an acknowledgements page something like, “This book would have never been possible without the help of my editor.” A good editor is an author’s best friend, and a translator’s too. When I work with an editor I already know, it is easy to hit the ground running, as we know what to expect from each other and have already established good communication patterns in our previous projects. There’s a real comfort in that. I generally feel very energised by conversations with my editors, and I am always grateful for their input. In fact, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention here the first editor I worked with professionally, Mike Tsang from Penguin China. He was the one who gave me my first chance in the industry, along with Jo Lusby who was then heading up Penguin’s work in China, and they really took their time to guide me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.
I know you’ve had the opportunity to help some new translators along the way too, often opening doors for them that they could not have opened for themselves. It’s one of the wonderful things about editors, the way you can help people get started in their translation (and publishing) career. What are some of the things you look for that help you know a person has real potential in the field?
When you and I first met, you were working with Mike Tsang. You spoke very highly of him, and of your working relationship, and it was part of the inspiration behind my decision to pursue a career in the field of translation and editing. In turn, I hope to have inspired others to dive in! One of my favourite editor/translator collaborations has been with Ed Allen. I can't claim to have been responsible for launching his career as a translator, but I worked with him on shaping up several translations for publication at Alluvium – a process we both enjoyed. What I immediately saw in Ed, in addition to his passion for books, was an interest in bringing young and previously untranslated Chinese voices to an English readership. He also has a great diversity in terms of his ability to approach a wide variety of source material, ranging from the work of renowned Chinese authors like Cao Yu to '80s-born writers like Zhou Jianing. For me, a budding translator must be fixated with language and literature, and must have at least the beginnings of an understanding of the process of translation. Would you agree?
Absolutely! I often tell my students that literary translation has to be as much about the “literary” as it is about the “translation” – probably even more, to be honest. It is easy to fixate on the little details of how to translate this word or that, but doing so often loses sight of how the words works in its context. The relationship of this word to everything around it is what gives it meaning, not the definition you can find in a dictionary. And the “everything around it” includes not only the immediate context of the words on the page, but also the larger context of which the work as a whole is a part. This includes connotations of the word as it is used more broadly, but it also includes the words that could have been chosen in place of this one but for some reason weren’t. Where this word fits into the text, the language system as a whole, and the culture to which that language is connected is all extremely important. If we aren’t attentive to all these things, we will end up missing connotations, and sometimes even translating things accurately on the literal level that still somehow aren’t faithful on the literary/cultural level.
Learning to translate well can be a long process, but there is some focus on it in universities and other venues that teach skills to equip one for a literary career. I notice that there are very few courses available that teach someone to edit translations effectively. I think this is a shame, because the editor is such an important part of the process of producing an effective translation. This is what drove us to start up our new online courses on the topic. I’m very pleased that you’ll be leading the way in this field. What would you say are the key takeaways you’d like learners in that online environment to pick up from the courses you’re putting together?
Putting the courses together is turning out to be a very fulfilling and challenging experience, as it's requiring me to examine my own practice as an editor of translated work. I've been an editor of translations for almost a decade, and a lot of what I do comes as second nature now; figuring out how to put my techniques and habits into words is not always easy! As well as the nuts and bolts of editing, which are covered in the first few modules of the course I'm currently working on, what I'd like to convey to learners is twofold, mirroring some of the things we've discussed here. Firstly is the relationship between the translator and editor - more specifically, how to communicate with the translator whose work you are editing. Secondly is the importance of reading in the target language, so you come to understand the flow and cadence, as well as the idioms, registers, and patterns. Perhaps you could help me out here! Is there anything you would like to communicate to editors who may work on your translations in the future?
