A short guide on how to translate a book your client will love

I started translating a new book for one of my old clients today (Russian into English). So I thought I would jot down some thoughts and insights on the process of translating a book from a co-creator’s standpoint.

Translating a book is an act of co-creation, not a mechanical process

How do you translate a book? I start with the mindset. Having translated over 100 books in 28 years, I am convinced that producing a quality translation (or any work of art) is not a mechanical process but an act of co-creation.

Insights from J.R.R. Tolkien and Leo Tolstoy

Bag End,Bilbo Baggins' residence
Bag End

The creator of the world-famous fantasy legendarium, J.R.R. Tolkien, said that he never “invented” any of the events of the Lord of the Rings:

“I have long ceased to invent… I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.”

What does he mean?

Leo Tolstoy noticed a similar paradox in writing Anna Karenina. He confessed that he never knew in advance what Anna would do next and just waited to see how things would unfold.

I think both great authors reveal the secret of their great writing – being able to listen to the text, its characters, and the inner logic of the plot without forcing anything on them.

They didn’t just “tell” or “command” their characters to act in a certain way. They didn’t bid them to “do their will.” Instead, they patiently listened to them, letting them think and act on their own.

Dialoguing with the text as you translate

Co-creation is a process of deeply listening to what the text might be saying and responding to what you “have heard.”

Here’s how I see it. After reading a sentence, I pause for a second or two and let it sink in. The goal here is not to rush or force anything on the page. I am not “working on the text.” Rather, I am in a dialogue with it. In fact, “it” is working on me.

I just need to hear what’s being said and then “catch” my spontaneous response to it coming from inside. This “response” is the translation I am looking for.

Translation is a response to what you have heard. And it is very different from translating mechanically – as in “working on a text.”

Hearing what the sentence is “saying” is a way to tap into a hidden source of energy. It is this energy that creates something worth reading. If I allow the text to speak to me, I will be able to say something in return.

Translation as a conversation with a good friend

Imagine speaking to a good friend. What would happen if you started talking without letting them say a word? There would be no communication. No connection.

Translators often see the text as an object to work on. An object is something I can study, measure, and use. But I cannot have a relationship with an object. You need two subjects to have a relationship. Treating something or someone as an object implies disconnection.

As a translator, I need to establish a connection with the author. If I don’t hear him or her, I am not able to say anything that would BE BORN OUT OF THE CONNECTION.

But the reader is ultimately looking for this sensation of “connectedness,” “relatableness” when they read the text. Like “I have always wanted to say it, only I couldn’t find the right words.”

You never know where “the conversation” will take you

When I don’t “hear” the text (think “friend”), I push my own agenda. I think I know what to say. But I am not actually communicating because communication takes two parties, not one.

Translating in response is different. You never know in advance what the text will say to you or how you will respond. You are not managing anything but allow yourself to be led. It’s about trusting the flow.

Like in a good conversation, it looks like a cycle – I listen, I hear, I respond to what arises in me.

A simple exercise for connecting with the text

  1. Listen for your emotions as you read each sentence. People read emotions, not words. How does it make you feel? Warm? Entertained? Uplifted? Amused?
  2. Allow 1-2 seconds for the sentence to “settle in” before putting anything on the page. Most likely, you will “hear” some words filling up your consciousness. These are the words you are looking for – your free response.
  3. You will probably feel energy accumulating inside. When it comes, “catch the wave” and let it pour out on the page.
  4. Pause for 1 second before going to the next sentence to create some mental space. Then, listen to the next sentence.
  5. Repeat the cycle.

4 signs that you are on the right track

  • You lose all sense of time. When you translate a book with a co-creator’s mindset, you are carried along by a flow of creative energy, which makes time irrelevant.
  • You don’t keep track of how much you have done. The generated energy draws you into the process by a strong gravitational pull.
  • You don’t “think” very much. The words just come from the subconscious.
  • When you revisit what you have done, you feel a sense of fulfillment and a sense of awe at the same time, knowing that it wasn’t you who did it.

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