The Working Relationship Between Translator and Editor
Conversation with Alluvium Editor Susie Gordon
Hi, Susie. Thanks for agreeing to a conversation with me. I think your insights as a frequent editor of translated work will be valuable for readers of A Polite Lie. I’ve found that it’s often easy for translators (myself included) to get so caught up in the relationship between the two languages we are working in that we can lose sight of the end goal, which is a perfectly put-together text. It’s like the close proximity to the original “infects” the translation, sometimes resulting in stilted or otherwise unnatural language that must really grate on the nerves of a good editor. Am I right to guess that this is the response it provokes in you?
Hello! Many thanks for inviting me to have this conversation, which will hopefully be both fruitful and enlightening. The working relationship between translator and editor is one that’s often overlooked in favor of the more visible pairing of translator and original author. However, in my opinion, the former is just as interesting as the latter.
Over the course of my 10-year career as an editor, the majority of the work I’ve done has been editing translations, mainly from Mandarin Chinese to English. Some of this has been functional, non-literary work such as textbooks and business communications – an entirely different kettle of fish to fiction, which is what I will speak about here.
Having worked on so many translated novels and pieces of fiction, I’ve developed an understanding of the translator’s task, and I therefore approach my own work with this in mind. In my view, the stilted or unnatural language you mentioned is actually indicative of a good translator – one who is rightfully concerned with accuracy. However, a common misconception is that the ‘best’ translation is the most ‘accurate’. This is not true. A good translation privileges linguistic and cultural readability over word-for-word accuracy. The nature of language means that a direct word-for-word translation will not render a readable text; the nature of culture means that many things will have to be lost in translation, simply because some ideas, jokes, or ideas are untranslatable. Often, a single word in Chinese cannot be directly translatable as a single word in English, or vice versa. A pun that relies upon Chinese homophones will simply not work in English if translated word for word. This is where the artistic license/cultural knowledge of the translator comes into play. As an editor, I would much rather see an elegant “work-around” than a clumsy direct translation.
An editor adds a layer to the process of creating a good, readable translated text that is faithful to the original without being a slavish word-for-word rendering. One step removed from the translation process, and in most cases without the original text in front of her, the editor can judge the translation as an independent text without the original hanging over her, as it hangs over the translator!
You bring up several really good points there. In fact, one of my colleagues and I were haggling over a word the other day, and I told her I’d run it by you, but not tell you the word that was used in Chinese. We both agreed that the problem we were having with the translation at that point was that we were too aware of the Chinese, to the point that it got us stuck in a sort of tunnel vision that wasn’t allowing us to think in an English language way, if that makes sense.
Your thoughts on how “accuracy” is not always what creates the best translation brings to mind an article I came across in the New Yorker last year about Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian from Korean. In defending her work when it came under attack by translators and scholars who preferred a more rigid/literal approach than that which Smith took, she said, “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.” I think that sums up perfectly what we are talking about.
I’ve always preferred to think of faithfulness/fidelity as the goal, not “accuracy.” While I think true accuracy is not in fact characterised by the sort of one-for-one sort of translation you’ve pointed to, I’m aware that many people – particularly beginning translators or people who are not experienced in translation at all – tend to mistake a one-for-one equivalence between specific words for “accuracy,” rather than aiming for a higher level of faithfulness to what the entire text says. When you get stuck in that rut of trying to duplicate each word in the translation, you often end up with some really clunky sentences. Equally bad is the overuse of particular words in the target language. You and I often laugh over some of those, with my personal favourite word (to loathe!) being vicissitudes. Ugh!
Ah, the vicissitudes! I think this probably has a lot to do with the way the target language is taught. I learned French at school, and once when I was speaking to a French person later in life, I used a word that had been in my textbook. The French person laughed, saying it was a very archaic noun that’s rarely used. I can imagine that this is the case with words like “vicissitudes” – it lodges itself into the English curriculum, and is over-used or mis-used by a whole generation of learners.
On the question of accuracy, your May 27th post here on A Polite Lie about “faithful” and “perfect” translations really hit the nail on the head. It led me to wonder why such direct translation is still seen as the ideal in some circles. Do you have any theories?
I think there are two main reasons. One is that it is easier to do a direct translation, and the other is that it is easier to evaluate someone’s translation if your only standard is “accurate,” rather than truly considering what is faithful. The standard joke in connection with this approach to “accuracy” is to point to the phrase 人山人海 being translated as “people mountain people sea.” That’s a very literally accurate translation of the words in the phrase, but not a faithful translation of the entire phrase. Of course, that’s seen as all the more egregious when you think about English having a similar cliché readily available, “a sea of people.” I have seen other examples, like a student writing “I have no requests for myself” (我对我自己没有要求, meaning something more like “I’m not very ambitious”) or an example from machine translation, “his eyes were atheistic” (眼睛无神, or “his eyes were lifeless/listless” or “he stared blankly”). I just ran that last one through Google translation and got “the eyes were godless.” Again, nothing wrong with the translation of each word, but it’s not a faithful translation even of the meaning of the phrase, much less the nuances.
Everyone laughs about these silly sorts of translations all the time. It’s easy to find photos online of those sorts of renderings on signs when some tourist to China comes across them – or even quite frequently in the newspapers in Singapore lamenting the decline of the non-English languages there. I see the overuse of particular words in translation as something like a more sophisticated example of this sort of thing. While a word like vicissitudes might be relatively accurate for a range of phrases in Chinese that incorporate the word 沧桑, it’s seldom faithful. This word is something of a running joke among the people I work with often, like “people mountain people sea” is among the general public, as we see it as a symptom of that same tendency. When I explain the problem with “vicissitudes” to students, I usually point out that the word is so infrequently used in English today and is so eye-catching that the reader will almost see nothing else in the sentence once “vicissitudes” appears. So unless the meaning of the sentence necessitates that level of emphasis on the word, it’s better to use something else that won’t draw all the attention. In addition, it’s worth considering that 沧桑 has become something of a cliché in Chinese writing, so to translate it with a word that is so infrequently used in English seems a bit off, to me. 沧桑 and vicissitudes might be words with the same or similar meaning, but they are not quite equivalent words.
