Rules for Translators: Andrea Labinger (Spanish-English)

by Arabic Literature (in English)  and M. Lynx Qualey  /  January 3, 2014  / 1 Comment

In Rules for Translators, Sampsonia Way presents selections from a series originally published by Arabic Literature (in English), a blog based in Cairo, Egypt. In the series, ArabLit queried 20 celebrated and award-winning literary translators about their “rules” for translation. See the full series here.

Translator Andrea Labinger

Andrea G. Labinger is Professor of Spanish Emerita at the University of La Verne. She has published numerous translations of Latin American prose fiction. Her most recent publications include a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s The Confidantes (Gaon Books, 2009), along with Ana María Shua’s Death as a Side Effect (University of Nebraska Press, 2010) and The Weight of Temptation (Nebraksa, 2012). She has also translated Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press, 2012). Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis) is forthcoming.

I think of literary translation as a halfway house between scholarly research and original creative writing. Some of the governing principles of both these activities apply:

Do your homework.

If there are cultural references in the source text that you don’t understand, by all means look them up. Listen to that symphony, view that painting, see that film. Read the essay by the writer to whom your author alludes. At the very least, skim it or read a good synopsis.

One picture is worth . . . plenty of words.

Ask your (living, of course) author for a sketch or a photo of what she’s described. It may be available online. Otherwise, have her fax it to you, if necessary. I’ve done this, and it really makes a difference.

If you’re working on a re-translation, try to avoid looking at your predecessor’s work until you’ve finished the first draft of your own.

Influences are fine, but this is your translation, after all. And if you’re asked to “spruce up” someone else’s translation, refuse. You wouldn’t want anybody to do that to yours.

Let it cool!

This is not new advice, but it bears repeating: Walk away from your translation and come back to it later with fresh eyes. You’ll find yourself able to evaluate your own work more dispassionately, and you’ll come up with better, more original solutions.

For Spanish translators or others whose source language has many regional variations:

Find good regional dictionaries, including lexicons of slang. In my arsenal, for example, are: El diccionario etimológico del lunfardo (Argentine slang) by Oscar Conde, Francisco J. Santamaría’s Diccionario de mejicanismos [sic] and a number of country-specific online dictionaries.

Take pains with your title.

It’s the first thing publishers –- and potential readers -– will see. Literal translation here can be especially treacherous. Be creative. Try to avoid using a title that already exists, as this may create confusion for those people seeking to buy your book or read reviews of it.

Join professional organizations.

In addition to ALTA, to which all US literary translators should belong, becoming a member of PEN is an excellent way to to meet other writers and become acquainted with their work.

If there is a local association of literary translators in your area, join it.

If not, consider forming one. We have recently developed our own home-grown group here in Southern California (SCALTA) that meets monthly in members’ homes and provides us with a venue for reading, enjoying, and critiquing one another’s translation projects.

It’s not necessarily a terrible idea to translate an entire work “on spec” in the hope landing a contract, but

…before you do, try submitting one chapter or discrete section of your novel-length translation to a literary journal specializing in literature in translation before attempting to tackle the entire book. Your work will reach many readers, especially if it appears in an e-journal, and among them may be your new publisher!

Be aware that these “rules” are made to be broken.

What works for me may be anathema to you, and vice-versa. In fact I’ve violated many of the rules other people have posted and more than a couple of my own. Trust your own good judgment and common sense. No one needs to tell you that this profession gets very little recognition and pays next to nothing. Presumably you’re doing it because you love it and can’t ever recall life BLT (before literary translation). What could be more fulfilling than that?

About the Author

Arabic Literature in English is an online literary magazine based in Cairo, Egypt, and edited by the writer M. Lynx Qualey.

View all articles by Arabic Literature (in English)

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