Translators under the spotlight

Rafa Lombardino

On June 5-7, 2015, I attended the 6th International Conference organized by the Brazilian Translators Association (ABRATES), which took place at the Rebouças Convention Center in São Paulo. On Saturday, June 6th―the first day of presentations―I spent most of my day in Room 5, where several presenters talked about literary translation.

The fifth session I attended was a discussion panel entitled Translators under the spotlight, which was moderated by translator Petê Rissati and featured translators Carolina Caires Coelho and Candice Soldatelli and editors Alyne Azuma and Alessandra Ruiz. The subject of their discussion? The interaction between publishers and book translators.

Petê's shot out the first question: Is it true that there's a clic in the world of book translations?

Alyne, who acts as an Editorial Coordinator, confirmed that yes, there is a clic, but things aren't quite like that. “This situation exists, but it's way less affectionate than people imagine it to be,” she explained, saying that when an editor puts together a nice team that functions well, it's only natural that they'd keep working with the same people time and again.

Alessandra said clics are inevitably created, but there's always a starting point: “It's a matter of acing your translation test or having a solid recommendation letter, because there are publishing houses that are more air-tight and have a set team.”

Petê completed that thought: “That's why it's so important to attend literary events, book releases, and get to meet different people...”

Carolina confirmed this idea saying that, in the beginning, things weren't easy for her, but recommendations helped her build her resume and, when an editor likes the job you're doing in a given genre, they'll most likely keep you around.

The second topic brought up for conversation was more directed to the translators on the panel: What do you expect from publishers?

Carolina and Petê, along with friends Flávia and Débora, talked about "translationese" in a session prepared by their blog Ponte de Letras

Carolina said that she'd like to see publishers paying more attention to translators, pointing out the fact that book editors sometimes take too long to answers questions and clear things up during the translation round, or when exchanging comments and suggestions during the proofreading round.

Alyne agreed with her, saying that communication is crucial, so everybody needs to establish a dialog, give feedback, and have a proper briefing session.

Alessandra added that, as a matter of fact, "nothing is set in stone; not even authors are always ready to go" and that the relationship between translators and book editors must be built.

Candice echoed that sentiment, reminding the audience that translators also need to go the extra mile and study a publisher's catalog if they wish to join the team, thus learning about the company's editorial philosophy. According to her own personal experiences, she said that, once the relationship between her and the publisher was created, their collaboration started to flow pretty well. "From then on, he [the editor] started to see me not only as a translator, but as a professional who truly understands his business," she explains.

Making the most of the segue, Petê asked the book editors on the panel to talk a little bit more about the editorial process in Brazilian publishers.

Alessandra said that, first of all, translators must sign a contract to give up their copyright. She justified this step as a way for publishers to minimize their expenses, paying only for services provided and avoiding long-term payments based on sales results.

 "Publishers try to pay the least amount of money and make as much profit as they can while making minimal effort," she explained. "Publishers are companies; despite all the literary aura around it, they are corporations and don't do charity work. They want to get the best work and the best profit ―not only for readers, but for company executives as well." However, she warns businesses that, when they set out to pay very little, they won't attract the best professionals and, consequently, they won't get a good job in return, thus confirming that sometimes publishers give up working with a good translator due to lack of time and feedback.

Once these issues were brought to the table, Petê moved on to the next question: How could we improve the relationship between publishers and translators?

Candice shared her own experience, saying that translators could also make an effort to recommend competent collaborators to play other roles throughout the editorial process. "Our team worked together: editor, translator, and copy editor had a briefing session," she recalls. "We had problems with the proofreader, because he hadn't been part of the process from the beginning, so we changed the way we work since then."

Additionally, she emphasized that, since translators speak both languages involved in a book translation and can evaluate books that could potentially be translated, they are the ideal team member to help publishers in their capacity as scouts. That is exactly what she did at the Frankfurt Book Fair two years ago―when Brazil was the guest of honor―participating in the editorial process from behind the scenes in order to select authors and titles, negotiate translation rights, and bringing material to the publisher she was representing.

