Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.39: Translation, with special guest Alex Shvartsman

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Dan, and Lari, with guest Alex Shvartsman

Translation is fantastically complex. In this episode Lari and Alex help us navigate those complexities, both from the standpoint of the translator, and from the standpoint of the author seeking to have their work translated.

Credits: This episode was mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write a story in which the characters are in trouble because of a linguistic misunderstanding.

Thing of the week: “The Green Hills of Dmitry Totzkiy,” by Eldar Safin, (English translation by Alex Shvartsman).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: How do you translate somebody else’s work into a different language? First, what kind of translation are you doing? Literary translation for fiction, you want to satisfy the reader. Remember traduttori traditori, translation is betrayal. While translations should be windows, often the translator needs to make it readable and pleasant for the reader. Translation often requires changing the style. Finding equivalent concepts and pop culture references. Different cultures may go farther in changes. Watch out for wordplay and references. When you are writing a book, tell the best story you can, and don’t worry about translation. Maybe make notes about wordplay or other things to help the translators. The agent and publisher will usually sell the rights for translation for a novel, while short fiction is more likely a labor of love by a volunteer translator.  

[Note: there may be mistakes in the transcript where foreign names and words were introduced.]

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 39.

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Translation, with special guest Alex Shvartsman.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Lari] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Lari] And I’m Lari.

[Mary Robinette] And we have our special guest here today, Alex Shvartsman. Alex, do you want to tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

[Alex] Hi. I’m a writer, editor, and translator. I’ve had over 100 short stories published all over the place. Places like Analog and Strange Horizons, and Fireside, and many other markets. I’ve edited over a dozen anthologies, primarily the Unidentified Funny Object anthology series, which is an annual anthology of humorous science fiction and fantasy. As of about five or six years ago, because I felt that I didn’t have enough on my plate, I decided to share really, really cool Russian science fiction stories with fellow American fans. So my journey into the translation began. Now, I’ve had translations published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Apex, Samovar, and many other places, and I’ve done a number of longer projects as well. So I’ve been spending more and more time in translation lately.

[Dan] Cool.

[Mary Robinette] Awesome.

[Dan] Excellent. Well, I am very excited to have both Alex and Lari on this one, because they have both done a lot of translation work. We got actually a lot of questions from our listeners about translation, both from the side of the translator, how does it work, and from the side of the author, how do you get your stuff translated, how does that work? Let’s start from the translator. Can… Talk to us a little bit about the ins and outs of translating somebody else’s work into a different language.

[Alex] So, the first question to ask is, what kind of translation you’re doing. There’s literary translation, which is translating fiction, essentially. Then there is scholarly translation, something that you’re doing for a university, for a library project, things like that. So that kind of translation is really different. In that kind of translation, the fealty is always to the text. You don’t care how nice it is to read, you don’t care how smooth it is, your job is to correlate it almost word for word as clearly as possible and with lots and lots of footnotes. Now, footnotes are the tool of the devil. We do not use footnotes, as much as possible, in literary translation. Some people will argue with that, but that’s my stance and I will die on that hill. Now, with literary translation, my job is to satisfy the reader before satisfying the writer. Which means that I will betray the writer every once in a while, and stab them in the back gently, very gently, in order to make a story more readable for the intended audience. There is a concept in translation for that, it comes from Italian, it’s called traduttori traditori. What that means is that to translate is to betray. That concept originated when the French translated Dante, and the Italians felt that they had done so badly. So they came up with that, because Dante’s language is so rich, they felt that translation was a betrayal of his work. We translators use that term to say, “Hey, we need to betray someone.” Sometimes we betray the writer in favor of the reader, and sometimes were forced to betray the reader to better translate what the writer had to say.

[Dan] That is a fascinating concept to me. I’m sorry, Lari, go ahead.

[Lari] Yeah. There are also different schools of translation, and there are a few that will say that you… It’s fine for you to see the writer or the original behind the curtains. That is, lately, I think, nowadays has fallen into disuse. Nobody does that anymore. Currently, most translations, especially literary translations, will say that a translation’s supposed to be a window. As a translator, you want to make that window look like it’s not there. So if… You’re polishing the glass [to the last one] so that people will look into the room and they will feel like there is no window. So mostly… I think most translators would agree that you’re more often than not betraying the author to make it more readable and pleasant to the reader. Maybe it’s not a great thing to hear.


[Dan] No, this is fascinating to me, especially because recently, kind of, the news hit the Internet of the 120-year-old Icelandic translation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Which, once somebody who knew the original took a good look at it, it turns out to be just essentially fanfiction of Dracula, wildly rewritten. Which, I think, is clearly an extreme case, but this idea that you would change things and betray the author in some sense… I’m sure there’s a very fine line. Can you give us any examples of when you have had to betray the author in the service of the reader?

