“I Want to Bring Books to the Audience and, as a Translator, I Hope People Can Trust my Work,” Says Lisa Carter

Reaching the mid-point of my round of reviews on literary sessions held at the ATA Conference, here's a look behind the scenes of a book in translation

During the 53rd Annual Conference organized October 24-27, 2012 by theAmerican Translators Association (ATA) in San Diego, I attended a session entitled The Einstein Enigma: A Case Study in Literary Translation. The presenter, Lisa Carter, is a Spanish into English translator certified by the ATA and the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO) and the owner of Intralingo Inc.

Lisa was first contacted in August 2009 to translate A fórmula de Deus, originally written by Portuguese best-selling author José Rodrigues dos Santos. However, since she is a Spanish into English translator, she was given the Spanish version of the book, La fórmula de Dios, translated by Mario Merlino.

She admits to thinking it odd to work with a bridge language, that is, her source material would be a translation of the original text. According to the publisher, the Spanish version had benefited from some extra editing, and that was why editors pushed for the Spanish-into-English translation. 

The proposal made her shift her perspective on how to approach the translation. “I want to bring books to an audience, so should it really matter if it’s a translation of a translation?” she asked herself. However, she felt tempted to often check the original in Portuguese in order to identify what possible adaptations could have taken place and decide how she would find solutions for her English version. 

Unfortunately, she was unable to contact the Spanish translator, who passed away before they could discuss his own solutions. “As a translator, I hope people can trust my work. Shouldn’t the Spanish version then stand on its own?” she asked, mentioning that Mario Merlino was a reputable translator with many books published. “Still, errors can slip in if editors are purely correcting grammar, without knowing the original language,” she added. 

Negotiations ― From the start, the project was labeled a “rush” assignment to be completed between August 2009 and “by the end of the year.” Nevertheless, she only received the contract in November 2009 and, after many rounds of negotiation, translator and publisher finally reached an agreement on price, royalties and deadline to have the book translated by March 2010. 

“When we’re dealing with a bestseller, the rush is always one-sided, from the part of the editor,” she said, admitting that it took a little bit of client education to make the publisher understand that, despite their eagerness for the English version to hit the shelves soon, the work has to be done responsibly to assure consistency and, consequently, success. 

“Translating a book of this nature in two months is possible. You can get words on the page, but you’re not going to get style and it won’t be a bestseller,” she added. “I worked very hard seven days a week for five months. I breathed this story, I slept thinking about the story.” 

While waiting for the green light to initiate the project, she started preparing and read the book thoroughly many times between August and November. She researched a lot and worked on a rough draft, even though it wasn’t a concrete job until the contract was signed. Once she was able to commit to it, she had to hire a Spanish-speaking researcher to help her.

She asked the publisher whether she could consult with the author if she had any questions, but the editor wanted everything to go through him, which ultimately delayed the process. “I wasn’t aware of the arrangement between author and editor, and some writers prefer not to be contacted by translators,” she said. “My obligation was to the publisher, but I felt like we were cheating on the author.”

Challenges ― Lisa acknowledged that she doubted herself during the translation, mainly due to her unfamiliarity with concepts in math, science, and philosophy. The author’s note in the beginning of the book, stating that physicists and mathematicians defend the scientific theories used in the novel, also made her nervous about accurately rendering these ideas yet unknown to her. 

She recalled that some of the philosophical issues had been introduced by the author without the mention of any source. “Complex concepts and theories were distilled through the dialog, taking big ideas and reflecting them in simple phrases,” she explained. There were no footnotes to refer to and these notions were embedded into the story. 

The use of foreign languages―a result of the main character’s many travels all over the globe―posed yet another challenge. There were many quotes in German, Chinese, Hebrew, Farsi, and Tibetan, so everything had to be double-checked in these languages by her researcher, who luckily attended the University of Ottawa and had access to native speakers to make sure each passage was spelled correctly. 

In addition to these issues specific to concept and language, as a reader of literature in English Lisa also detected some inconsistencies with characters and redundant language. As an example, she mentioned the fact that the very knowledgeable protagonist would sometimes make comments that were not very consistent with his abilities, all for the sake of educating readers.

Some of the dialog also brought her to a screeching halt due to repetitions that she thought wouldn’t work in the translation. Weighing in the author’s original intention, she worked around it by adapting it to the English writing style, streamlining the speech without changing the meaning. 

“The purpose of dialogue is to advance plot,” she explained. “The challenge was to introduce information to readers, without jeopardizing the idea of who the character was and making sure the reading experience was intact.”

Completion ― After completing her work and noticing that the editor wasn’t responding to her follow-up inquiries, Lisa decided to contact José Rodrigues dos Santos. “I was feeling too distant from the author,” she recalled. “And my responsibilities to the publisher were done.”

She apologized for not being in constant contact and explained that the editor insisted in being the middle man. The author was very graceful and confirmed that it had been the editor’s decision not to let them communicate with each other during the translation process. Dos Santos even gave her an interview for her blog announcement when the book was released.

Ultimately, the editor revised her translation and she had no say in it, despite making sure a clause had been included in the contract that she was to see the final version of the book before going to print. Yet, that never happened. 

“When one of my book translations comes out, I never look at it very closely,” she acknowledged. “It’s always too painful. I keep thinking, ‘I could have done better.’ In addition to that, some sections are completely changed or even left out of the final version after going through the editor.” 

Her translation finally hit the shelves as The Einstein Enigma. The change in the title―which could have been “God’s Formula” to match both the Portuguese original and the Spanish version―was a decision made by the publisher, which most likely wanted to avoid any controversy by using the word “God” in the English-speaking market. Later, the title of the Spanish version also changed from La fórmula de Dios to El enigma de Einstein.

Recognition ― Lisa remembers that, after the release, the book wasn't widely available. "It was a drop in this large pool of books,” she says. “I had worked so hard for months and it felt like my baby was going out in the world and nobody cared."

But that situation soon changed when the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award took notice of the book. She was notified of the nomination in July 2011, but couldn't tell anybody until November of that year, when the official announcement was made. 

The nomination came from readers and the Municipal Libraries of Lisbon and Porto, in Portugal, and the book made to the 2012 long list. Nominations are open to any title published in English, without making a distinction between works originally written in the language and translation from a foreign language. "That made me feel very proud that the book was being judged by how the story was told in English," she stated.

The Dublin Literary Award has a large cash prize of 100,000 €, which in the case of literary translations is split 75% to the author and 25% to the translator. Out of 149 books nominated in 2012, 39 were translations. Jon McGregor ended up being the 2012 winner for his novel Even the Dogs.

Lisa says she was thrilled and honored to even be considered for the award. “It gives you prestige, since both author and translator are recognized,” she mentioned. “Publishers have a marketing strategy, but it only applies to the book and author, not the translator.”