Finding the Author’s Voice in Literary Translation (While Silencing Yours)

Rafa Lombardino

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During the 56th Annual Conference organized November 4-7, 2015 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Miami, I attended a presentation by the Literary Division entitled “Finding the Author’s Voice in Literary Translation (While Silencing Yours.)” The presenter was Mercedes Guhl, administrator of ATA’s Literary Division and the mind behind Traduzco, luego escribo, a blog about reading, writing, and translating that is written entirely in Spanish.

Mercedes was born in Colombia, started translating children’s books in 1990 while completing her BA in philosophy and literature, and later received her MA in translation studies from the University of Warwick, in the UK. Recently, while talking to her husband―who is also a translator―he asked her whether all books translated by the same translator end up having the same voice.

While pondering the question, she realized that (a) No, books translated by the same translator shouldn’t “sound” the same because translators re-enact or re-create the author’s voice in the target language, and (b) Yes, translated books may seem to have the same voice sometimes if the originals sound the same because they belong to a series, fall in the same genre, or were poorly written in the first place. “Editors don’t understand that sometimes a book could be translated in different ways,” she added, indicating that her husband’s question doesn’t seem to be very unusual after all.

Paraphrasing Umberto Eco, Mercedes said that the best-case scenario for book translators would be to read as the ideal reader, but translate with the common reader in mind. As a general concept, by reading as ideal readers, translators can learn to emulate the author’s voice, since “the original provides a grid” for the target text to be produced.

She also mentioned the contrasts between translators from an earlier age, who translated books to understand and acquire knowledge, and modern book translators, whose work is intended for publication and distribution. Because book translations nowadays serve the purpose of being a product for mass consumption, translators must exercise their writing skills in order to “have the tools and resources required to imitate, innovate, and create when necessary.”

In order to learn more about the work process other book translators follow and how similar or different it might be from her own method, she decided to carry out a study. One of the main questions she added to a questionnaire sent out to fellow book translators was whether they preferred reading the entire book before translating it, as she does herself, or if they would rather read each page as they are translating it.

Mercedes was surprised to find out that many would rather not read in advance, since she believes that some texts “should be understood as a whole” after a thorough reading, for they could contain “landmines that need to be simmered.” One of the opposing views she highlighted was by a translator who, in turn, contended that “reading as you translate yields a more vivid and spontaneous version.”

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“Do you read to understand or do you translate to understand?”

Another curiosity Mercedes had was how translators first approach a project, which she calls “the first ten pages struggle.” Because she translates mainly children and young adult books, she says “it’s easier to just turn to the teenager you have inside and go… After the first ten pages, things come together and click. You go with the flow,” she added.

As for quality standards―which is always a hot topic when it comes to book translations, given the exposure that the final material gets―she wondered what her peers considered to be a good or a poor translation.

“I’m a little fearless,” she admits. “I was trained as an editor, so I am always thinking about the poor reader. It’s like a ménage à trois, and you have to be faithful to both the author with the original and the reader with the translation.” The two questions she asks herself to assure the quality of her translations are: “Is it internally coherent?” and “Is it adequate for the market?”

Among other questions she had for her peers were:

  • Is a book a 100% mind-consuming task? In other words, do translators read or work on more than a book at a time?

  • When and how do you read? Or, do you read to understand or do you translate to understand?

  • Do you look up criticism and reviews about the book you’re translating?

  • Do you talk to editors about your translation choices?

  • Do you follow a given method, or do you just “go with the flow?” That is, do you compile glossaries and take notes while reading, or just see what happens in the first draft?

  • How do you deal with dated expressions? Do you research equivalents or just make something up in the target language to make it sound contemporary?

  • How about loaded words? Do you provide a direct translation, replace it, or coin a new term?

  • When finding the voice of an author/character who is of the opposite sex, do you usually have any problems with that?

  • How do you translate dialogues?

  • What is your view about footnotes? Do you see them as a way you can “manipulate” readers, or would you rather remain silent as a translator?

  • During the final stages of the project, do you make minor or major changes?

  • Do you always have a chance to review your translation after it’s edited, so you have the final say?

The conclusions she reached at the end of her study were as follows:

  1. There are no sure methods or tried paths when it comes to translating a book.

  2. Each individual profile, set of skills, and background calls for individual methods.

  3. Likewise, certain projects call for a different approach.

  4. Creativity rules, not only in the general method, but also in the way a given project is undertaken.


RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, a collective blog about translation and literature, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS), a project to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.