[Alex] Certainly. You don’t actually have to go 120 years back to find a good example of this. Ken Liu, who is, a few would argue one of the greatest if not the greatest translators working in genre today, was working on The Three Body Problem, which won the Hugo, as you know. The style in which the Body Problem was written is very different from the way novels are written in English. So, in the Body Problem, you didn’t have dialogue the way that we think of dialogue. You didn’t have just clearly marked this person said this, this person said this. Instead, you had the narrator telling you, person A said this while he smoked a cigarette. Person B responded with this, and she did this. All of this in a block of text. That block of text would be almost entirely unreadable to an average Western reader who’s used to novels the way that we know of novels for hundreds of years. So Ken had a decision to make. He could either be loyal to the author and translate the block of text as it was, which would make it really, really difficult for most of us to enjoy the actual plot of the book, the actual text, or he could significantly rework those parts and turn them into actual dialogue. So the great advantage of working with living authors is that we can ask them. So Ken was able to ask the author, Cixin Liu, whether or not he could make these changes, and he got those approved. So he made significant changes to that. We all do these sorts of things. I have to find concepts and find popular culture references that are equivalents in English to those that original author would use. So if you’re translating a story from English to another language, and the story says that somebody just ran into a wall like in the Roadrunner cartoon, you’re assuming that most of your readers are familiar with Roadrunner. But the readers in China or in Nigeria or in Russia might not be familiar with Roadrunner. So you have to find an equivalent cartoon there to use in this instance. Of course, you’re not going to have 100% correlation. There is going to be… It is going to be a little bit different, and that’s where the art of translation versus the technical skill of translation comes into play.

[Lari] I have a fun fact about this. JK Rowling speaks Portuguese, because she lived in Portugal for a while. So she was involved in some of the translations of the Harry Potter… The different houses, how the school was called in Portuguese. The translator actually checked with her for a few of the names. I also… Another interesting point is that how each culture is going to think about how far they can go from the original when they’re doing their translation. So, very often, I would say that French translation really goes much further from the original when translating to make it more… Sound more French. It has a lot to do with how the country thinks about readers and thinks about how the readers receive translation. So in Brazil, people are used to reading translations, it’s not a big deal. It’s not quite the same in the US. So there’s this sense that it needs to be adapted more. So the readers interact with it more.

[Mary Robinette] Well, let’s go ahead and pause here for our book of the week. Alex, I think you had something you wanted to share with us?

[Alex] Sure. So, in this case, it’s actually a magazine. I wanted to highlight Samovar. Samovar is affiliated with Strange Horizons, but it’s actually sort of its own thing. They’re one of only two magazines in our field that are exclusively focused on international fictions. Samovar publishes each story both in translation and in the original. So people who are able to compare the texts can do so. I’ve had several short stories appear there. Most recently, there was a story called The Green Hills of Dmitry Totzkiy, which is a really weird story in the sort of the VanderMeer style of weird, I would say. By a Russian [Kazoff] author, named Eldar Safin. It’s his first English-language publication. The story is so strange and so unusual that it was just a pleasure to get to translate it. So I wanted to highlight that, and highlight his work, since it’s his first appearance. Which is what we translators love to do, we love to bring material that you would not otherwise have access to.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, that’s wonderful.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that occurred to me as you were both speaking was that one of the biggest problems with when you’re doing translation is wordplay. Which often winds up affecting the titles. Because a lot of things I think you can get around with by providing additional context, but titles wind up being really, really tricky. Like, I have my… Shades of Milk and Honey in the Japanese is, I think, Mrs.… Miss Ellsworth’s Magical Neighbor because the biblical reference of milk… Land of milk and honey is meaningless. Calculating Stars doesn’t actually translate well because it’s… There’s a joke there. So it’s… Or not a joke, but there’s some wordplay with the different ways that you can use calculating. So what… Do you have… Is that a piece that the translator thinks about or is it much like books here that it is often the sales and marketing department that thinks about what the new title should be?

[Alex] Oh, it has to be the translator, because the translator understands what the load… But the cultural load and the meaning of what the pond is in the original language. The marketing department will not have the same benefit most likely. So, I actually have a perfect example for this. One of my favorite stories that I’ve translated, which also was published in Samovar as a matter of fact, was a story by [Катерина Бачило] writing as K. A. Teryna. The name of the story in Russian is Бес названия [Bes Nazvaniya]. Now, Bes Nazvaniya is, if you change one letter, could mean one of two things. It could either mean Untitled or it could mean The Demon of the Name.

[Mary Robinette] Hah. Wow.

[Alex] So, Bes Nazvaniya… Bes is a demon and Bes is without. So I had to come up, and this is relevant… I couldn’t just randomly change the name of the story without referencing it, because this is actually referenced in the text itself. So I had to find something that was even remotely workable with the plot of the story. So the name of the story in English ended up being Untilted. Untilted playing off of untitled. It’s an intentional misspelling that’s mentioned in the story, and is justified within the story itself.

[Mary Robinette] Wow.

[Lari] I’ll mention, though, that it’s very… If you’re dealing with a very commercial publishing house, it is possible that marketing will just change the title. That has happened to me a couple of times.