Candice left the following message to beginners: "Pay attention to these small publishers, because they're doing things differently and growing very fast."

Changing the subject, Petê asked the panelists to talk a little bit more about the editorial flow.

Alessandra said nobody can bring a book to life all by themselves and, if they try, they'll need to wear many hats. "If you have a big ego... We in the publishing business run away from vain people. If translators, proofreaders, illustrators, and editors want to be better than the rest of the group, they'll end up messing the project up," she warned. "It's great when you have a good final product, but the best professional isn't necessarily the one who has the most prestige in the business; it's the most humble people, those who communicate better. Sometimes your text is translated well, but there are so many questions and issues just because you didn't do your research."

Carolina agreed with the idea that translators must be humble and keep an open channel for communication. "This exchange [between translators and proofreaders] is an exercise in humbleness. When translators get the revised translation back, they end up learning valuable lessons," she added.

As a translator himself, Petê voiced his agreement as well. "It's an empathy thing. What kind of text would you like to translate, proofread, or copy edit? The least trouble you cause to the copy editor, the better. Hand in the kind of text you'd like to read for pleasure," he suggested. "We must remember that we're all working together towards the same goal."

Here's the last question that the panel was asked: After a book is released, are you concerned with what is being said about your work?

Candice Soldatelli talked about her dream and nightmare: translating a book written by one of her idols

Candice told the audience that she didn't have much choice. "In my debut, I had my feet held to the fire, because I was there for the book release event," she recalls, saying that she was face to face with readers of her very first book translation. "They asked very pertinent questions and I needed to be prepared to answer them. It seems to me that readers are more aware of translators now. When a publisher acquires publishing rights and announces upcoming books on their website, readers are now asking: 'Who's gonna translate it?'"

Carolina said each book she translated is like her own child to her, because translators are there from the project conception, even though they know that books are translated for the world. "We always follow up on it, especially on social networks, visiting blogs to learn about what readers think... We move on to the next project, but we always keep an eye on it to know how the book is doing."

As a publisher, Alessandra is of the same mind. "It's something that lasts forever. We go to bookstores and put our book on top of others... We may start working for another company, represent another publisher, but our books, like our children, will always be ours," she confessed.

Likewise, she also agrees with Candice's perspective about readers' reactions. "Brazilian readers, especially the young ones, are becoming very professional. They know what's happening in the world and, before we release a book, they're already asking, 'Will the cover stay the same? Will you change the characters' names?'"

Alyne also used the mother-and-child comparison. "We always get to the point where we think: We could have done things better. But, some other times we say: This is my kid, I love it just the way it is." As for the relationship with readers, she goes a step further. "Today, we can interact in the social media, and people go after you, but this exchange is always more intense and readers become our partners in the process."

After such an animated talk, there was only enough time for one question from the audience, but what a great question that was! What happens in the editorial world that exists away from books written in English?

Candice was the first to speak, saying that U.S. publishers have recently found out that there's literature in other languages, but they are still very "green" when it comes to literary translation. "They had so many questions," she recalls her interactions in Frankfurt. "It got me thinking: Wow, Brazilians have so much to teach them about it!" Consequently, she says that Brazilian publishers have seen that Americans are paying attention to other languages, so they started to be on top of international literature as well.

The same audience member who asked the question followed up saying that Brazilian publishers needed to invest and really value more those translations that are done directly from a foreign language―different from English―into Portuguese.

Candice recognized that many publishers in Brazil usually wait for the English translation to be released, so they can use it as a bridge, instead of translating straight from the original source language. Alessandra complemented that comment by suggesting something to translators working from other foreign languages: "Take a book that has been badly translated using an intermediate language, edit a chapter or so, and try to talk to a publisher about it."

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation," a book based on the class she teaches as part of the English/Spanish Translation and Interpretation program at University of California San Diego Extension. 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, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates a project called Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.