Now that I’ve said all that, one other cause for this tendency to overuse or misuse some words comes to mind. I’ve had several students tell me they used “vicissitudes” in their translation because they were “trying to be poetic.” I imagine this is a problem for a lot of new translators, especially if they are not themselves poets. What do you think of this idea of “trying to be poetic,” and how do you think it can be remedied? I bet you run across it a lot not only in the translations you see, but also in the new writing you see submitted to the journal you edit.
This is a tricky one. Poetry is so deeply misunderstood. I think a lot of writers think that they need to be overly “poetic” in their language in order to elevate their work from prose into poetry. However, while there is a definite distinction between the two genres, it isn’t a question of inflated language or affected registers. A poem involves paring back rather than adding on; it is the crystallization of an idea, the burning away of everything that is not necessary for capturing the image.
I confess that I haven’t edited as much poetry in translation. Of course, I’ve spoken to you about your own practices when it comes to poems you’ve been translating, and I’m always left with the impression that it’s hard. Poetry is so distinctive in its use of meter, cadence, and sometimes rhyme. Rendering that into another language must be a Sisyphean task. Have there been any occasions where you’ve run into insurmountable problems? Is there such a thing as an untranslatable poem?
I think this question is very useful to look at in the context of the things we’ve been discussing. If we are looking at translation on a word-to-word level, there are some things that are untranslatable. I know you occasionally hear me use a Singlish phrase or word that just can’t be readily replaced by any other word. Similarly, there are English or Chinese words that are difficult to replace with an equivalent in the other language – perhaps at times in any other language. But when we look at the overall effect of the words that have been put together, I believe that is almost always translatable.
Often what is “lost” when we translate is the specific context in which the original is written, so that will affect the translation. However, I take great comfort in recognising that the same thing happens when the original poem is read in a different context, which means that not all readers of the piece in its original language will make the same connections when it comes to the context. A poem written by a Mainland writer may not be readily grasped by a Singaporean reader, regardless of language skills. The same is true in reverse. This means that for a piece of work to “carry over” even in its original language, it has to resonate even beyond the context in which it was written. The knowledge that even readers of the original language might not always “get” everything in the original gives me some measure of confidence as I approach the task of translation.
I’ve always enjoyed sharing the works of a poet for whom I’ve translated more than 60 poems, Khoo Seok Wan. Most of the poems were written in early 20th century Singapore. Khoo was very well educated in the traditional Chinese education system (even to the level of passing the imperial exams), but much of what he wrote about was his encounters in Singapore. When I share the poetry with my classes, none of the students get it on first reading, regardless of whether they are from the Mainland or Singapore – or anywhere else, for that matter.
This experience of watching others interact with Khoo’s poetry has been comforting for me as a translator. It reminds me that reading a literary work is not always straightforward, even for skilled readers of the original language. My approach is to consider how the four main elements that make up all literary writing (language, structure, image, and idea) are at work in a particular piece, then prioritise these in my translation in the same way they are prioritised in the original. For instance, if it is the structure that makes the original poem “work,” then I try to focus on making the structure a prominent feature in the translation. It might not always be the same structure as the original, due to the differences in how the two languages function, but it should duplicate the effects of the use of structure in the original. For instance, I’ve translated a poem from Chinese that relies heavily on the repetition of specific words in very close proximity. When you duplicate that exact structure in English, it ends up sounding a bit like a nursery rhyme. So in English, I used the structure of a pantoum, which repeats the lines of the poem from one verse to the next. The effect echoes what happens in the original, but in a way that more effectively utilises the English language. That echo makes the translation possible, even though it turns a 4 line poem into a 4 stanza poem. I am comfortable with that change because it allows “what’s happening” in the original to “happen” in the English too.
In your role as an editor, it must be very difficult to make decisions about the quality of a translation from a language you don’t read. I know you have a broad range of languages in your arsenal – French, Hebrew, and Chinese (and, oh yeah, English too) – but many of the things you’ve published don’t come from these languages. How do you evaluate them, if you can’t read the original?
I wish I’d known you when I was making my embarrassing teenage attempts to translate French poems into English! What you say about finding an “echo” is very interesting, particularly when it comes to form and structure. Your use of a pantoum to replicate the repetition of words in the original is perfect.
As for my own evaluation of translated poetry, I always ask myself whether a piece works as a successful poem in its own right. If it does, my understanding of the original is immaterial. Likewise, if it doesn’t work, its relationship with the original is irrelevant. By the time a translated poem reaches me as the editor of Alluvium, it ought to have gone through the necessary stages of discernment already. I have to trust that the translator and editor have done their bit when it comes to representing the original text. Due to the points you mention above, and my own interest in this genre, I’m always happy to see poetry in translation in my Alluvium submissions box.
Thank you for sharing your insights and probing with your questions. I hope you’ll join us again soon at A Polite Lie and share more of your editorial perspectives on translation.
Is there any last word of advice for literary translators you’d like to share for now?
Thank you for having me. It’s been great to chat, and I would love to join you again.
My advice to literary translators is to read as much as you possibly can in your target language. Read articles, novels, poems – whatever you can get your hands on. Become as familiar as you can with the language’s nuances, cadences, and idiosyncrasies. Then practice! The more translation you can do, the better.
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.