Many people see book translators surrounded by this aura of romance and think translating books is a very glamorous art. Let me bust the myth for you: there's no aura of romance that can take down our good old friend Ms. Deadline. Yes, I'm talking about "Aunt Deddy"―as we, translators, affectionately call her.
How romantic is it to write while counting your words, create spreadsheets and projections, and divide a text into daily quotas to make sure everything will be ready by the agreed-upon deadline? Of course deadlines are part of the deal; they're the inevitable component of a translator's routine, so I'm not complaining about them. However, Aunt Deddy is a practical lady and completely contrary to romanticism.
What is it with literary translators: are we or are we not artists? Some people say we are. Personally, I'd rather talk about talent. Writing comes down to practicing; it demands a specific type of reading and composition skill. And that's where―I think―talent comes in to give us a hand. But what occupation could actually do away with talent? Isn't it talent that makes an excellent professional stand out among those who are simply competent and have a good academic background?
So, what makes us think about "art" when reflecting upon the work of a literary translator? It's the aesthetics of it. Translating a book demands all this knowledge, all this technical baggage, familiarity with the everyday stuff, with a variety of information, and the willingness to research, always, about everything. But it also requires concern for the overall "feel" of the final result. The original material is a book. The translation is still a book. And, as it's always the case with art, literature can't do away with aesthetics and the elements that will move the end consumer―the reader. Thinking about this necessary concern, we must agree that literary translators are sort of artists.
What about glamour? Ah, having your name on the first page of a bestseller, on the technical information of that book being displayed right on the first shelf of a bookstore at the mall, on a short review published in the paper... But, in all honesty, tell me how many readers actually stop to read a translator's name on the first page of a book? One in 100? Not even that! Yes, I've been interviewed by a few newspapers, magazines, and websites. I've even been on a TV show. But I can guarantee that my life hasn't changed at all after that.
Once again, in my opinion, displaying the name of literary translators on books is only meant to state that they, just as many other professionals, worked in the creation of these consumer goods to bring them to end consumers―readers. Is a work of literature a consumer good? Yes, inasmuch as it has a price and it is sold and bought; inasmuch as authors, translators, proofreaders, and publishers, among other pieces of the puzzle earn a living to create that product.
If you read that leaflet that comes with medication or the label of a cosmetics item, you'll find the name of the pharmacist responsible for it. Chefs have their names on restaurant menus. Painters sign their paintings. And I'm only stating that, whether we are artists or not, all professionals must have the authorship of their work recognized. And having your name on a book is just another way of getting that recognition, among so many others.
But what about that office, that atmosphere, that endless cup of coffee, the cat companion, the cigarette smoke, the closed curtains, the silent small hours of the morning? That's just romanticism! That's something taken out of a movie!
Sorry if I let you down, but... My office is just another bedroom in my apartment. I love coffee, but the smell of an empty coffee mug makes me sick to my stomach, so I have to move it away from my desk as soon as I finish drinking it. I stopped smoking 12 years ago, so there's no cloud of smoke around me. I don't like cats―although I'm a minority among translators in that department and, if I could, I'd have a Labrador sleeping at my feet (maybe one day...) I don't have curtains covering my window; I like the sun, the heat, the blue sky. What kind of translator are you, Débora?! I work in the morning, and I'd rather sleep at night. When it's cold, I put on sweatpants, warm socks, and fluffy sleepers. When it's warm, I wear shorts, a T-shirt, and no shoes (I love being barefoot.)
Let me tell you a secret: One of my translation friends has Bugs Bunny slippers, but I won't mention her name (unless she wants to identify herself...) And I also have colleagues who don't even take their pajamas off and stay under the blankets while working!
So, what is so glamorous about working as a literary translator again? Well, perhaps we could all decorate our slippers with sequins...
Editor's Note: The original version of this article was first published in Portuguese by Ponte de Letras in November 2013.
DÉBORA ISIDORO has been a literary translator since 1989, when she switched from a "steady" job at a corporation in São Paulo to life as a freelancer. And, since she was making a change, she left her first professional passion―Psychology―and took a plunge into this new passion: translating books. Fiction or non-fiction, novels or self-help books, historical romance or series; some are easy, others bring out a cold sweat, but she doesn't care and still gets butterflies in her stomach when she gets a book started and the same euphoria when the project is completed. She's still flattered when she walks into a bookstore and see one of her "babies" in a prominent bookshelf, but says she still makes many mistakes, of which her and her peers laugh about.