I think the thing I have appreciated most in the work of editors I’ve cooperated with in the past is the high standards of literary excellence that they pursue. It seems to me that the role they have played in guiding my work is to give me insights into what their readers want, then to point out the places where I’m perhaps missing the mark in delivering that. In the same way that a translator stands between the culture of the original language and the culture of the target language, the editor stands between the unpolished vision of the author and translator and the market the author-translator duo is trying to reach with the work in translation. Of the three, the editor is the one who has the broadest knowledge of the readership the book will be delivered to, and therefore knows best how readers will respond to the text in the state it is in. This was perfectly illustrated in the experience of translating the title of Sheng Keyi’s Wild Fruit, which you and I discussed last month. When the book came to me with the working title “Barbaric Growth,” it was obvious that there needed to be a change, and “Savage Life” felt quite workable as an expression that was close to the original and still sounded good in English. What the editor was able to do was to say that while the title might be a good fit for the title in the original language and even for the content of the book, it was going to severely misfire with the target readership. She was able to continue to push me to think about how to solve the problem. It was one of the last two issues we settled in the course of that translation, even though it was one of the first issues we identified as needing attention in the production of that particular text. This was something the editor was able to see very clearly, and she helped ensure that we didn’t just content ourselves with something that was sufficiently “matching” with the Chinese title while being alienating to the new readership. That is such an important role – keeping the reader clearly in mind and helping the author and translator to address issues that will not be workable in the new market. I am sure you must work very hard to keep up with what is and isn’t working for contemporary readers, because it shifts over time.
Absolutely. As we discussed earlier, reading is crucial for editors, especially hyper-contemporary work. Keeping abreast of trends in the marketplace and readership is essential. Luckily for us in our line of work, translated literature is gaining popularity and acceptance in the Anglophone market. Due to its hegemonic status, English has traditionally been translated into from other languages, rather than being the source language for translated work. However, in recent years, big hitters and literary prize winners have widened the readership, many of whom are Chinese - Mo Yan, Liu Cixin, and Wang Anyi, to name just a few. A widening readership for translated work is a great boon for everyone involved in the translation process, and will mean that more translators and more editors will be able to find their niche. I'm hoping that the course I'm preparing will help to nurture new editing talent.
Thank you so much, Susie. I really appreciate you sharing these insights into editing, and I’m really looking forward to seeing more in your upcoming courses!
Thanks for having me! Very much looking forward to launching the courses, and chatting to you again soon about translation.
Born in the northwest of England in 1981, Susie Gordon is a Liverpool-based editor and writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Living in China between 2008 and 2016, she wrote and edited for many of Shanghai’s English language magazines, as well as for international publications such as Virgin Media, Condé Nast, Executive Travel, and the BBC. As a literary editor she has worked on the English translation of S. P. Tao’s memoir, as well as Fan Wen’s ‘Land of Mercy’ for Rinchen Books.
In 2016 she co-founded Literary Shanghai – a publishing and events company specialising in Chinese literature in translation as well as original work in English. She is currently the commissioning editor of Literary Shanghai’s international journal Alluvium.
Her short fiction has appeared in the Singaporean journals Eunoia Review and Junoesq, and in HAL Publishing’s two anthologies Party Like It’s 1984 (2010) and Middle Kingdom Underground (2011). Her non-fiction essay Empty From the Outside was published in Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw Books, 2013), sparking considerable press interest in China and beyond. In 2016 her short story Claire was selected for publication in Epigram Books’ Best Singaporean Short Stories: Volume 3.
Her first poetry collection, Peckham Blue, was published in London by Penned in the Margins in 2006, and her second collection, Harbouring, came out in 2015 under Math Paper Press in Singapore. Her poetry has appeared in the May Anthologies 10th Anniversary edition (2003), Unshod Quills (2011), and United Verses (2014), and her 2005 poem On Raymond’s Bike has been translated into Hungarian by the poet Kőrizs Imre.
Susie holds a BA in English (2003) from St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford, and an MRes in Chinese Studies from the University of Liverpool (2016 – 2017), where she is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, researching the persistent appeal of the “China exotic” in contemporary English fiction.
Her upcoming course with Tender Leaves, entitled Editing Literary Translations, includes 6 video modules (audio and written transcripts available), a suggested reading list, and 1-month paid access to all content at A Polite Lie.
You can find more courses on Literary Translation here.