[Dan] Yeah. Let’s talk about this from the author’s side as well. I suspect I know the answer to this one up front, but when someone is writing a book, knowing that it will be, or hoping that it will be, translated, is there anything they can or should do to make that process easier?

[Alex] I would think not. I think when you’re creating a work, whether it’s a novel or a short story or a screenplay, any creative endeavor, you’re creating it for the medium for which… In which you’re working. So if you stop yourself and start thinking, well, how is this going to work in my audiobook? How is this going to work in translation? How is this going to work if someone tries to adapt this to screen? You are literally limiting yourself instead of being as creative and telling as interesting a story as you can. So, no, I don’t think you should. I think your job is to tell the best possible story in a medium, and then let the professionals figure out how to convert that to podcast, to translation, to any other medium that… If it is indeed possible.

[Dan] That is what I expected you to say. So, hurrah! I was right.

[Alex] Yay.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to fight against.

[Dan] Okay. Cool.

[Mary Robinette] Because… Since I do audiobooks, I actually do think about it when I write. With audiobooks. But I’ve also talked to other translators, and they’ve said that there are some things you can think about that when it’s time to have your work translated, that can make it easier. For instance, if you know that you’ve done wordplay in something, if you make a note of it so that when the translation… Is one this book is going to translation, that you can have a note ready for the translator about this is the wordplay. Because one of the things that I’ve… Like, not all translators are equal. Some of them will not actually catch the wordplay that you have put in, or the deep cultural significance of a thing, so that there are something you can do that don’t involve erasing your creativity.


[Dan] I have, like, a thousand translator stories that I would love to tell, but we don’t have time. We, in fact, are out of time, but I want to ask two more very quick questions. If someone out there is writing a book, and they are hoping to have it translated into other languages, so more people can read it, how do you go about selling foreign rights, selling your book into foreign markets, and then how do you get that translated?

[Mary Robinette] I think you can answer this from a novel or a short fiction.

[Dan] Yes.

[Alex] So, it’s actually two completely different answers, though. For novels, your agent and your publisher will work to sell the rights, and your involvement in this may actually be minimal. You will work with a translator, of course, if you’re able to, and you’ll answer questions, but you aren’t necessarily going to do a lot to influence. The best way to sell your novel in translation is just to do really well with your novel in English. Or whatever original language that it came out in. But for short fiction, it’s a completely different landscape, because there’s very little money involved, so agents and all these professionals generally will not be involved. What ends up happening with the vast majority of short stories that are translated is you have translators who are volunteers who are fans themselves, like myself, find a story, read it, fall in love with a story, and then reach out to the author and ask their permission to translate a story. Once they’ve translated the story, I then shop it around to short fiction markets in the same way as I will my own short story. I send the submissions with a cover letter and all that. You prearrange with an author, typically, the deal is if you sell a story to somewhere like Fantasy and Science Fiction or whatever, you split the money 50-50. Because there’s no money upfront, nobody’s paying you. Because, typically for professional translation, their rates are about $0.10-$0.15 per word. So that’s already more than most markets will pay for the translation. So the money is not there. As such, it has to be a labor of love for the translator, and they have to be willing to do this on [scrap] the overwhelming majority of the time.

[Mary Robinette] Lari, did you have something that you wanted to say about that, too?

[Lari] Yeah. Just on the editor and the agent’s side, since I have that side of the experience. I will just kind of to give an overview to everyone on how that works. We… Once I have a manuscript, we’ll decide at which point we’re sending out that manuscript for international publishers. So we might do that at the first point when it’s being sold and get that into the [unclear] publishing houses, or we might do that when it’s already closer to publication, depending on what shape the manuscript’s in. Then, that’s going to be sent to publishing houses around the world who publish that kind of book. I think the thing to keep in mind here is that the person who’s deciding if they’re publishing that or not is also an editor in the different country. I don’t know if that is obvious for everyone. So we’re talking to editors again. It’s a whole new submission process. What’s interesting is that often there are things that people think will not work internationally, and then the book becomes really big in the US, and suddenly, it works. So, even the idea that there is something that you can do or shouldn’t do to not make it harder or to make it easier for the translator to translate, really, it depends on an editor in a different country connecting to a story and seeing value in making the translation.

[Mary Robinette] Well, that’s a great note to wrap up on. So, let’s leave our listeners with a little bit of homework. Alex, do you have something to help them with?

[Alex] Sure. So, the prompt that I came up with is linguistic misunderstanding. I would love for all of you to write a story where the characters are in trouble some way because of a cultural or linguistic misunderstanding. Something has gone wrong in translation. Really build that into the story, don’t just have that be an inciting incident and then completely walk away from it.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a great suggestion. All right. You are out of excuses. Now go write. Does anyone want to say that again, in another language?

[Dan] Yes. Please do that.

[Alex] [Russian… Google translate suggests У тебя нет оправданий. А теперь иди пиши. (U tebya net opravdaniy. A teper’ idi pishi.)]

[Lari] [another language…Portuguese? Google translate suggests Você está sem desculpas. Agora vá escrever.]